Feeding your baby to Sleep - is it a good idea?

This is one of those sleep topics that people often have a strong opinion on.....so we hope that you find our information on this topic helpful.

Our perspective is that if you are reading our sleep information, you are wanting to teach your baby to sleep through the night or at least reduce night-waking....so our tips are designed to achieve this objective!

Introduction:

Feeding to sleep is one of the most common ways to get newborn babies to sleep. Tired babies will often fall asleep when feeding , as the combination of breast-milk, cuddle with mum and sucking is very powerful. Plus newborns can only cope with being awake for about an hour at a time, so if feeding take a while, it becomes more and more likely baby will nod off while feeding.

With older babies feeding to sleep can continue to be effective at getting your baby to fall sleep. However feeding to sleep quickly become a firm habit, as baby learns they fall asleep by feeding. Over time this means they will want to be fed back to sleep every time they wake in the night, which is on average 4-6 times for babies over 5 months.

With babies of all ages, feeding your baby to sleep can be lovely! Baby is snuggled in your arms, having a delicious cuddle. Great for bonding and lovely for both mum and baby.

'Feeding to sleep' in this article generally refers to breast-feeding to sleep but the information can equally be applied to babies who fall asleep while being bottle fed.

So should you feed your baby to sleep?

It's a very personal decision and you will know what is best for your baby.

However we encourage you to read the information below, so you understand the longer term impact of feeding to sleep.

While it may seem like a quick and easy settling solution now, the majority of longer term night waking that we deal with is caused by either feeding or rocking to sleep......

It's best to be well informed about feeding to sleep and make a decision about whether this is what you want to do, rather than feeling like you have to do it or it's the only option.

 

For babies under 5 months:

When babies are newborn, how they fall asleep often doesn't have too much impact on their sleep. You may be feeding to sleep and your baby is sleeping through the night, or having good day sleeps. This is because newborns drift in and out of sleep cycles, and haven't yet learned habits of how they get to sleep.

One impact of feeding a newborn to sleep can be catnapping. This is particularly true if you feed a baby to sleep, then transfer them to their bassinet. They may sense you are not there when they wake or miss the sound of your heart-beat, and will wake up shortly after being put down.

Plus you may also feel that you are feeding all the time or stuck to the sofa, as if you move your baby will wake up!

One option is to change your routine, so you use Feed, Play, Sleep. This means you feed your baby when she wakes, rather than right before she needs to sleep. Your baby will feed better as she is hungry and alert, rather than snacking and falling asleep.

There is no need to do a 'top up' feed before your baby gets into bed. If you observe tired signs, pop your baby into bed and use settling techniques such as white noise and swaddling to get her to sleep.

Be aware that babies sleep changes significantly at about 5 months. A baby who is fed to sleep and has been sleeping all night will likely start waking again after 5 months. If the feeding to sleep continues, many babies go back to waking 4-6 times or more every night, wanting the powerful breast milk/sucking/cuddle combo to get back to sleep.

The sooner you start to teach your baby to fall asleep without feeding, the easier it is likely to be!

Weaning newborns of being fed to sleep:

  1. For babies under 4 months, start by reviewing The Happiest Baby techniques of Swaddling, White Noise and Side/Stomach position etc. Often using these settling techniques will make enough difference that you can change with relative ease.
  2. Use the feed/play/sleep routine during the day, so you are settling baby when she is tired....and feeding baby when she wakes up.

Babies over 5 months - continued night waking:

If you are happy with frequent night waking, then of course it is fine to feed your baby to sleep. But if you are wanting to encourage your baby to sleep through the night and be able to settle without your help, then weaning your baby off being fed to sleep is essential.

This is because all babies over 5 months wake FULLY between sleep cycles (usually 4-6 times a night minimum) and to 'sleep through the night' they need to be able to resettle them self after each sleep cycle. If they are feeding to sleep at bedtime, they will likely expect to be fed back to sleep at each night-waking too.

For babies over the age of 5 months, feeding to sleep is one of the most common reasons that babies wake in the night. This is true for babies who were sleeping through and start waking again, and is the reason why many babies have never slept through.

Generally the longer a baby has been fed to sleep, the more often a baby will wake in the night...rather than less.

As we have said, if you are OK with this...no problem at all. But if you are becoming exhausted from repeatedly getting up to your infant and having to feed her back to sleep during the night, changing your bedtime settling technique will have a significant impact on baby's night-time sleep.

Read our info on Sleep Associations for more info on this.

 

Only mum will do:

Another reason that many mums become frustrated with feeding to sleep is that it means only they can settle baby at bedtime. This can mean you feel tied to home and can't go out in the evening. It can mean limited options for baby-sitting, especially if further feeding is required if baby wakes an hour or two later.

By teaching your baby another settling technique you may be able to enjoy the odd evening out with your partner or even a night away!

And it is great when Dad can settle baby to sleep at bedtime and during the night. Great for his confidence with your baby and nice to spread the work-load of baby around a bit!!

Relying on feeding to sleep can put extra pressure on you as a breast-feeding mum...and we know it is the reason why many mums give up breastfeeding all together. Once your baby is no longer fed to sleep, you may find you actually enjoy breastfeeding more as you may feel you regain a sense of control.

 

Deciding to wean your baby off feeding to sleep:

Regardless of the age of your baby, you can wean your baby off being fed to sleep relatively quickly and easily - when you are ready to do it!

Feeding to sleep becomes a very strong habit, for both mum and baby, and dad can rely on it pretty heavily too! So absolute commitment from both parents to teaching baby a new settling technique is essential if you are going to be successful.

While you have an end goal of teaching your baby to self settle, it's worth noting that this doesn't mean using 'cry it out'.....there are lots of options for teaching babies to settle without feeding to sleep. Choose one that you as a family are comfortable with. Different techniques work for different families, depending on the age of the baby, how quickly you need it to work, what you are prepared to try etc.

Also remember your consistency and commitment to your sleep plan will be the main thing which determines if your baby learns to settle without feeding to sleep, so only start when YOU are ready.

Recognise that teaching your baby a new settling technique takes days or weeks...do not expect your baby to like the change immediately or instantly sleep through the night after 1 day!

But you should start to see improvements after 4-5 days if you are being consistent with always using the new technique and not confusing your baby by feeding her back to sleep in the night.

Click here to read our detailed article on Teaching your Baby to Self Settle

 

What aboutnight feeds?

Babies over 4-5 months generally not need any feeds in the night if they are having a dreamfeed at about 10pm. Doing a feed with your baby ASLEEP means you fill her tummy without her knowing, and you go to bed knowing she is not hungry in the night.

If you are not sure if your baby can last without any additional feeds, you won't know till you try it! It is worth trying to settle your baby without a feed and see if she can go back to sleep with a some additional warm bedding (often babies wake COLD rather than hungry), cuddle, patting, dummy or another settling technique. Generally we offer a feed as the first option, rather than try some other things first and see if she will go back to sleep.

You can also check with your Plunket nurse if she is happy with your baby's weight gain...ie if your baby is not putting on enough weight, then you will need to continue with at least one night feed.

However you will find that the quicker you drop all feeds other than a Dreamfeed, the quicker your baby will sleep independently through the night. Babies often do not drop night feeds without some gentle encouragement from mum!

How to gently wean your baby from being fed to sleep:

  1. Babies over 5 months generally do really well with a structured routine for daytime and bedtime, such as day sleeps at 9am, 1pm, 4.30pm and bedtime at 7pm. This also means you will feed your baby when she wakes during the day, rather than before sleep times.
  2. Introduce some additional positive sleep associations and allow several days for your baby to become attached to them before you start teaching self settling. For example, start putting your baby into a sleeping bag before you feed her, give her a comforter to cuddle while you feed her and play white noise during the feed as she falls asleep.. These associations are going to replace YOU as her main sleep association (ie what she needs to fall asleep).
  3. Using a Safe T Sleep can give your baby a lovely feeling of pressure around her tummy, the same way your hand can or being cuddled. This is worth looking at as another tool in this weaning process.
  4. Aim for 10 minutes of awake time between your finishing your 6.30pm feed and when baby goes into bed. This can be cuddles, stories, a walk round the house, massage etc. You may want to gradually work up to 10 minutes if you currently feed baby until she is asleep. Eg tonight aim for 30 seconds between feed and baby into bed, tomorrow night aim for a minute etc.
  5. Your first step is to teach your baby she can actually fall asleep in bed, rather than on YOU - this is the most significant aspect of the weaning process.
  6. So if you currently feed baby until she is asleep, change to only feeding baby until she is drowsy. Then put her into bed and then pat/sssh/put firm pressure on her tummy etc until she falls asleep IN BED.
  7. Once your baby can fall asleep in bed OK, change to feeding until calm and use your patting to get baby get drowsy in bed.
  8. Then you can work on increasing the awake time between the end of the feed and when you put your baby into bed awake.
  9. Finally you will need to gradually reduce the amount of patting you do to help your baby get drowsy or fall asleep.
  10. CONSISTENCY - Make sure you do the same for any night-waking! So if you are up to putting baby into bed drowsy but awake at bedtime, then do the same during the night.
  11. If you have a really sucky baby, consider using a dummy for bedtime and during the night settling. Once babies are over about 5 months they can learn to put a dummy back in for themself, which means you don't need to feed them back to sleep!
  12. The No Cry Sleep Solution is a great resource if you want a very slow and gentle approach to weaning off feeding to sleep. The technique involves the 'Pantley Pull-off' where you un-latch your baby and gently close her mouth, repeatedly....as she learns she can get to sleep without sucking. It is a very involved process but will work if you are consistent and patient with it.

It won't be as hard as you expect!!!

At this point you should reassure yourself that you can teach your baby to fall asleep without feeding, and it will not be nearly as hard as you imagine it will be.

This is absolutely the message we get from many mums every week - just decide on a plan and you will soon have a baby who loves to cuddle and feed, but doesn't rely on it to get to sleep at bedtime and through the night.

If you are suffering post-natal depression or are shattered...

Over 50% of post-natal depression can be resolved in a few days when the baby learns to sleep through the night, ie the link between maternal sleep deprivation and depression is very strong.

So if you are depressed or just feeling at the end of your tether, you might want to consider a faster approach to weaning them off being fed to sleep - there are no prizes for being a martyr, particularly if your own health and well-being is at stake!!

The verbal reassurance method will generally teach a baby to sleep independently in 3-4 nights - see our facebook discussion page for feedback from other mums on this technique or see the Sleepeasy Solution DVD.

 

More information: