The Dream Feed: What It Is and How to Do It
Learn the process and advantages of the dream feed.
It's no secret that two of a young baby's favorite things (besides you, of course!) are to eat and sleep. In the earliest weeks, sometimes it seems as if this is all they do. For the most part, your baby will cue you when they are hungry and they will fall asleep when they are tired. Generally, it's best to let your baby lead the way in regard to eating and sleeping to ensure they're getting enough of both. But sometimes, mom and dad may intervene to help everyone in the house get a bit more sleep. One way this is done is through something called the "dream feed."
There are a lot of advantages to including a dream feed late at night as part of your baby's daily feedings.
Here we'll explain:
- what a dream feed is
- how to implement the dream feed
- how it can help you and your baby
- what to do if it's not working, and
- when to drop the dream feed.
Find out why we actually recommend waking up your baby in the middle of the night!
Understanding the Dream Feed
What is the Dream Feed?
The dream feed is the last feeding of the day that usually takes place about 2-3 hours after you lay your baby down for the night. This timing should coincide with the time you want to go to bed yourself. So, if you want to go to sleep at 10:15 p.m., you can wake your baby to feed them at about 10 o'clock. You'll gently rouse your baby to nurse or take a bottle, but only just enough so they stay sleepy.
Why is it called a "dream feed"?
The reason it's called a dream feed is that it happens late, long after your baby has gone to sleep for the night, but before you hit the hay. You'll wake your baby during their dreamland slumber, and it's also a dream for you so you can get a long stretch of sleep before your baby wake up hungry again.
Your baby has been fast asleep for hours when the dream feed occurs and is therefore already off into a night of blissful dreaming. And if parents can make it work, they'll get to experience a lot more dreaming themselves!
Why would you want to wake your baby for a dream feed?
The goal of the dream feed is to help get your baby's tummy get nice and full before you go to bed for the night. This will help your baby sleep for as long as possible without you needing to wake to feed them again. Think of it this way. If you feed your baby at 7:30 pm and they can only go 5 hours between feedings, then they'll be awake at 12:30 a.m. So if you go to bed at 10 p.m., you'll be awake again in 2.5 hours! Though you're probably used to this by now, it's far from ideal! But if you give your baby a dream feed at your bedtime, you'll get a nice solid 5 hours of sleep instead. It's like magic!
So you might be thinking...is the dream feed best for the baby or the parents?
Honestly, your baby would be fine waking up at whatever hour of the night to get the milk they're hungry for. And you know they will! All your baby cares about is filling up their tummy. This may make the dream feed sound a bit selfish, but it is NOT selfish as a new parent to want to get a good night's sleep.
Why the Dream Feed is Helpful for You
Getting enough sleep is important for good health, and that goes for both you and your baby. It's inevitable that new parents will have to sacrifice some sleep during the newborn stage, but if the entire household had a way to get more restful sleep, you'd want that, right?!
Though newborn sleep is erratic, it's important to work toward getting your sleep schedule back to as normal as possible as soon as your baby shows they are ready for this step. One way to do this is with the dream feed. And guess what? Long stretches of sleep are really important for your baby's growth and development, too. This can be a great way to help your baby get on the path to sleeping through the night. It's a win-win!
Is this sounding pretty good right about now? Let's talk about how to get the dream feed started with your little one.
Image credit: Maria Garzon Pixabay
Implementing the Dream Feed
Step 1: Know Your Baby is Ready for the Dream Feed
We know you're wondering what age your baby should be before implementing the dream feed.
The best age to start implementing the dream feed is at about 3-4 months.
This is because in order for the dream feed to work, your baby should have defined circadian rhythms - where they know that day is for being awake, and night is for sleep.This will probably be around the age of 3-4 months.
But if your baby is still mixing up their days and nights, and sleeping really long stretches by day without any real schedule, we recommend getting that sorted out first. If you're not sure how to begin that process, we recommend reading, "Establishing a Schedule for your 4 - 6-month-old," where we discuss the importance of an eat-wake-sleep cycle for that very reason.
Step 2: Get the Timing Right for the Dream Feed
The next step in doing the dream feed correctly is getting the timing right.
So, when should you dream feed?
Though we'll have a recommended schedule below, keep in mind that the time you give your baby their dream feed is driven by when they go to sleep and ultimately, by when you want to go to sleep.
A typical time that many moms like to do the dream feed is between 10-11 at night. For me, I wanted to time it just about right so that my baby would only wake up once to feed later on in the middle of the night. I'd try to stay up to that 11 o'clock time for this to happen, but other times I could barely keep my eyes open that I would have to do it closer to 10. If you're an early bird and need to do it closer to 9 or 9:30, that works, too (which also works well if you have a baby who goes to bed a bit earlier.)
You'll have fed your baby around 7 pm or so, prepped them for a night of sleep using your sleep routine, and then laid them down. A few hours later, you'll go in and get your baby to feed them one last time before you head off to bed.
3. Implement the Dream Feeding Each Night
Dream feeding can work for both breastfed and bottle-fed babies (though bottlefed babies can typically go longer stretches of sleep during the night.)
Here's how a dream feed might look for a baby who normally eats every 3-4 hours during the day:
7:00 pm - Feed your baby (this will be the last feeding of the "day")
7:15 pm - Swaddle your baby in a Dreamland Baby Weighted Swaddle to help relax and calm them (or use the Dreamland Baby Weighted Sack if they're already rolling over for safety reasons). Then put them down for the night as part of our recommended sleep routine.
7:15 - 10:00 pm - During this time, your baby will sleep while you get quiet time to yourself or with your significant other.
10:00 pm - Get yourself ready for bed. I always liked being completely ready for sleep (pajamas on, face washed, teeth brushed) so that I could go straight to sleep myself after dream feeding my baby and then laying them down.
10:15 pm - Go into your baby's room and rouse them just enough to do one last feed before you head off to bed. You don't want to fully wake them - trying to keep them in a half-asleep state is best. They need to be just awake enough to latch on and eat. (Anything more than that and it will be more difficult to put your baby back down after.) Some babies will begin to feed immediately upon feeling the nipple of your breast or a bottle against their lower lip.
If after a few attempts your baby isn't waking enough to eat, try one of these methods until they stir enough:
- unswaddle - this will expose their skin to the air which can be enough to wake them a bit
- change your baby's diaper - this can be just enough action for your baby to wake them enough to eat.
- touch a cool washcloth to your baby's forehead or cheeks - I had one baby in particular who often needed this done to wake for her feeding - worked every time!
- move the feeding up 15 or 20 minutes - you might consider trying a different time for doing the dream feed if your baby is always out cold. This way you can try to catch your baby during a light cyle of sleep when they are more easily woken up.
10:30/40 pm - Finish up your baby's feeding. Reswaddle your baby, rock them closely to your body, and then gently lay them back in their crib. The hope is that now you and your baby will both go to sleep for a nice 5-8-hour stretch of sleep! (There is a wide range depending on your baby's age, how often they need to eat and how well they're able to put themselves back to sleep on their own between sleep cycles.)
*Cue angels singing" Hallelujah!
The dream feed can be a gamechanger for becoming a much more well-rested mama. It certainly was for me, and I always recommend it to new mamas who need more sleep (which is pretty much all of them!)
Image credit: Candelario Gomez Lopez on Pixabay
Do all babies need a dream feed?
The dream feed is definitely not something you have to do. If it's not something you want to start or doesn't feel like a good fit for you and your baby, you shouldn't feel pressured to do it. But if you're on the fence, I definitely recommend giving it a try! It was something I did with all three of my babies, and something that really helped my energy and mood by day.
The bottom line is that it will likely work for most babies. And if it does, you will get a longer stretch of sleep. Your baby will likely sleep their longest stretch at night either way (likely between 5-8 hours at this point depending on your baby's age).
The difference will just be that if you feed them at 7:00 pm and don't do a dream feed, you're waking up with them in the middle of the night to feed them again. And unless you also go to bed at 7 p.m. (highly unlikely), you'll miss out on a good stretch of solid sleep. By adding the dream feed, you'll likely only have to wake once to feed your baby (instead of twice), and this is also the way that some babies start being able to make it all the way until morning.
What If the Dream Feed Isn't Working
Dream feeds work very well for many babies, especially when you give them a few nights to get the hang of it. But dream feeds don't always work. These are the top reasons why the dream feed may not work well for your baby:
- She won't wake up to eat. (Try the techniques listed above if this is the case. But some babies are just really deep sleepers!)
- It's actually interrupting his sleep and making his sleep worse. If your baby struggles to go back to sleep after a dream feed, you may need to rethink it. Though using the Dreamland Weighted Swaddle to help them go back to sleep faster will help.
- You aren't seeing any improvement in your baby's stretches of sleep. The point of the dream feed is to get your baby and you both on the same sleeping schedule at night. If that's not happening, there may not be a lot of point in continuing it.
If you're seeing these signs from your baby, it doesn't mean that it will never work.
It's recommended to continue trying with the dream feed for about a week. If you still aren't seeing that it's working well for your little one, it's best to drop it for a bit and then try again in a couple of weeks when they are a bit older. Babies grow and mature in such a short time that they may just be ready when you try again. The sleep advantage it can bring definitely makes it worth another go!
When to Drop the Dream Feed
Once you begin the dream feed and you've been doing it successfully for many weeks or even months, it can be hard to know when to drop it. And of course, you don't want to drop it too soon and then have it backfire!
My best recommendation is to continue the dream feed until your baby sleeps all the way until morning (whatever your desired wake time for them happens to be.)
Once this pattern has been established over a couple of weeks, it's very likely that your baby is ready to sleep all the way through the night and won't need the dream feed. This could happen around 6 months, but some babies will take longer.
Read "When do babies sleep through the night?" to have a better idea what to plan for with your little one.
Dream Feed FAQ
We know there are a lot of little questions that pop up as you implement the dream feed. Here we'll answer the most popular ones.
1.) Should I change my baby's diaper during a dream feed?
If you have a case where your baby won't wake to feed, then changing your little one's diaper can be a good way to rouse them. Otherwise, you'll probably want to skip this step unless your baby has a poopy diaper. If you wouldn't change it if you weren't doing a dream feed than there's no reason to start now.
2.) Should I burp my baby after a dream feed?
If you always need to burp your baby during daytime feeds, then yes, you should burp your baby after dream feeds also. But if your baby is at an age where they no longer need to be burped, you can just gently place them up against you and rub their back to make sure there are any gas bubbles sitting in their tummy.
3.) Is a dream feed a full feed?
Yes, you want to get your baby a full feed just as you would for any other feeding. Sometimes this can be a struggle in the beginning if your baby falls completely asleep after feeding off one breast. Use one of the rousing methods recommended above to get them to finish the feed. (Because you don't want them waking prematurely from hunger in a couple of hours.)
Do you burp during dream feed?
When it comes to burping your baby during a dream feed, if it’s something you do during all other feeds, then yes, burp him after dream feeds, too. By the time he is around 5 months, it’s possible that he will “outgrow” the need to be burped. Still, a gentle back rub after a dream feed can help with any gas bubbles he may have before being put back to sleep.
Is a dream feed dangerous?
As long as you take baby out of his sleep space and wake him just enough to eat, a dream feed is considered safe. Of course, never feed baby while he’s flat on his back as this can be a choking hazard.
Does dream feed disrupt sleep?
In theory, a dream feed does disrupt your little one’s sleep however you’re giving him a dream feed so that you all sleep better, for longer. The idea of the dream feed is to top baby off just before your bedtime to fill up his tummy and ensure that he sleeps longer – which in turn means that you will, too. If however, this seems to be too disruptive, and/or baby just doesn’t fall back asleep easier or for a longer period of time, it may not be worth doing.
How many ounces do you feed during a dream feed?
As every baby is different, so is their dream feed. Some babies may do better with a light snack of just a few ounces, while others may prefer a full meal! It’s really a matter of what works best for you and for baby – and how much will give you both a longer night’s sleep.
Should I dream feed when sleep training?
Some parents find that a little dream feed helps with their sleep training as it not only fills up baby’s tummy, but gives them a little cuddle-time, too. It really depends on what works best for you and your baby.