If you're wondering how you can feed your baby later in the evening, without having to wake them up for a bottle (opens in new tab) or breastfeed (opens in new tab), then you might be interested in trying dream feeding.
Dream feeding allows any parent or caregiver to feed their baby while they're sleeping, instead of waking them up from their cosy cot or crib (opens in new tab) to do so and risking the little one not getting back to sleep again for hours.
Sounds somewhat perfect right? Well if it works for your baby, it might just be. So we're here to talk you through exactly what dream feeding is and how to (safely) try a dream feed yourself. Plus, we've spoken exclusively to a baby expert to get the scoop on whether dream feeding is something they'd recommend parents to try with their little one, to help them get the best night's sleep possible (opens in new tab).
What is a dream feed?
A dream feed is the theory that if you gently rouse your sleeping baby just before you go to bed, ideally around 11.30pm, and encourage them to take more milk then they'll continue to sleep throughout the night. The trick is to not fully wake them up, but help their instincts kick in to latch on. Babies will usually be able to do this without even opening their eyes, staying nice and sleepy.
The idea is that the baby then has a full tummy and won't need to wake up at 2am for another feed - which, incredibly, could mean a proper night's sleep for you and the beginning of a good sleep training routine (opens in new tab) for your baby.
In theory this all sounds fantastic, and there are lots of mums that swear by the method, but it definitely doesn't work for every child so don't count on this as a sure thing, or be disappointed if it doesn't work with your baby.
Dream feeding schedule: How often should you dream feed?
Although what works for one baby may not work for another, a standard dream feeding night schedule might go a little something like this...
- 6:30 p.m: Feed your baby before they go down to sleep.
- 7 p.m: Your baby is put down to sleep.
- 10:30 p.m: Just before you go to bed yourself, do the dream feed.
- 11 p.m: You go to sleep.
- 4 a.m: Your baby wakes up for another feed, but the regularity of this depends on how old they are.
- 4:30 a.m: Your baby settles back down to sleep and so do you.
- 7 a.m: Your baby wakes up again for another feed, the day begins.
This is just a rough schedule, however. The timings will differ depending on what time you go to bed and how many hours your baby can sleep for, as the younger they are, the more times they tend to wake up in the night.
To help with this, our Norland Nanny and maternity nurse Louenna Hood advises, "Every baby is different and that really depends on how well they are feeding throughout the day. Make sure you keep regular three or four hourly feeds throughout the day so your baby doesn’t need to feed more during the night time."
Dream feeding method: How to dream feed safely
A dream feed requires a delicate balance between rousing your baby from their cot or crib enough that they can drink safely and not fully waking them up. The best way to do this is to trigger their rooting reflex by stroking their cheek with your nipple, or gently stroking their palms or soles of feet.
Once you're ready to feed them, ensure that their head is elevated and that you're holding them upright. It's dangerous to feed a baby while they're lying down or deeply asleep as they could choke. After the dream feed, take a few minutes to keep your baby resting upright so that any air can escape and their milk can go down properly.
Tips for a successful dream feed
While both our experts say that dream feeding works for some babies and not for others, there are some tips you can look at to improve your chances.
- Keep their bedroom quiet and dark: This will help babies fall back to sleep more easily.
- Do it as quickly as possible: For the same reasons, it's best to try and complete the dream feed as quickly as possible, to avoid waking the baby.
- Doing it with the bottle? Don't take the baby out of the crib, just prop their heads up on a pillow. If you haven't got a suitable sleep space (opens in new tab) for your baby yet and want to consider dream feeding, then perhaps a moses basket would be a better option (opens in new tab) for easier access.
- If your baby is solely breastfed and doesn't use formula, mum can pump before bed and store the milk in the fridge for later.
- Some experts recommend changing a baby's nappy just before the dream feed: This could help to wake them up a bit and mean that with the extra milk, there won't be any nappy leaks.
Does dream feeding work?
Dream feeding can be quite difficult to master and really depends on the temperament of each individual baby. It will take quite a few attempts before you start to get to grips with it, but once mastered your partner can even take over with a bottle which gives you an even better night's sleep.
An issue that you might encounter is that the deepest cycle of sleep is usually before midnight so it can be a struggle to wake your baby the suitable amount. Also, if you do manage to master the dream feed your baby could become reliant and struggle to sleep through the night in future.
We spoke exclusively to Jo Wiltshire, an expert for Childcare.co.uk (opens in new tab), for her view on dream feeding. "With dream feeding, it's a tricky one." Jo says, "I'd say it can work as a short-term solution for newborns and younger babies, but can also create problems in the long term because it can inadvertently encourage night waking, and create a dependency that didn't need to be there.
"Often it doesn't work anyway, because the baby will wake for another feed even if they've had their 'dream feed'. After about four months, the baby sleep cycle changes and they can be hard to wake for your 'schedule', and won't take enough milk to count as a real 'feed' even if they do.
READ MORE: All the best baby sleep aids to help babies sleep through the night (opens in new tab)
"In the early days, by all means experiment with dream feeding - see how your baby's temperament and night-time patterns fit in with it, and if it works for you, there's nothing harmful about it. If it leads to a contented baby and a more rested baby, go with it.
"But in the long term, I'd say it's important for your baby to be able to settle and sleep at night without feeds - after about four months, begin to cut down night-time feeds, and by about 10 months, move away from them altogether.
"This will mean your baby becomes a settled sleeper, and you'll end up with a better night's sleep too, without the need for 'pre-loading' feeds your baby might not even want or need."
Is dream feeding a good idea or is it dangerous?
Largely, dream feeding is considered a good idea if your baby is having trouble sleeping because they are hungry. But it's important that you take your baby out of the crib and wake them up enough to eat (but not too), then try to avoid feeding them on their back if you're using a bottle. These are the other positives and negatives around dream feeding for you to consider...
Positives of dream feeding
- Dream feeding will make sure that you and your baby sleep longer during the night.
- Babies won't have such disrupted sleep with the feed.
- Yours and baby's sleep will be better matched up so if they do wake up, you're having similar amounts of sleep.
- Baby won't cry as much as they're not waiting to be fed.
- Your can anticipate your baby's need for food by getting into a dream feeding routine.
- Baby will be in a better mood during the day as they'll be waking up less during the night.
- Any babies struggling to feed during the day will be able to get their extra calories at night.
Negatives of dream feeding
- It may not be effective and your baby may still wake up to feed during the night.
- Your baby may not take the triggers to latch on, so dream feeding may not work.
- Parents or caregivers might have to stay up later in the night to get that last feed in.
- Baby may wake up and not be able to get back to sleep easily after eating at the late hour.
- It can be a difficult routine to drop if it does work - for both baby and parent or carer.
- Little ones may be fed when they don't need or want to be.
- Babies can experience stomach issues as the feed can make a baby overfull.
At what age can you dream feed a baby?
As newborn babies have smaller stomachs, they need feeding more often - around every two to four hours. So it's best to wait until they're are at least two months old and can sleep for slightly longer stretches before starting a dream feeding schedule.
This means that the best age range for a dream feeding schedule is between two to nine months old.
READ MORE: 'My baby won't sleep!' Your baby sleep problems solved (opens in new tab)
Experts suggest that the best time to drop the dream feed is when babies can sleep through the night until the morning with only their dream feed to keep them going. When the other nightly feeds have stopped, wait for two weeks and then try going without the dream feed for the night. Usually, babies adapt to this quite quickly.
Do babies burp during a dream feed?
"Yes absolutely, it's really important to wind your baby at every feed." Norland Nanny and maternity nurse, Louenna Hood (opens in new tab) tells GoodtoKnow. "If you don't spend time winding your baby, they won't be able to finish and feed and will be uncomfortable when you lay them down - resulting in an unsettled sleep."
This means that their sleep could become disrupted, even though you've done everything possible not to wake them up.
Is a dream feed a full feed?
For those anxious parents wondering if after a dream feed you'll be up again in a few hours for another one, you're in luck. A dream feed is definitely still a full feed, so they should sleep through the night following it. And Louenna says on the idea of waking babies up for their feed, "At the beginning I advise to wake your newborn, turn the lights on and encourage them to have a full and proper feed so that once they are tucked back in bed, they have their longest sleep of the day."
Does a dream feed disrupt sleep?
If dream feeding suits your baby and works for them, then their sleep shouldn't be disrupted by the feed. But as dream feeding often takes place in their first few hours of sleep, when they are likely sleeping the most deeply, if you accidentally wake them up then their sleep will be disrupted.
This is why Louenna says that newborns need a regular eating pattern to keep their sugar levels up. "So a dream feed should be built into a relaxed eating and sleeping routine. However, after a few months, you find you are offering a dream feed and your baby still wakes for another feed during the night, you might want to let them stretch from bedtime until they wake naturally in the night.
"Offer them a full feed and then you often find they drop the dream feed naturally and just wake for one feed a night."
If you want more help from our baby sleeping expert Louenna, the Nanny Louenna app is available to download from the App Store (opens in new tab) and Google Play (opens in new tab) with subscriptions starting from £4.99 a month.