The title of this post sums up the ‘why’ of the Dream Feed. But more than that, a Dream Feed may be the key to getting your baby to sleep through the night. That’s the dream right?!
Let’s start with a little well-known scenario. It’s been a long day, your baby is asleep and you have some much-needed hands free time to catch up on life stuff. Like cook, eat, clean up, tidy up. Time with your partner. Hell, time just for YOU. Exhausted you may be, but time to yourself feels precious!
Before you know it, a few hours have passed before you eventually flop into bed and fall into a coma-like state…
Only to be woken an hour or two later by your screaming, hungry newborn… Right in the middle of that deep restorative sleep you so desperately need!
Enter the Dream Feed: the key to eeking out that first stretch of sleep between the time you go to bed and the first night feed… By feeding baby, right before YOU go to bed.
So that’s pretty much taken care of the ‘why’. Check out the table of contents for exactly what this post will cover.
I’ve gone into a lot of detail in the step-by-step instructions – it’s easy to think the dream feed is not working and give up, so read all the nitty-gritty and give it a shot!
I’ve also included an FAQ section so hopefully, all your questions should be answered. Otherwise please ask away in the comments section.
The what, why and how to Dream Feed – for dramatically more sleep
The Dream Feed: Definition
A Dream Feed is a last feed before you go to bed anytime between 9 and 11pm, 2-3 hours after baby last fed, where baby feeds in a semi-awake or dream-like state
This may also be referred to as a top-up feed since you are ‘topping’ baby up and ensuring their tummy is full.
Waking your baby up? Really?
Now many believe that you should ‘never wake a sleeping baby’. My mother-in-law in particular just cannot fathom the concept at all! But a fundamental requirement of the Dream Feed is to rouse baby into this semi-awake state, i.e. awake enough to take the feed but not so awake that he or she then takes a long time to settle.
If you wait until your baby wakes up naturally due to hunger he or she will be WIDE awake. Plus you don’t know when this will be.
Chances are it will be when you are snoring away and very deeply asleep (since your deepest and most restorative sleep comes early on in the night). Waking early on in the night often feels worse than later on, making you feel groggy and pretty awful. That’s because you are more likely to be coming out of this deep sleep. (Though I doubt that after waking for the 3rd, 4th or even 5th feed you are leaping out of bed with the energy of a leaping gazelle.)
There are also other occasions when waking your baby is a GOOD thing, as I have mentioned in these related posts:
- How to get your baby to sleep through the night: 10 steps for an awesome nights sleep, no cry-it-out
- Newborn Sleeps All day? 10 fail-safe tactics to fix day night confusion fast!
- Baffled by how much sleep baby needs? Baby sleep chart to the rescue!
In brief: wake baby, feed, back to sleep
This may take up to 30-60 minutes for a newborn but as quick as 10 minutes in an older baby. This is partly because newborns are much slower at feeding and also because you will probably have to add in a few extra steps to make it worthwhile. I will get onto this in a minute.
What age to start the Dream Feed
There is no hard and fast rule for when to start (much like everything baby) – you can try a Dream Feed anytime.
But in the early days and weeks, it’s likely that your baby will be waking every 2 to 3 hours or even less. So if they were in bed around 7/8pm, baby will naturally wake to feed at 9/10pm anyway. Then you need to jump into bed right after!
The Dream Feed becomes useful when baby reaches 2 to 3 weeks
The Dream Feed really comes into its own when baby does not naturally wake to feed at 9/10pm, instead waking up after 4 or 5 hours. Which would mean waking and wanting a feed between 12 midnight and 2 am. Babies are often capable of this by 2 to 3 weeks.
Small babies can generally only have ONE stretch of longer sleep of 4 or 5 hours in the early weeks. You want this long stretch to be at the same time that you are asleep! Hence the Dream Feed.
(You should then see another reason why waking a sleeping baby is a good idea – there’s no way you want this long stretch to be in the day!)
When your baby is down to one night feed, you want this to be the Dream Feed
A baby capable of sleeping 8/9 hours in one stretch and who goes to bed around 7 pm will wake hungry around 3/4am. But with a dream feed at around 10/11pm, this 8/9 hour stretch is shifted and is now in synch with YOUR normal sleeping time.
At a certain point, your baby is capable of sleeping 8/9 hours in one stretch. However, only several weeks or even months later will a 12 hour stretch without a feed be manageable. So by Dream Feeding, your baby will effectively ‘sleep through the night’ many weeks earlier.
How to Dream Feed Step-by-step: Small babies
The idea behind this Dream Feed is that baby is not fully awake but semi-awake and dream-like. But to feed a small baby (less than 6-8 weeks) in this state means that falling asleep while feeding is almost a certainty!
You want to MAXIMISE the milk your baby takes at this feed, otherwise, it’s all a bit pointless. So for small babies, this normally means getting them awake as possible before starting to feed.
Of course, newborn sleep is very restless a lot of the time and baby can be very easily woken. But when in deep, ‘quiet’ sleep, a stampede of elephants will fail to disturb!
DREAM FEED STEP 1: Wake baby
You may need to only do a few of these or all of them, depending on how fast asleep your baby is.
Encouragement to wake baby up
FOR LIGHT SLEEPERS
- open curtains or turn lights on
- unswaddle baby
(These were never enough for my two when they were still little. The below picture is my son at nearly months, even after bringing from his cot into the lounge and taking half his clothes off he’d flat out… and the dog just saw him as a snuggle buddy!)
FOR SLEEPY BABIES
- tickle her feet and hands
- lightly touch her back and cheeks
- talk to your baby
FOR STUBBORN DEEP SLEEPERS
- remove nappy
- top-and-tail or gently wipe face and hands etc with a washcloth
- remove a layer of clothing
I had to do all of these just to get eyes open with my two at the Dream Feed, but you may find your own weird and wonderful tactics. Do whatever works to get that baby awake.
DREAM FEED STEP 2: Wait!
Now that baby is more awake, try and wait 5-10 minutes before actually feeding. This further ensures baby is properly awake!
DOs and DON’Ts while waiting
DON’T cuddle baby or let baby get too comfortable – those eyes will be closing again in seconds.
DO lie baby on their play mat, play with baby, talk to your baby, walk around the house and show them the pictures on the walls (my favorite). Anything to stimulate them a little and increase their level of alertness.
The more awake baby is = the bigger/better the Dream Feed (i.e. more milk) = the longer before the first night waking = a longer stretch of sleep for you
DREAM FEED STEP 3: Feed!
Hopefully, your baby will now be awake enough to take a decent amount of milk.
Ideally, the Dream Feed wants to be just as large/long as a normal day feed. So if your baby spends 15 mins on the first breast and another 10 minutes on the second, this is what you want to aim for. Or if you’re bottle feeding and a typical feed is 150ml, aim for the same at the dream feed.
Steps to encourage a decent amount of milk
The best way to do this is by ‘splitting’ the Dream Feed
Newborns are liable to doze off mid-feed. If yours is one of these sleepy feeders, firstly try splitting the feed:
- feed off the first breast or half the bottle
- burp and a few minutes play/interaction to wake baby a bit more
- offer the second breast/half of bottle
Tactics to keep baby from drifting off
If your baby starts to fall asleep while breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, take a break from feeding and then repeat some of the tactics you used to wake her in the first place – simulate another nappy change, wipe down or top-and-tail etc.
In addition, you can try the following while feeding:
- Unlatching and re-latching (a poor latch may mean that milk flow is slow and baby loses interest)
- Playing and tickling finger, hands and feet
- Changing feeding positions
- Pulling your nipple or bottle teat slowly out of their mouth – this can often lead to frantic sucking!
- Dabbing some milk on your baby’s lips
You can read more about trying to keep your baby awake during a feed here.
DREAM FEED STEP 4: Settle and sleep
It’s highly likely that this step won’t even involve you doing anything, since your baby will have fallen asleep during the second half of the Dream Feed, or shortly after…
If your baby is still awake, use the same method of settling your baby as you normally do. As long as your baby has their days and nights sorted this should be a pretty quick exercise. Otherwise, check out this post on how to switch baby from sleeping all day long (and up all night) to sleeping all night, before starting on the Dream Feed.
As your baby grows and becomes more alert easier and/or is more established at feeding, you can start to drop some of the above steps until you’re following the shortened version below.
How to Dream Feed Step-by-step: Older babies or practiced Dream Feeders
With an older baby who may wake up fully quite easily, a bit more stealth is required at the Dream Feed I.e. you DON’T want baby to wake fully.
Plus feeding is more likely to be established so in semi-conscious sleepiness baby will hopefully take a decent amount of milk before nodding off.
DREAM FEED STEP 1: Wake baby
A little light encouragement to get baby into a semi-awake state:
- open curtains or turn small lamp/low-lighting on
- lift baby out of the cot
This SHOULD be enough to rouse your baby and take a decent feed. If NOT, add in some other steps to get baby more awake, as above.
DREAM FEED STEP 2: Feed
As with a small baby, the Dream Feed wants to be just as large/long as a normal day feed.
Steps to encourage a decent amount of milk
Again split the Dream Feed and follow these steps:
- feed off the first breast or half the bottle
- burp and change nappy
- dim lights as low as they go (e.g. turn bedroom/nursery light off and leave a light on outside with the door open a crack
- feed off second breast or rest of the bottle
- burp if necessary (some babies may be okay without)
DREAM FEED STEP 3: Settle and sleep
Your baby may well have fallen asleep by now, but if not should settle quickly and easily, using your preferred method.
An older baby trying a Dream Feed for the first time may need a bit more rousing before feeding
He or she won’t be used to taking a feed at this time but will be used to sleeping. In which case your baby may be very sleepy and reluctant to feed; you may need to introduce some of the steps for small babies to get a bit more alertness before starting.
Simplifying further as the Dream Feed establishes
If your baby feeds well when barely awake simplify further
You could skip the turning on lights and nappy change mid-way. Literally, pick baby up, feed and put back down again.
When to drop the Dream Feed
Different babies will benefit longer than others
If you consistently offer a Dream Feed from when your baby is small, gradually night feeds should drop one by one. Eventually, the Dream Feed will be the only feed your baby has between 7 pm and 7 am. So your baby will be sleeping from the Dream Feed through to 7am. I count that as sleeping through the night. (Yeah for a decent nights sleep for you!)
So you may want to drop the Dream Feed anytime between 3 and 8 months – be led by your baby.
My Dream Feed experience
My first baby never wasted a drop of milk and loved food; I dropped the Dream Feed at 6 months, just after I started solids.
My second baby had moderate reflux and regularly spat up milk. I stopped consistently Dream Feeding at around 8 months when solids were properly established (she was NOT keen on solids) and the reflux calmed down. But if she had a bad day e.g. a new food resulted in more spit up, I would add in the dream feed again. I frequently offered a dream feed until she reached 11 months old.
Once your baby is sleeping through from the Dream Feed to around 7 am, keep offering it for several weeks. Then look for the following signs your baby may be ready to drop it:
- reluctance to take a decent feed at 7 am
- reluctance to take a decent dream feed
How to drop the Dream Feed
When it comes to dropping the Dream Feed you want to do it slowly over several days.
This can be done by a combination of reducing the feed or bringing the timing of the feed earlier. If you want to keep the timing the same, dropping it could look something like this:
- offer a few minutes less on the breast or only 2/3 the bottle for a few days
- if baby is still waking at 7 am (or your preferred time), cut a further few minutes or offer just a 1/3 a full bottle for a few days
- if baby is still waking at 7 am (or your preferred time), drop the Dream Feed altogether
If you want to bring the Dream Feed forward, you can do this in half-hour increments every few days, until it’s only 2 hours after the last feed of the day (i.e. at 9 pm if your baby was last fed at 7 pm). THEN halve the feed for a few days and finally remove altogether, as long as your baby is still waking at 7 am (or your preferred time).
WARNING on dropping the Dream Feed too quickly or too early
If you drop the dream feed too early or quickly, you may find your baby wakes around 5 am, full of beans and ready to start the day! By this time she’s had a good long sleep and is a bit hungry. Daylight creeping in behind the curtain only confirms those convictions. Time to get up mom!
If this does happen, try to offer more milk and settle baby. Then re-introduce or increase the Dream Feed again.
You want to try to knock this on the head quick otherwise you could have a regular early riser. Unless of course, you’re happy with a 5 am start to the day. (I was not!)
FAQ 1: My baby will not drink anything at the Dream Feed – what can I do?
There are two possible reasons why your baby won’t drink anything at the Dream Feed:
#1 Not awake enough.
If this is the case you can try some of the tactics mentioned above to try and get your baby more awake.
Or you could wait 15-20 minutes and try again as your baby may have been in deep or ‘quiet’ sleep. (Learn more about newborn sleep here.)
#2 Not hungry enough.
If you feel your baby is not hungry, just try offer a little milk and hopefully it will build from there. If you keep offering every night, the habit will start to form and baby will start to take a bigger feed.
The Dream Feed can take a while to establish
Even with all the tactics I could think of, for both my babies, I struggled to get either of them awake enough to take a reasonable amount of milk when I first started the Dream Feed. It took around 3 weeks in fact.
You are trying to change a habit and wake baby earlier than they’re used to so it may take a while to make this earlier feeding time a habit.
FAQ 2: My baby still wakes in the early hours even if I Dream Feed – I don’t think it’s working?
Just like it can take a while to establish the Dream Feed, it can take a while to un-establish (if that’s a word) the first night waking.
If your baby is now taking a decent Dream Feed, try to settle baby with as little milk as possible at the first waking. If you try this for several nights until eventually you are not actually feeding at all, just settling, then this waking should disappear altogether.
So again, persevere!
If this makes no difference, you may be better off without the Dream Feed. So just try and get into bed a little earlier instead.
FAQ 3: It takes ages to settle my baby after the Dream Feed – what can I do?
This is probably the hardest one to deal with as quite possibly it means you are getting to bed later than normal.
Try and reduce the amount of stimulation during the Dream Feed. Lights as low as possible, no chatting or playing with baby. Limit eye contact, don’t change nappy if it doesn’t need it. Stay in the nursery or wherever baby is sleeping.
If you’re doing all those things then the advice is to start the dream feed earlier so that you can still get to bed at a reasonable time.
But you may also want to consider dropping the Dream Feed and going to bed earlier.
Summary and closing thoughts
The Dream Feed can help delay the first night feed, by topping baby up just before you go to bed. This ensures the longest stretch of interrupted sleep for your baby, synchs with YOUR night time.
By consistently offering a Dream Feed, other night feeds should drop one by one. In time your baby will go from the Dream Feed to 7 am, effectively sleeping through the night. It will be several weeks or months before baby is able to sleep 7pm until 7am – so the Dream Feed ensure you get a decent nights sleep much earlier.
So give it a try with the step-by-step instructions above.
You want to aim for a decent feed – similar in size/length to a typical day feed, otherwise it’s all a bit pointless. Smaller babies may need more encouragement to encourage a decent feed. The same goes for an older baby when you try it for the first time.
Remember it takes time to establish!
What are you waiting for?! Give it a go and please let me know how you get on.