Let’s get specific on terminology
The term “dream feed” was first coined by Tracy Hoggin Secrets of the Baby Whisperer who used it to describe feeding an infant whilst he/she continues to sleep.
You achieve this by picking your baby up into a feeding position and gently stimulating the rooting reflex by stroking baby’s mouth before offering the breast or bottle.
But others also describe dream feeds as deliberately rousing your baby to a semi-awake / dreamy state (see Here and Here as examples).
However, whether baby is awake or asleep during the feed, the objective of the dream feed is the same: and that is to fill baby’s tummy just before you, the parent, turn in for the night, in hopes you will get a longer stretch of sleep before baby’s next waking.
Theory is attractive, but results are less charmed
A dream feed could be a good short-term strategy for a newborn who has tiny tummy and needs constant feeding. But, once your little one turns 3-4 months of age, his/her sleep cycles matures and like adults, he/she starts to cycle between distinct light and deep sleep stages.
Unlike adults who achieve deep sleep only gradually at the start of the night, young children usually plunge quickly into the deepest, most restorative stages of sleep and stay there within the first 3-4 hours of the night. In this state, they are most difficult to rouse.
By waking baby up within the first 1/3rd of the night you therefore risk:
1. Your baby being too sleepy to eat properly, which results in a less than full feed (i.e., you don’t get that longer stretch of sleep you were hoping for).
2. Disrupting your baby’s most restorative stretch of sleep which thereby affects their overnight sleep quality as a whole.
3. Throwing off your baby’s natural sleep rhythm, and setting a new rhythm. The result is that with time, your baby’s body starts to naturally wake at the usual time you provide the dream feed, when baby would not otherwise have woken. Put another way, your baby will probably take a longer time to learn how to sleep through the night, even though nutritionally, he/she may no longer need the feed.
Another piece of the jigsaw is that, if baby repeatedly falls asleep whilst feeding (as they would if they were sleepy to begin with), he/she could psychologically associate the act of falling asleep with feeding. We call this a feed/sleep association and it is a difficult habit to break.
We’ve already mentioned that older babies cycle through deep and light sleep stages. Well, if baby relies on a feeding to get drowsy and fall asleep, then as he/she come up from a light sleep stage, he/she’s going to want help (i.e. the bottle) to fall back into the deeper stages of sleep. The result? More frequent night wakeups for “milk snacks” which fragments both your child’s night sleep and yours.
I’m dream-feeding now, what should I do?
Well, if you’ve incorporated a dream feed and its working for you and your family, then I'd say, there's no need to mess with success.
Just be aware that as your baby grows, the dream feed that was working so well could become a problem, and when it does, you’d know quickly. Either your baby won’t settle after you’ve done the dream feed, or they’ll be waking through the night in short windows after being fed.
Once the dream feed isn’t working for you, then it’s probably time to drop it.
If you’re needing some extra guidance on how to drop the dream feed, feel free to book a call with us and speak with one of our children’s sleep experts.