Why Dreamfeeds aren’t as dreamy as they seem

Sometimes things that seem like a great idea in theory, don’t pan out so well in practice.

Know what I mean?

When you try to do all the everythings… and then discover that something – but something! – is going to have to give.

Doing a dreamfeed is one of those things: brilliant in theory, but in execution… well, something’s got to give.

So what’s the deal: do a dreamfeed? Don’t do a dreamfeed? (And what is a dreamfeed and the smart idea anyway?)

What is a dreamfeed (and what’s the smart idea, anyway?)

A dreamfeed is (or ought to be) when you feed your baby when they’re asleep.

So if your baby can sleep uninterrupted for 8 hours (or even for 5 hours), then why shouldn’t those overlap with the hours that you’re asleep?

The smart idea is this: (imagine the gemara tune and thumb for a minute, kay?) Iiiif your baby’s going to sleep for those eight hours, aaaand you need to sleep those eight hours, buuut you’re not going to sleep as early as your baby is, then you should wake your baby up so that your eight hours overlap, right?

Here’s where it gets sticky

It’s 10:00 pm (I’m going to be generous and presume you go to sleep before 10:30 ?).

You’re just about to turn in for the night.

You tiptoe over to your sweetly sleeping baby’s crib, where you last deposited him three hours ago, and he’s been sleeping soundly since.

But a sleeping baby cannot eat. 

So… um.

That means that he has to… wake up. (Sticky #1)

Or at least, kinda. (And that’s sticky #2)

Sticky #1: waking up

Our goal with our children’s (and our, to be fair) sleep is to aim for consolidation. Which, in plain English means: a long time. 

Consolidated sleep is multiple sleep cycles, one after the next without any complete wakes in between. (Partial awakenings are a given; we just don’t want a complete wakeup to happen).

Our babies start off only being able to go a few sleep cycles at a time. As they get older and their brains develop, their neurological capability for sleep (because, yes, the brain controls sleep) matures, too.

And his sleep duration gets longer.

And longer.

And longer.

And 2 hours turns into 4 and 6 and 8 and 12.

If all the pieces are set up properly, learning to consolidate sleep is something that can beautifully happen all on its own.

But if we’re consistently waking baby up at 10 every night, a mere 3 hours after beginning his night, he’s never going to learn to consolidate and connect those two parts of the night.

The result? Even once your baby doesn’t need that nighttime feed, he will continue to wake for it.

“But Chaya Shifra!” you may say, “My baby’s not up!”

I hear ya hon. I do.

But here’s the thing: your baby cannot eat when he’s completely asleep. Which means he has to be up – or at least partially up – in order to eat. Even if he’s not completely woken, he’ll have interrupted his sleep cycle, and, in a sense, restarted his night.

And if he drifts right off when you feed him, well… that’s sticky #2.

Sticky #2: Half-asleep

The other sticky thing about dreamfeeds is the “dreaming” part. You know – the “my baby’s really still mostly asleep” part.

Being breast- or bottle-fed is one of the most common props – and also one of the trickiest to break. 

And even beyond props — drowsy suckling-eating (breast or bottle), even if baby is awake, but only partially so, can cause an eat-sleep association.

All of which means: a half-asleep baby that’s suckling is going to develop an eat-sleep association, which may mean a whole host of other sleep struggles.

Would you ever do a dreamfeed?

All that being said, though, you might do a dreamfeed for a new-newborn (below 6 weeks) if your baby isn’t awake often enough to hit the number of feeds he ought to be (we aim for 10-12 in the beginning, and 8-12 during the newborn stage), then you can try a dreamfeed to hit the necessary number of feeds.

The best time to feed a newborn is during dreaming sleep — watch for your baby’s eyes moving underneath her eyelids, and offer a dreamfeed then.

So long as your baby is gaining and growing well, though, and is able to meet her caloric needs without that dreamfeed — or if she’s older than 6 weeks — your best bet is to meet her sleep needs, and allow her to consolidate her sleep.

Once she’s ready to drop night feeds, then you’ll all be sleeping through the night!

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Comments (5)
  1. Chavi

    This is about not waking babies up to eat. But what about when they wake up on their own? Do I have to wake them completly at 2:00 A.M.? Is that also a dreamfeed?
    Should we sit up and turn on the lights?
    Won’t it be hard for theem to fall back asleep?

    • Hi Chavi,

      It’s a tricky balance for night feeds. Because of an eat-sleep association, when we’re talking about babies out of the newborn stage, ideally I recommend having baby be up for the feed (meaning: eyes open), but of course, not too awake that it’ll be hard for them to fall back asleep.

      To keep your baby up, you can open up a Kosher Lamp a little bit (not too much that the room is really bright, just enough that you can see your baby’s eyes so that they’re open), you can change her diaper before feeding and leave the legs of her stretchie off during the feed, you can try some touch and whispered voice.

      Keeping an eat-sleep association out of the picture is the best way for babies to drop night feeds on their own.

      That being said, I have had some clients who don’t have koach to keep their babies up for feeds. They do allow them to get drowsy on the feed, but recognize that they’re going to have to do a hard pull of nighttime feeds once they and their babies are ready for it.

      Hope that helps!

      Chaya Shifra

  2. Raizy Raab

    You are so right! and Ill say that again. but what can I do now that I have a one year old guy that doesnt sleep for 12 hours straight because he wakes up to feed and doesnt fall back asleep without nursing?

    • Hi Raizy!

      Oh no! That’s so tough ?.

      Can your baby fall asleep on his own at the beginning of the night?

      Chaya Shifra

      • Raizy Raab

        hi there! thanks for your reply. yes my baby does fall asleep in the beginning of the night without feeding but with a good routine including a bath, song and a massage. the issue is at 12:00 and then again at around 4 or 5 when he wakes up and cries until i nurse him and only then does he fall back asleep