Feeding and sleeping go hand in hand for your baby from a very young age. Nursing or feeding them until they naturally drift off, contentedly full and ready to rest, is a wonderful experience to observe for many parents.
In this blog, I’ll be breaking down how to tell when a feed to sleep routine might be detrimental and how to create a new pre-sleep routine that supports ongoing sleep development.
Normalising Feeding to Sleep
Firstly, feeding to sleep is a normal, often helpful resource for parents, especially mothers.
Despite the advice about letting babies ‘cry it out’ and feed to sleep results in long-term challenges, clinginess or low confidence, none of it is founded.
For newborns and very young infants, feeding to sleep is an easy and natural way to support their essential early development and feelings of security.
Other benefits associated with feeding to sleep include:
• Creates ease with falling asleep: The rhythmic action of suckling can help your baby gently soothe to sleep. If you’re breastfeeding, sleep-inducing hormones within your breast milk can also support their circadian rhythms.
• Supports emotional health: The early stages of your baby’s life are categorised by a range of developmental changes, a lot is going on for them! Aiding sleep through this connected, satisfying, and supportive act can help them feel more secure and safe in their bond with you, further aiding their emotional development.
• Provides a helpful resource: There will be times when you’re out and about with your baby, and you need to help them settle quickly. Being able to offer them a feed, knowing it will quickly and gently help reassure them and aid them to sleep, can be a valuable tool to tap into when you need it.
• Can support the development of an overall sleep routine: Especially in their early weeks, as your baby is yet to fully develop their circadian rhythms and a sense of day/night, feed to sleep associations can be a valuable part of their sleep routine.
When is Feeding to Sleep a Problem?
Some parents can run into challenges when feeding becomes the only cue their baby learns to associate with sleeping, so they rely on this cue alone to feel able to drift to sleep.
It’s natural for your baby to develop sleep associations and sleep habits over time:
1. Sleep Associations: The associations your baby makes between certain activities or items that lead to sleep.
2. Sleep Habits: Sleep associations may also be referred to as sleep habits. These can range from feeding to sleep to dummies, music, cuddling, night-lights, a bath routine, etc.
We often want to create some of these associations to support our baby to drift off to sleep, and I’m a big advocate for creating a settled, consistent routine that leads your baby to know it is time for bed.
Sleep associations, like feeding to sleep, can become a problem when your baby cannot sleep without the activity they’ve come to rely on, causing disrupted and loss of sleep.
What Age Should You Consider Stopping Feeding to Sleep?
Feeding to sleep is completely appropriate behaviour for a newborn baby. As mentioned, it can be a natural part of this early developmental stage, where they develop the necessary cognitive components around circadian rhythms and their body clock.
So, let’s consider these two key developmental phases in terms of age:
1. Newborn: a newborn generally refers to a baby from birth to about 4 weeks of age.
2. Circadian Rhythm Development: There are three stages here to be aware of. The first is a rhythm of cortisol that develops around eight weeks. The second is the development of melatonin and sleep efficiency at approximately nine weeks. The third is the development of circadian genes and body temperature regulation, around eleven weeks.
As your baby matures and approaches 3 months old, I recommend checking in on how your baby settles for sleep and any associations your baby is potentially developing, so you can transition them away from any that may become challenging as they get older.
One way to do this is to ensure you know their feed and sleep cues.
Feed and Sleep Cues
When considering how to stop feeding to sleep, becoming more familiar with your baby’s feed and sleep cues can help.
By learning about these cues early on, you will be able to more easily determine when your baby is requesting to feed because they’re hungry (and when they may simply be relying on it to sleep) and genuinely feeling sleepy.
When you know these cues, you can support the transition from reliance on feeding to sleep and transition them into a new routine that helps these activities independently of each other.
Hunger cues may include things like:
• Opening and closing their mouth and making sucking noises.
• Eagerly turning to your breast or bottle.
• Sucking on their fingers or fist, or sucking on your fingers.
• Crying and generally being unsettled.
Sleepy cues will vary at each age and stage and from baby to baby, but some of the most common include:
• Becoming less vocal and lots of yawning.
• Decreased activity, less focused and more distracted.
• Slower motions and calmer in general.
• Sucking when feeding is weaker or slower.
• Eyes and/or around their eyebrows might be slightly red, and they may rub their eyes and display drooping eyelids.
• General fussiness, hiccups and sucking on fingers or hands.
As your baby gets older, it gets easier to identify these cues and learn what they signal. Another way to help better understand their cues for each activity is to use a feed, play, and sleep pattern.
Feed your baby first, and then play with them for a little while before putting them down for a nap or sleep when you notice their sleepy cues. This can also be an excellent first step to reducing their reliance on feed-to-sleep associations.
4 Steps to Reducing the Feeding to Sleep Association
Alongside the feed, play and sleep routine, there are a few other steps you can use to support this transition while still ensuring your baby gets the sleep they need:
1. Feed your baby when they’re more awake: As your baby gets older and the windows between feeds become longer, try to move their last feed to earlier in the evening instead of right before they fall asleep. Remember to keep a consistent bedtime routine as they transition this away from their bedtime. Offering the feed in another room or placing their sleep bag on after the feed is a good way to reduce this association.
2. Maintain a consistent bedtime routine that involves independent associations: Start with gentle repetitions of events leading up to nighttime, such as swaddling, dimming the lights and singing lullabies. Independent associations are sleep associations that don’t require input from you, so be sure to include these where you can (a calm, darker environment with soothing music).
3. Encourage self-settling: This is where knowing their sleepy cues becomes essential. When you notice your baby is getting sleepy but hasn’t yet drifted off, transfer them to their sleeping area and allow them to settle themselves to sleep.
4. Stop feeding before they fall asleep: If whilst feeding at any time they start to drift off, pause feeding and gently take them off the breast or bottle. Place them in an upright hold and offer some other support to fall asleep.
With any changes you make to your baby’s routine, you can expect it might take a little while for them to get used to things. It’s natural for them to cry or vocalise their upset at these changes. Remember to keep supporting and working with them as you move away from feed-to-sleep associations.
Baby Sleep FAQs
1. When should you stop feeding to sleep?
From 4-6 weeks onwards, where you can I suggest taking your baby off the breast/bottle before they fall asleep. From around three months onwards, your baby is more aware of how they fall asleep and can benefit from learning to find sleep more independently using some responsive steps to settling.
2. How do I get my baby to re-settle overnight without feeding them to sleep?
This will all depend on their age and stage, but from around 3-4 months as your baby gets used to settling without a feed for naps and at bedtime, their dependence on it overnight to re-settle should reduce. During the transition, your baby likely will need some other support/sleep strategy such as pat/ssh to sleep rather than the feed. It’s important to state, that some babies up until 1 years old, will still require feeds overnight to support their nutritional needs.
3. Do formula babies sleep longer?
Some research suggests that formula-fed babies, especially older ones, sleep longer when fed formula. This is primarily because breastmilk is more easily digested, so breastfed babies may wake up more frequently. There’s little evidence that it makes a difference for newborns and young babies, who need to be fed every 2-4hours. In addition to this, it will all depend on how the baby falls asleep and whether they need support to find sleep.
Feeding to sleep is a normal and natural part of parenting, and newborns will need this connection with you to support their development in their early weeks. If you’re at the point where you’re wondering how to stop feeding to sleep and develop a supportive sleep routine, then I can help.
Book a completely free chat with me today here, and let’s help your baby on their way to better sleep.