A shorter version of this Blog was published on the Ergobaby UK (& Europe) website, 18th October 2022.
Feeding to sleep? Feed to sleep associations are pretty usual, especially in the early days. Many babies will fall asleep being fed to sleep, just try and stop them!
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Should you feed your baby to sleep?!
“What, you’re feeding your baby to sleep?” “Don’t do that or they never be able to fall asleep without you.” “You’re making a rod for your own back!” How many times have you heard this?
Feel free to ignore them mamma!
You are certainly not the only ones wearing these shoes right now.
In the early weeks, many babies are fed to sleep (breast/chest/bottle). In fact, it’s almost impossible to prevent your baby from falling asleep while drinking when they are is still so small. The newborn stage is full of unpredictability and feeding to sleep may be a huge help as baby grows.
It’s perfectly normal!
And let’s say it up front, that’s perfectly okay in the early stages. It helps you bond and ensures that all your baby’s nutritional needs are met. You can also think of it as nature’s superpower, or a tool to soothe most newborn babies and lull them into a deep sleep. This is quite natural as young babies sleep 14-18 hours in the first few weeks and their circadian rhythms are far from developed.
Newborns also tend to sleep in the same room as parents. Babies wake frequently for multiple night feeds and the days of uninterrupted sleep are long gone! Baby sleep patterns can be quite erratic with sleep cycles hard to connect.
Feeding to sleep is no longer working
Even though it “worked” well for the first few weeks or even months, many parents ask for help as baby sleep has many peaks and regressions.
Some parents feed to help their child sleep well into toddler and pre-school years quite happily, however most of my clients come to me as they’re looking to work on change.
For these parents, strategies that worked well suddenly no longer work and your baby is asking for something else. Particularly after the 4 month sleep regression, you may be having more disturbed nights and can only dream of unbroken sleep. This can be very exhausting and can take a toll on your emotional health.
Your little one may not be hungry, having only recently had a nursing session or bedtime feed but nothing other than breast milk or formula feeding (again!) seems to help them fall back to sleep.
Some parents may feel restricted by this and there are many reasons why they may be looking for new ways to help their baby fall asleep. Mum may be returning to work or a sibling is on the way.
What worked for your family for months may not fit anymore.
The good news is that older babies learn new skills brilliantly well. Every day.
Weaning from a feed to sleep association
Babies who have been fed to sleep are used to closeness and cuddling. Anything deviating from this, even if a parent is still in the room is going to feel very unusual for your baby.
Bedtime is a good time to make changes to the sleep routine as babies tend to be most tired at this time.
When you start to use a different method, your child may protest and it may take longer for them to fall asleep. After all, it feels different than usual and they wonder, “Hm – what’s going on?!” But after a few nights, the new patterns will feel a little more familiar. The time it takes you to get your baby to fall asleep will become less.
What approach should I use?
This really is up to you and your family. There are a range of methods available, and some will naturally feel more suited to your parenting style and your baby’s temperament.
Please don’t feel pressured into changing any sleep association in a way you are not comfortable with. You need to be confident with an approach. If you’re confident, you’ll be consistent. Consistency really is key to making changes with all baby sleep, especially feed to sleep associations.
Taking a step by step approach
If you want to make gradual changes, you can start by rocking your baby to sleep for a few nights.
Once the rocking is working well, the next step is to gradually slow down the movement. Look to see if your child is still happy and can fall asleep without rocking in your arms. If they protest, just rock them again and then gradually slow down to a stop.
Once you conquered this, you start to leave out the rocking movement and lie down next to your baby.
A side sleeping crib works well as you can lie next to your little one and stay close enough to touch. Start with touch, this can be a rhythmic, light patting, or gentle stroking. You use your voice to soothe your child. Soft, gentle story telling, singing, humming, shushing noises as comfort.
Every few days try to do a little less. Try putting baby down and instead of using touch, just use your voice and proximity, shushing if they need reassurance.
Then, gradually you can start moving further away. No need to rush. All in your own time mamma.
Trial and error, it’s all practice
It is a trial and error approach where you are both present and supportive as your baby learns these new skills.
For night wakings, it may be enough to simply put your hand on the bed, shift it a little if necessary and briefly signal that you are there. Younger babies will still need a feed during the night and nappy changes as required.
As soon as your night routine is working well, you can introduce the methods for naps. See each small step as progress.
Every day is an opportunity to practice and learn new skills. There may be ups and downs, but try not to get discouraged if you do have a bad night or two.
What other methods are there?
Lots of my clients like the slow approach to moving away from a feed to sleep association. Both you and baby need to learn new ways of doing things.
Some families prefer faster approaches or less hands on. There are a range of methods out there such as gradual withdrawal, pick up put down, and then using intervals of being outside the room. I explain these in my other blogs.
Change the order
It can also be helpful to change the order of your sleep routine as for some babies, falling asleep during feeds is totally unavoidable!
Therefore, it can be helpful to feed earlier in the nighttime routine when your baby is less tired and in a more upright position. Try to feed away from their cot/crib. Post-feed, you can then continue with the rest of your bedtime routine.
Just try it out and don’t put yourself under pressure as it can take weeks to adjust. It may work so well that you can skip one of the steps. It’s as individual as your family.
Your questions answered:
Q. Is it OK to feed baby to sleep?
A. Absolutely! Remember, it’s only a problem if it’s a problem for you.
Q. When should I stop feeding baby to sleep?
A. Again, this is very individual. Some mums are happy feeding to sleep for the first few months and others continue through the toddler years.
Some of my clients stop feeding to sleep as they feel it’s coming to a natural end, there is a sibling on the way, they’re returning to work, or they’re just wishing to have a range of ways in which their child learns to fall asleep.
Q. How do I get my baby to sleep without feeding?
A. Your baby may have quite a strong feed to sleep association and will need to learn new methods of falling asleep. Research a method you feel comfortable with. That may be the gradual step by step method listed above, or another method.
Whatever you choose, make sure your comfortable with it. If you’re comfortable, then you’ll be consistent.
Q. What about the night feed?
A. Not a problem at all! All newborn babies require night feeds. Baby feeds will continue for most of the first year. The number of times you feed your baby may gradually lessen or you may choose to night wean an older baby.
Q. Will it help my baby sleep through the night?
A. Possibly. Most sleep training methods work on the assumption that if a baby can learn to fall asleep independently at night time, then night wakings will reduce, as they will need less support to return to sleep.
Q. Bottle fed or breast fed?
A. Formula fed babies and breastfeeding babies are equally able to develop good sleep habits if you choose to work on sleep. Both may have a sleep association linked to feeding, but are able to follow the method listed above.
Get in touch! If you are experiencing difficulties with your child’s sleep at night or sleeping patterns, please get in touch, reach out via instagram, book a free call or see my other services. You can also check out more of my blog posts and printed media articles here.