Dream feeding

By Jane Barry, Philips Avent

The term dream feeding can be confusing to anyone who is not a parent. And even for those who’ve heard it before, sometimes there’s often still some confusion over who is doing the dreaming and who is doing the feeding. 

Breastfeeding mothers commonly dream they are feeding their baby with dreams so vivid and real that it can be very hard to recall if they really did breastfeed or were just dreaming they did. But this is not what dream feeding refers to.

What is dream feeding?

Dream feeding is when a baby feeds during their sleep. Dream feeds can be done equally well with babies who are breast or bottle fed. The process of dream feeding generally means that a baby who is already asleep is picked up gently from their cot, placed in their parent’s arms and fed. The baby is not woken, their nappy is not changed and they are not stimulated to the point of being awake. They suck while they are still asleep and after they have finished sucking they are placed gently back in their cot to continue with their sleep.  

The whole process of dream feeding is that the baby does what comes naturally to them e.g. sucking whilst they are asleep. During dream feeds, babies tend to feed in a calm and steady way and when they are full, pull away from the nipple or teat.

Dream feeding is one way for parents to try to influence their baby’s feeding and sleep cycles - by manipulating the timing of their baby’s feeds; rather than waiting until the baby demands to be fed. Essentially, the baby is already full and has had their feed at the time in the late evening when they would normally wake for it. The goal is that they then continue sleeping through the time when they would normally wake and because of this, parents get to sleep for longer overnight.

How can a baby suck when they are asleep?

Some babies suck better when they are sleeping than other babies. Some sleep so deeply that they really can’t rouse themselves to suck effectively and just go straight back into a deep slumber. But others actually feed better during dream feeds than when they are awake.

This is often the case with babies from around four months onwards, who have discovered there’s a whole world to look at and can be quite distractible when they feed during the day.

Why would I want my baby to dream feed?

Newborn babies do not have the brain maturity to be able to separate night from day. Their metabolism and small stomach size mean that they need to be fed every few hours around the clock. Of course this is exhausting for new parents, especially after the initial novelty of new parenthood has worn off and their own reserves of energy start to wind down.

Babies also have much shorter sleep cycles than adults do, so they wake more often and do not follow predictable patterns of long hours sleeping. But as they mature and there is more regularity and routine to their feeding and sleeping behaviours, they start to sleep for longer at night and not need to feed so frequently.

By around three months old, many babies have more of a predictable awake/asleep/play patterns happening. Ideally, a long and continuous sleep of six hours starts to occur in babies who are getting sufficient milk during the day/evening to grow and thrive. Sometimes this can happen as early as six weeks. And it is this longer sleep period which allows parents to make up for the hours of their own lost sleep which has occurred in the first few weeks of their baby’s life.

Sometimes babies don’t feed as well through the day as they should. This can be due to a lot of reasons like sickness, distractibility or sleeping for long periods; in which case it’s valuable to offer a dream feed to make up for missed feeds during the day/evening.

But be aware that the more milk a baby has during the night, the less they may demand through the day. So parents need to be in control of dream feeds, not their baby.

What is a circadian rhythm?

Essentially, a circadian rhythm refers to the biological processes in the brain which drive our cycles of energy and wakefulness. As humans, we tend to be awake during the day when the sun is up and sleep at night after the sun has gone down. There is a predictable, rhythmic cycle to how and when we expend our energy and then recharge ourselves through sleep. But newborn babies are not born with an inherent understanding of this. And it’s not until the age of six weeks to three months or even older that babies start to develop a circadian or day/night rhythm.

Many parents ask what they can do to support this development in their baby. To be honest, there’s very little that can be done. How and when a baby’s brain develops is not under the direct control of parents. But it does help to provide a warm, nurturing and stable environment and to follow a flexible daily routine. Predictable patterns of care which are reasonably similar each day and night do help to support the development of a baby’s circadian rhythm. It also depends on the individual baby and their temperament and personality. Some babies just need more reassurance and “topping up” emotionally through the night until they are older. Research has also shown that there is a genetic influence when it comes to circadian rhythm development.

How old should my baby be to do a dream feed?

There’s no perfect age to introduce a dream feed. There are too many variables for why a dream feed may be necessary. But you may want to consider doing one if:

  • Your baby has been asleep for a few hours and you are keen to go to bed yourself. For example, if your baby last fed at around 6pm and it’s now 10pm and they are still asleep, then a dream feed may be useful
  • If your baby is past the newborn period and has started to have a longer, continuous sleep at night. This can happen from six weeks onwards
  • Your baby has not fed as much as they usually do during the day and you think that they need a feed to make up for this
  • If your baby has been unwell and you think they need an extra feed to maintain their hydration
  • If you are breastfeeding and your breasts are very full and uncomfortable
  • If you have been at work and come home and just need to re connect with your baby
  • If your breast milk supply is low and you need the extra stimulation of doing more breastfeeds

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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