Have you ever wondered about the term dreamfeeding for your newborn or your baby, and what it is? Dreamfeeds are a helpful tool in your parenting tool box, but they have a different purpose depending on your child's age.
What is a Dreamfeed?
A dreamfeed is when you pick up your sleeping child, not drowsy or awake, and latch them to the breast or the bottle and feed them. They may wake up during or after the feed but they are not awake prior to the feed. If they are awake and fussing before the feed that is asking to be fed and that is called feeding on demand.
How to Dreamfeed
You pick them up when they're completely asleep, you get them either to latch to your breast or the bottle. Tickle their lip with the nipple to help them latch.
- If you're breastfeeding, you might have to compress a little bit to get that milk flowing, and then you should see them drinking with those wide, open jaw movements.
- If they're nibbling, with shallow, quick sucking they are likely soothing but not really drinking. You want them to be drinking. You can tickle their cheek, or compress your breast to stimulate them to drink.
- If the baby won’t latch because they are too sleepy, you might put them down and try again in another 10 minutes or so.
The Purpose of a Dreamfeed in the Newborn Stage
In the newborn stage, the purpose of a dream feed is to help sync up your child's longest stretch of sleep with yours.
Let’s say you get your baby down by nine o'clock pm. They tend to wake up every 3-4 hours during those first couple of months. If you are going to bed at 10 pm, you might go and pick them up while asleep and feed them. You’re trying to sync up that first stretch of sleep to be four hours with yours, so ideally you wouldn't have to feed again until 3 or 4 am.
We’re trying to avoid the scenario where you are feeding them at 9 pm when they go down, then you go to bed at 10 pm and they wake up at 12 am to eat. You only got a two hour stretch of your own sleep.
That's really the purpose of the dream feed in the newborn stage.
The Purpose of a Dreamfeed after 4 Months of Age
After four months of age, the dreamfeed has a different purpose. We use it when we're teaching our kiddos to be independent sleepers aka sleep training. If you follow me at all, you know I hate that term "sleep training" since we train pets but we teach kids. In the Helping Babies Sleep Method, we use a dreamfeed to eliminate the "I fuss and I get fed" concept that's present with so many of the families that we work with who have night waking. For many families, and this is what happened to me, my son got used to feeding to sleep.
He used that as something external to help him relax into sleep. So then when he surfaced in the night, which all humans do, he had an association. He felt like he needed that, or he preferred it, to help him go back to sleep. He fussed, he got fed.
The Purpose of Sleep Teaching
The purpose of sleep teaching is to have an independent sleeper. A baby or toddler who can be put down completely awake, not at all drowsy, and do something repetitive to help him self-soothe. This might be sucking a thumb or a finger, or stroke a piece of fabric to fall asleep. Then when baby wakes up in the night, which all humans do, these self soothing actions can be repeated. You can imagine that if one time you responded to a night waking with feeding, and another time without feeding, and a third time with a pacifier, you are giving different messages about sleep and that makes it harder for your child to learn what to expect. This makes it harder for those self soothing skills to emerge and sleep teaching takes longer.
Therefore we use dreamfeeds to help us be successful and deliver the same message to night waking at every instance. We pick up a child who is asleep and feed them, to put calories into their stomach, so that we can be confident, the next time they wake up, we can respond without feeding. Dreamfeeds are a tool, and part of a larger methodology, to help your little one learn how to sleep through the night after four months of age.
What a Dreamfeed Won’t Do
After 4 months, a dreamfeed alone will not help you get a longer stretch of sleep if you were only getting two hours of stretches. Without the self soothing skills a dreamfeed won’t be the thing that improves your night sleep. When kids wake up frequently in the night, it's usually not because of hunger. It's usually a habit. They're looking for something to help them fall back asleep. In the newborn stage, a dreamfeed alone won't help you get longer stretches of sleep if you have a little person who isn't eating enough during the day, has reflux, or is very overtired.
The Most Common Cause of Extra Night Waking
The most common reason is that they're usually a little bit overtired. This is due to waking up too much in the night, and that perpetuates this negative feedback loop of not getting enough quality sleep. Other ways they become overtired is staying awake too long before bed, or not enough nap hours the day before.
Another reason kids wake up in the night, and this applies for newborns and babies, is that they are uncomfortable. They either have some sort of gas, or reflux, or discomfort.
When to Drop the Dreamfeed
You can drop the dreamfeed when you feel that your child is getting enough calories in the daytime to sleep through the night. For formula fed babies you want to see ~ 25 to 30 oz in the daytime. For exclusively breastfeed babies that tends to be when you’re having about 5-7 full feeds from both sides during the daytime and getting 3 solids and 2 snacks in. An average age to sleep 11 hours without eating when breastfeeding is 8 to 9 months of age.
A dreamfeed is when you pick your child up from a dead sleep, they are not fussing in any way or asking to be fed, and you feed them: you put calories into their stomach on your schedule.
In the newborn phase, the purpose is to help line up that first stretch of longer sleep with yours.
After four months, the purpose is to help you be successful and stay consistent when you respond to any night wakings when you're working on sleep teaching. if your child already has self-soothing skills and they put themselves to bed completely awake without feeding, at that stage then maybe the dream feed might be able to help you manipulate the time of the feed.
If they're down to one feed and one night waking already.
If you're looking for more help, we have all of this laid out in our Amazon best-selling book "The Helping Babies Sleep Method."
We also have a really simple sleep quiz that you can take, six questions to help you get sleep on track and figure out why your night wakings are continued.