If you are the parent of a baby looking to get a bit more shut-eye, you may have heard of the concept of dream feeding. Simply put, dream feeding is when you slip in an extra feeding for your baby after they’ve already gone to sleep in the hopes of them sleeping a longer stretch before waking. The idea is to do the “dream feed” around the time that you go to sleep yourself so that your baby won’t wake up too soon after you drift off into dreamland.
Dream feeding sounds like a good idea in theory to most parents, but the question is whether it really works. Parents often want to know what the best techniques are for dream feeding, what the pros and cons of this technique are, and what to do if it doesn’t seem to be working.
We reached out to three infant feeding experts to help us understand the ins and outs of dream feeding, including tips for success, and when to scale back on that middle-of-the-night feed.
How Does a Dream Feed Work?
A dream feed is usually done a few hours after you’ve put your baby down for the night, explains Jenelle Ferry, MD, neonatologist and director of feeding, nutrition and infant development at Pediatrix Medical Group in Tampa, Florida. “The goal is to arouse the baby enough to eat, but not enough to fully awaken, and then quickly get back to sleep,” she says. “This semi-awake state is kind of like a dream state, hence the name dream feeding.”
It might seem strange to offer a breast or bottle to your baby if they are asleep and don’t seem hungry. But babies have an inborn reflex to suck, says Nicole Peluso, IBCLC, lactation consultant and manager of lactation services and education at Aeroflow Breastpumps. “The innate rooting behavior that newborns have allows them to self-latch even while sleeping,” she explains.
The idea is to try to time the dream feed around your own sleeping schedule, adds Cindy Rubin, MD, IBCLC, pediatrician and breastfeeding medicine specialist at In Touch Pediatrics and Lactation. “Perhaps you put your baby down to sleep at 6pm and you know that they typically won’t wake up again until 1am to eat, and you go to bed yourself around 10 or 11pm,” Dr. Rubin describes. In this case, if you dream feed close to your bedtime, the hope is that your baby won’t wake up at 1am, but rather at 3am or 4am, so that you get a longer stretch of sleep.
Will a Dream Feed Really Help My Baby Sleep Better?
Unfortunately, there isn’t any research out there on dream feeding and its effectiveness. In her experience, Dr. Ferry says that whether the technique works or not depends on various factors. “For some families, and for some ages of babies, the dream feed can help the infant become satiated without fully awakening and then get a longer stretch of nighttime sleep,” she explains.
Dr. Ferry says that parents should keep in mind that dream feeding doesn’t help your baby get more sleep overall, but (hopefully) shifts one of the nighttime feeds a little later to align better with parents’ sleep schedules. In addition, she says that dream feeding only works if your baby is waking up because they are hungry. “If your baby is waking at night for reasons other than hunger, the dream feed is less likely to result in improvement,” she explains.
Pros and Cons of Dream Feeding
The biggest complication that can happen with dream feeding is that your baby will wake up fully and then be difficult to put back to sleep. “In that case, everyone will just get frustrated and it will make your baby’s sleep worse due to the disruption,” Dr. Rubin says. Other “cons,” according to Dr. Ferry, is that your baby’s drowsy state could present challenges for swallowing and burping, especially if you don’t want to wake them up fully during this feed.
That said, there are other benefits to dream feeding besides its potential to get parents a little more uninterrupted sleep. This is especially true for breastfeeding parents. “Dream feeds can help parents who are trying to increase their milk supply; those whose babies struggle with latching; or anyone who is trying to bring baby back to the breast after a period of bottle use,” says Peluso.
Dr. Rubin says that for a baby who’s been fussy at the breast or refusing the breast, dream feeds are often a time when the baby latches on best. “I like to think of it as babies are too tired to fuss or refuse,” she says. Additionally, dream feeding may be a good option for parents whose babies are having trouble putting on weight, as the dream feed can act as an “extra feeding” for babies to get additional calories, Dr. Rubin explains.
Tips for a Successful Dream Feed
Peluso shared her top three tips for making dream feeds successful:
- Wait for a sign that your baby is hungry such as stirring in their sleep, making sucking motions with their mouth, rooting, and/or sucking on fingers
- Avoid fully waking your baby whenever possible
- Avoid distractions in the room that might wake up your baby like the TV, conversations, or a video popping up on Instagram when you intended to quietly scroll (we’ve all been there!)
It’s also important to keep in mind that dream feeds don’t work for all babies, so it’s okay to let this strategy go if it’s not clicking for you. For example, if your baby wakes fully every time you try dream feeding, or if they latch on and don’t do much sucking or swallowing, dream feeding might not be a good option, Dr. Rubin says.
When to Wean Off of the Dream Feed
Eventually, you’ll want to wean off of the dream feed. Pay attention to your baby’s sleep and feeding patterns to determine the best time for dropping this middle-of-the-night feed.
“As babies get older and take longer sleep stretches on their own, you may find that you’re able to get a longer stretch overnight without a dream feed,” Dr. Rubin advises. Moreover, a baby who used to go back to sleep after a dream feed might suddenly wake up easily or want to interact with you. This may also be a sign that it’s time to call it quits, Dr. Rubin says.
When to Call a Healthcare Provider
You should always follow safe sleep precautions when dream feeding, Dr. Ferry reminds. According to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), this means always putting your baby to sleep on their back, on a clutter-free sleep surface (no blankets, toys, bumpers, etc.). You can ask a health care provider if you have any further questions about this.
Finally, if dream feeding doesn’t work for you, or if you continue to deal with frequent wake-ups, know that you aren’t alone. Research has found that it’s common for babies to wake up during the middle of the night through the first year or two of life. Still, if your baby has continued issues falling asleep, or if you just have concerns or questions, you should reach out to a health care provider for tips and advice.