Dream feeding has been defined as the practice of feeding a sleeping infant, with the aim of encouraging the baby to sleep longer. The term has also been used to describe any big meal (delivered during sleep or waking) that is timed to occur immediately before the parent falls asleep at night.
Either way, the ultimate purpose of dream feeding is to provide parents with longer stretches of time to sleep — uninterrupted by night wakings.
Are these measures helpful? There is reason to think they can lead to longer sleep bouts for both babies and caregivers. However, dream feeds — by themselves — probably play only a modest role in infant sleep development. To promote mature sleep patterns, the most promising approach is to combine dream feeds with other, sleep-friendly practices.
Here is an overview of the subject — the definitions, the evidence, the pros and cons, and frequently asked questions.
What exactly is dream feeding?
Tracey Hogg, who first coined the term, defines dream feeding as feeding a young infant while he or she sleeps. To accomplish this, you gently hold your sleeping baby in a feeding position, and try to stimulate the rooting reflex by stroking your baby’s mouth and offering your baby a breast or bottle. Many babies can feed in this way without waking up (Hogg and Blau 2005).
But some people use the term “dream feed” differently. For instance, in a blog post, Harvey Karp makes reference to deliberately awakening an infant: “Dream feeding is when you wake your baby to feed one more time before you turn in for the night” (Karp, n.d.).
And others use the label “dream feed” to describe any attempt to get your baby to “tank up” before you yourself go to bed. You might awaken your baby for this purpose, or you might administer the feed when your baby is already awake.
In short, there’s a lot of variation in the way “dream feeding” is defined. But the definitions share a common denominator: the idea of getting a baby to take in a big meal (a “focal feed”) before you doze.
The scientific argument for dream feeds
opens in a new windowNewborns awaken easily and frequently, in part because they are hungry. This is what makes newborn care so grueling. You have to feed them every few hours, 24 hours a day! But if you begin sleeping shortly after your baby has consumed a large meal, you may get a bit more time before your baby awakens again. And every bit helps, especially if it enables you to sleep uninterrupted for at least 4 hours.
Why? Our brains are designed to prioritize the most restorative stage of sleep — NREM3, or deep, slow wave sleep — during the first few sleep cycles of the night. So if you could protect only one portion of your nightly sleep bout from interruptions, it should be the first 4-5 hours of sleep.
In the days immediately after childbirth, achieving this ideal state is impossible for many parents. If that’s your situation, you should take heart: When people are seriously sleep-deprived — suffering a big deficit of NREM3 — their brains often respond by increasing the intensity of short naps. If you can grab a couple of 30-minute naps during the day, you may come away with enough NREM3 to counteract many of the adverse effects of sleep deprivation (Farout et al 2015).
But getting your baby to sleep longer at night — to experience at least one, 4-5 hour sleep bout that begins around your own bedtime — can make your life easier. It will give you the opportunity to secure the most essential, minimum amount of sleep you need to maintain well-being. And it may be a helpful step towards mature, nighttime sleep patterns for your baby.
But does dream feeding work? Does it actually lead to longer infant sleep bouts?
Many parents who have tried it have the impression that it works. As the weeks go by, their babies sleep in longer, more consolidated bouts. But of course we’d expect that to happen anyway. When all goes well, young infants develop more consolidated sleep patterns at night.
A more persuasive line of evidence comes from a longitudinal study that tracked the sleep-related behaviors of 313 infants over time. Mirja Quante and colleagues interviewed parents when their babies were just one month old, and learned which of the parents happened to be in the practice of administering a large, focal feed (by bottle) at bedtime. Five months later, when the babies were approximately 6 months old, researchers fitted them with sleep monitors — ankle actigraphs — and the infants wore them continuously for a week.
The researchers measured the duration of infant sleep bouts, and found a clear pattern: Babies who had been given focal, bedtime feeds at one month postpartum tended to sleep for longer stretches when they were 6 months old. In fact, the difference was pretty substantial. Compared with babies who hadn’t received these bedtime meals, the longest nightime sleep bout averaged 62 additional minutes (Quante et al 2022).
What about the “gold standard” of scientific evidence: controlled, randomized experiments? In principle, they could provide us with even more proof. But the studies I’ve found haven’t been sufficiently focused on dream feeding.
For example, one randomized study tracked the effects of a comprehensive sleep education program on approximately 125 families with young infants (Paul et al 2016). The program included instructions for giving dream feeds to newborns, but it also featured more than 20 additional recommendations, including tips for swaddling, using pacifiers, playing white noise, implementing bedtime routines, avoiding over-stimulation, and allowing infants opportunities to self-settle or self-soothe.
Did babies in the treatment group have better sleep outcomes than babies in the control group? Yes. But it’s impossible to know how much of the result was attributable to dream feeding by itself. This leaves us with a much smaller study that tested dream feeds as part of a three-component intervention. In this study, researchers randomly assigned 13 parents to employ all three of these practices:
- Administer a big feed to newborns sometime between 10pm and midnight.
- Gradually lengthen intervals between night feedings by first “carrying out alternative caretaking behaviors” like re-swaddling, diapering, and walking babies around.
- “Maximize environmental differences between day and nighttime” by minimizing infant exposure to social stimulation and artificial light at night.
At eight weeks postpartum, all 13 of the parents who had carried out this three-part strategy reported that their babies were sleeping quietly each night between midnight and 5am. By contrast, only 3 of the 13 parents in the control group reported this milestone (Pinilla and Birch 1993).
So there’s reason to think that the intervention was helpful, but we don’t know how much of the outcome was caused by dream feeding. Independent studies suggest that the other two tactics (#2 and #3) can help babies develop more mature sleep patterns. It’s therefore likely that dream feeding was just one of several contributing factors.
What about the downside? Is there any evidence that dream feeding could be harmful?
For some young infants — those struggling to gain weight, for example — dream feeding might be inappropriate. So be sure to check with your pediatrician. In addition, it’s worth considering that certain approaches to dream feeding could conceivably affect a baby’s sleep habits in ways you might not like.
For example, suppose that that you take the Harvey Karp approach, and actively awaken your baby each night to dream feed. Could these parent-initiated night wakings interfere with, or slow down, the development of consolidated, nighttime sleep? Maybe, but the question hasn’t been tested by rigorous experiments. It might be of little consequence, especially when you weigh that potential downside against benefits. But — strictly speaking — we don’t yet know.
Similarly, I haven’t seen any rigorous, experimental data on the effects of letting babies feed while they are sleeping. It’s an ancient practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. For instance, if your baby is prone to reflux, it’s probably better for your baby to spend time in an upright position after feeding. While it’s not impossible for babies to sleep through such positioning, it’s more compatible with being awake.
In addition, some critics argue that it’s unwise to allow infants to fall asleep while feeding. Again, this is an ancient parenting tactic — the norm for our species. But it may lead to outcomes that some parents want to avoid. When babies get into the habit drowsing off during a meal, they may become dependent on feeding as a necessary precursor to falling asleep; and this, in turn, could become a roadblock to the development of self-settle (the ability to fall asleep independently, without signalling caregivers).
As a result, advocates of self-settling recommend that dream feeding sessions take place while their babies are still awake — no dozing permitted. Immediately afterwards, caregivers should guide their babies through another, quiet, pre-bedtime activity (such as singing a lullaby) before placing their infants in bed — drowsy, but still awake. Taking this approach may help ensure that babies learn to self-settle at an earlier age (e.g., Paul at al 2016).
But where do these various concerns lead us? We can summarize them as follows.
The Pros and Cons of dream feeding
- Crucial relief for parents. The post-feed sleep bout may last longer than usual, giving you more opportunity to grab some of that NREM3 sleep. Even an extra half hour could have an important impact on your health and well-being.
- Potential support for the development of infant sleep patterns. In combination with other tactics — like gradually lengthening the intervals between nighttime feedings — the practice might help speed up the shift to a more mature sleep schedule.
- May not be appropriate for infants with special needs. For babies who are underweight or suffering from certain medical conditions, dream feeding might not be a good choice. Consult your pediatrician before attempting.
- Possibly disruptive for some babies — if you are regularly awakening them for that last, focal feed. If this is a personal concern for you, you may choose to schedule focal feeds so that they coincide with a time when your baby is already awake.
- The “feed-them-while-they-sleep” version of dream feeding might be a bad fit for babies prone to reflux. It’s better for them to assume an upright position after feeding.
- If babies are allowed to fall asleep during a dream feed, this might contribute to delays in the development of self-settling. Not every family will see this as a problem, but for some families, it’s an important consideration.
What if you try dream feeding, and it doesn’t work?
Hunger isn’t the only reason that babies awaken. As I explain elsewhere, research confirms that everyone experiences many, partial wakings during the night, and babies are no exception. In fact, for young babies, these arousals may help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
So if your baby isn’t sleeping for 5 hours straight at 8 weeks of age, that might make your life a lot harder, but it isn’t unusual; nor is it a sign that something is wrong with your infant. There is a lot of individual variation in baby sleep patterns. Some babies sleep longer and more soundly than others.
And when you hear other parents bragging about the baby who “sleeps through the night,” keep in mind: This isn’t a “super-baby” who never wakes up. What’s really happening is that the infant is keeping relatively quiet during night wakings, and falling back to sleep on his or her own.
That’s your ultimate goal — to help your baby learn this skill for self-settling. “Tanking up” might make it easier, but it’s probably just one factor among many. To cover your bases, combine dream feeds with a variety of other, well-supported tactics (like the ones mentioned above). If dream feeding is hard to implement, and doesn’t seem to be working for you, give it a pass. For a guide to evidence-based tactics for improving infant sleep, see these Parenting Science tips.
When should you stop dream feeding?
That’s another question that hasn’t been addressed by controlled scientific studies. Tracey Hogg suggests that “tanking up” can remain useful until your baby is 6 months old (Hogg and Blau 2005). Yet others recommend that you stop dream feeding by 16 weeks (Paul et al 2016).
Is it necessary to burp your baby after dream feeding?
It’s hard to make generalizations that apply to everyone. Different babies may have different quirks and needs. But overall, there is little evidence that burping a baby after a meal is beneficial.
For instance, in controlled study of more than 70 mother-infant pairs, researchers found that burping had no impact on symptoms of infantile colic. And babies randomly assigned to the burping treatment actually showed an increased tendency to regurgitate afterwards (Kaur et al 2015). So it doesn’t appear that it’s necessary, or even advisable, to burp you baby after a dream feed.
What about changing your baby’s diaper?
If you baby is already awake, and has a soiled diaper, changing it is a good idea. But what if your baby is asleep? Should you change your diaper now — in order to prevent him or her from awakening later? Probably not, because experiments suggest that babies will happily sleep through a wet diaper (Zotter et al 2007).
More information about baby sleep
Faraut B, Nakib S, Drogou C, Elbaz M, Sauvet F, De Bandt JP, Léger D. 2015. Napping reverses the salivary interleukin-6 and urinary norepinephrine changes induced by sleep restriction. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 100(3):E416-26.
Karp H. no date. “What is dream feeding? And how do I do it?” [blog post] Retrieved June 5, 2018 from opens in a new window https://www.happiestbaby.com/blogs/blog/what-is-a-dream-feed-and-how-do-i-do-it.
Kaur R, Bharti B, Saini SK. 2015. A randomized controlled trial of burping for the prevention of colic and regurgitation in healthy infants. Child Care Health Dev. 41(1):52-6.
Hogg T and Blau M. 2005. Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. Ballantine.
Paul IM, Savage JS, Anzman-Frasca S, Marini ME, Mindell JA, Birch LL. 2016. INSIGHT Responsive Parenting Intervention and Infant Sleep. Pediatrics. 138(1). pii: e20160762.
Pinilla T and Birch LL. 1993. opens in a new windowHelp me make it through the night: behavioral entrainment of breast-fed infants’ sleep patterns. Pediatrics. 91(2):436-44.
Quante M, McGee GW, Yu X, von Ash T, Luo M, Kaplan ER, Rueschman M, Haneuse S, Davison KK, Redline S, Taveras EM. 2022. Associations of sleep-related behaviors and the sleep environment at infant age one month with sleep patterns in infants five months later. Sleep Med. 94:31-37.
Zotter H, Urlesberger B, Pichler G, Mueller W, Kerbl R. 2007. Do wet diapers induce arousals in sleeping infants? Acta Paediatr. 96(3):452-3.
Note to readers. The following study tried to test “tanking up” as part of a package of tactics, but for some reason the parents in this study failed to implement the tactic, so the results were not included in the text of this article:
St James-Roberts I, Sleep J, Morris S, Owen C, Gillham P. 2001. Use of a behavioural programme in the first 3 months to prevent infant crying and sleeping problems. J Paediatr Child Health. 37(3):289-97.
Image of breasfeeding newborn by kieferpix / istock
Content last modified 7/2022. Portions of the text derive from an earlier version of the article written by the same author.