It's the rare parent that isn't looking for ways to get a little more shut eye, and some out there are really suffering. If you're one of the brutally sleep-deprived, you may have encountered the concept of "dreamfeeding." (Hint: it's not the reason I woke up beside a half-melted pint of cookie dough ice cream this morning.) But when should you start dreamfeeding? And what are the pros and cons of nursing your baby when they're already asleep?
According to Danielle Downs Spradlin of Oasis Lactation Services, dreamfeeding can start at birth, and last as long as you want to keep it up. In our interview, Spradlin notes the pros: dreamfeeding is one way to make sure your baby gets the nutrition and calories she needs during a crucial developmental window. Further, if you're nursing, night feedings will help keep your milk supply robust.
But the majority of parents need their babies to sleep through the night at some point, so it makes sense to ask if dreamfeeding builds healthy sleep habits in the long run. After all, sleeping through the night is a learned behavior in infants, and not, unfortunately, an innate talent.
"Here's the thing with dream feeding," says Christine Stevens of Sleepy Tots Consulting. "Your child is sleeping. And then you’re going to wake them up enough to have them eat, and hopefully go back to sleep. The problem you run into is that you don’t know where they are in their sleep cycle, whether they’re in a very deep sleep, or a much lighter sleep."
Consequently, your baby might only take a few swallows before nodding off again — missing out on the benefit of the full feed. And if she's sleeping lightly, you might wind up waking her completely, and spending the next hour or more trying to convince a wide-eyed baby that it's actually still bedtime. As Stevens explains, "When you’re constantly allowing children to fall asleep while eating, that creates a sleep association. They will learn that this is the way you fall asleep, while sucking or eating . . ."
For Stevens, dreamfeeding is just fine in the early weeks, when you're living in survival mode, and your baby requires just about all of your attention. By the 12-week mark, however, she advises parents to focus on building healthy sleep habits. For Stevens, that means feeding while your child is awake, and only putting them in their crib while they're fully aware of their environment. Hopefully, by learning to associate the crib with safety and sleep, they won't require hours of rocking or soothing from you.
In contrast, Spradlin recommends dreamfeeding as long as parents want to keep it up. And really, doing what works for you is the key to all feeding and sleeping methods. As long as you're functioning, and your baby's getting what she needs, you've hit the sweet spot.
So if you want to try dreamfeeding, start as early as you like, and if the method continues to provide great sleep for you and your baby, forge ahead. Just keep in mind that after week 12 or so, you should be consciously building sleep habits that work for the whole family, whether that means continuing to dreamfeed, or teaching your baby to fall asleep on their own.