Breaking the feeding through the night association
Your baby is born neurologically very immature, they don’t know the difference between night and day, and thus round the clock feeding and napping without any decent blocks of night sleep is pretty normal and to be expected.
As your newborn moves through those early months, their circadian rhythm develops, they know the difference between night and day, and lots of babies start to sleep 6-8 hours in a row around three to four months old.
This feels like bliss compared to the broken night sleep of a newborn, and as parents we breathe a sigh of relief, this is a sleeping pattern we can cope with!
But what to do when suddenly between 4-6 months your baby reverts back to waking every 2 hours overnight!
This is such a common situation and almost predictable, especially in those babies who are still cat napping in this 4-6 month period.
Why does their sleep revert back?
Your baby’s night sleep becomes more organized by 4 months old, they move from awake to REM sleep, then into Light non – REM sleep, and further into Deep non REM sleep back to awake, every 2-4 hours.
Often your baby will drift from Deep sleep, into REM, have a brief awakening you are not aware of and go back to sleep. Or they will move from that Deep sleep, all the way to full awake and possibly cry out for you here.
If your baby relies on feeding to get from that awake phase back to sleep, then every time their sleep cycle phase enters that awake period they will cry out for you to feed them back to sleep.
This could be as frequently as every 2-4 hours throughout the night, often more frequently after midnight.
As these nighttime cycles emerge around 4-6 months old we can be caught off guard and think our babies are going through a short-term growth spurt, so quickly fall into the habit of feeding back to sleep as frequently as every 2 hours.
Days turn into weeks, and we realise perhaps this wasn’t a growth spurt, or what started out as a growth spurt is now a habit.
These frequent overnight feeds can then result in what we call reverse cycling.
Reverse cycling is when a baby is taking in more calories overnight, than they are throughout the day. The symptoms we see of this are babies not interested in feeding throughout the day, appearing fussy or distracted at the breast or bottle, or simply refusing feeds.
Ideally, we are working towards a feeding balance where most calories are consumed throughout the day, and less so at night. This helps support the bodies circadian rhythm and work towards better more restorative night sleep by babies first birthday.
If you have found yourself stuck in the situation where you are feeding back to sleep every 2 hours overnight, then understanding that its normal for your baby to wake frequently overnight is important.
The goal is not to somehow change their naturally occurring sleep cycles and phases, but to encourage your baby to get from that awake phase, back to their sleeping phases without a feed from Mum.
Knowing your baby is reverse cycling with these 2 hourly feeds helps us to know that we can’t drop all these night feeds at once.
When we plan to tackle 2 hourly feeding to sleep overnight, we need to make changes gradually and give your baby a chance to increase their calories and feeding throughout the day in order to successfully change their night sleep feeding patterns.
How do we do it?
I have the most success by aiming for 4 hourly feeds for the first few nights. This gives baby enough time to increase their day feeds, and 4 hours overnight is not an unrealistic time to go between feeds as long as your baby is thriving and gaining weight.
In between these 4 hourly feeds your baby will go through phases of REM sleep, non REM sleep, and awake. When they reach the awake phase, they will be looking for that feed to get back to sleep, this is because the feed has become a sleep association for your baby. It is here where the change occurs.
We need to teach your baby a new way to fall back to sleep, which doesn’t rely on a feed.
This can be done gently by sitting by your child and soothing them with your voice, try shushing or singing. If they are upset, pick them up and soothe them with a cuddle, maybe pat their back. Be patient as they will probably be rooting looking for that feed to get back to sleep.
Once they are calmer in your arms you can put them back down and continue to use your voice and gentle touch to help them as they go back to sleep. If they get upset again, repeat and pick baby up again. This might happen several times, be very patient and calm with your baby.
Remember they are used to being fed back to sleep, so this change is not easy for them. It is your job to support them and not get frustrated with them.
After 2-3 days of doing this you should notice baby is settling much faster without a feed, and everyone is getting more sleep. You will need to gradually reduce how much assistance you provide over the coming days. Less touch, less voice, and fewer pick ups.
This will gradually support your baby to learn to put themselves back to sleep without your help.
If you want to change this feeding association quicker, you can try leaving your baby to cry, grizzle or fuss for 5-10 minutes before going in and using your voice to soothe them.
Again, I suggest shushing or singing depending on what your baby likes. Use your voice and some gentle touch for a few minutes, then retreat and give your baby another 5-10 minutes to try and go back to sleep without your feed. If your baby is still upset you try to soothe as described again.
Continue with this sequence until baby falls back to sleep, it shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes on average for the first night, and it will become quicker and quicker as the days move on.
Gently changing a feed to sleep association overnight can take 1-3 weeks to fully successful, and letting your baby grizzle or cry might take 7-10 days to fully change babies sleep association.
Both will work, the best option is simply the one which you feel most comfortable with, and which doesn’t compromise your parenting style.
Once you have managed to get your baby down to 4 hourly feeds throughout the night, they will be taking bigger longer feeds through the day, and if your baby is showing signs they are not hungry in the morning you can work on dropping down to one feed.
I would only recommend this if your baby is gaining good amounts of weight, is not hungry at 7am, and your naps are going well. You can use the same settling method you used to change your babies feed to sleep association, to drop one of those night feeds.
Other factors which contribute to your baby crying out every 2 hours at night.
- Short naps throughout the day
- Over tiredness
- Late bed times
- Short distracted day time feeds
- Lack of positive sleep associations
Things you can do to support baby’s night sleep
- Encourage at least 1 long nap throughout the day
- More frequent naps if they are short (45 minutes)
- Early bed times
- Remove distractions and encourage full feeds
- Introduce positive sleep association such as white noise, sleeping bags, swaddles and sleep rituals
- Try our online sleep program with our sleeping through the night plans and FREE email support!
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
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