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When Feeding to Sleep stops working

This is one of the most common things I am asked - "when does feeding to sleep stop working?" Or "when should I stop feeding to sleep?"

The truth is, there is no defined answer. So I'll help you here in the signs where it is no longer serving purpose, signs it's time to night wean and when it's just not sustainable anymore. And that's the most important part - for some parents it feels sustainable to be feeding their 1 year old every few hours, and for some it's become really unsustainable and that's ok too.

So, they way baby sleep works - is that when they reach nearly 4 months old they go through a huge development shift when it comes to sleep. This is where they start to learn where they fall asleep, and if they wake up in a different space/position or without the same thing that helped them in the first place.

Then we progress through the 4 month "regression", where we try everything in our power to get them back to sleep. And they are just tiny! So of course, we increase their feeds usually too.

But what is also happening is, their sleep associations are becoming stronger. And almost all families I speak to say "sleep wasn't too bad until around 4 months" - and this is why! This is when we start to see disconnected sleep phases, where night awakenings become more frequent. As they stir into lighter phases of sleep, they are very aware that they are without the feed to help them get back over.

As time goes on, every time they stir in the night they are holding out for that feed. Now, many babies keep their night feeds until 6 months and some beyond. So it can start to become harder to tell if it's genuine hunger, or comfort. Feeding for comfort, is so biologically normal especially in the early days as it brings such a soothing sensation. As they grow, we often see a shift in where it becomes more habitual and it can be a real grey area for parents.

Here are some signs that they may be ready to decrease their night feeds:

  • Their night feeds are small, or only spend a short time actively feeding.

  • They are consuming calories well in the day.

  • They are not interested in their first feed of the day, or their first feed is very short.

  • They are feeding to fall back asleep (which is fine!) but the cycle repeats multiple times a night and they can no longer connect the sleep cycles.

Mum breastfeeding newborn baby
Feeding Newborn

Now, if you are happy feeding with every wake, or they are feeding to sleep but you're all getting the sleep you need then don't change a thing!

However, I know through the families I work with that many parents can see the disconnect in their sleep, and it's just not sustainable. It may also be if you are nursing, you are exhausted and would love to have your partner take over too and things just aren't sustainable anymore. And it's ok to want to make changes!

If you're in this cycle of feeding reliance (and I see as many bottle feeding associations as well as breast!) and you don't know how to change it, I would take things gradually. When they have such a close bonded sleep association, I always recommend taking it in stages.

This could be layering on new associations as you slowly decrease the feed-to-sleep, giving them another sleep cue to support them. It could be feeding then working in the cot after.

Dream-feeding if they are younger than 8 months can work really well too!

There are lots of ways you can do this gradually. Making these more noticeable at bedtime first can really help too. And don't forget, Dads are also the unsung heroes in moments of night weaning too and helping take over the settles.

If you are feeling lost in it all - please know it's a very normal feeling. You can reach out anytime, and we can work responsively with you and your little one.

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