While cuddling my baby and feeding them at night, I wondered if I needed to feed them during sleep training, or if that was a negative sleep association. Do you need to feed your baby while sleep training?
Feeding your baby (at night) during sleep training is up to the parent, provided the baby is at least 5-6 months of age, physically capable of going all night without a feed, and gets adequate nutritional intake during the day.
Even so, keep reading for 11 tips and things to know when considering feeding and sleep training!
Feeding Baby During Sleep Training is Your Decision
As long as your baby is physically capable of going all night without eating, it’s your decision if you want to continue nighttime feeds. Don’t worry – we’ll talk about the requirements to go all night without feeding in the next section of this article.
That’s right: it’s your decision as to what you want to do. Here are the 3 most common choices that parents make in regards to feeding their child at night (and sleep training):
|Choice||Ease of Use and Requirements||Notes|
|Mold the baby’s schedule to the parent (and family’s) lifestyle.||It’s the easiest option when you don’t have an extensive support network in place.||This is the least baby-friendly choice, but it’s the most commonly accepted choice in past-to-current American society. This option is doable and fine, but expect it to take time.|
|Adjust your schedule to fit the baby’s needs and wants.||This option is easiest when you have an extensive support system.||This is the most baby-friendly choice and is commonly practiced and studied in more traditional cultures across the globe.|
|Compromise: adjust your schedule to a point and then mold the baby to bridge the gap||This option can work with any sized support group but does still take time for everyone to adjust.||This option is a great mix of both traditional and contemporary parenting methods. It allows parents to be sensitive to the baby’s needs while meeting societyal and work obligations. American society is trending in this direction.|
Each of these choices is totally valid and can work. Which you choose is totally up to you, your family’s situation, and your family’s needs. I wish I could say that all parents would support your decision, but (especially online) there are parental trolls who will demean every choice made.
In my opinion and for our family, the compromise choice is best. It’s the one we made with each of our kids. We met their needs and wants, but we did have to set a few boundaries – to ensure we could get enough sleep to function (especially for work!).
So find what works for your family and go with it. If breastfeeding at night works for your family? That’s fantastic. If your family needs to wean nighttime feeds in order to function? Great. Do that.
Whatever works for your family is what you should do.
If people are telling you that you need to change things – and you don’t want to? Don’t change something that’s working just to please someone else. There’s no need to change something that’s working and sustainable! It’ll make your family miserable during the adjustment period.
When Your Baby Can Sleep Through the Night (Without Needing to Eat)
Here’s how to know that your baby is capable of going all night without a nighttime feed:
- Your baby is at least 5-6 months old.
- The baby weighs at least 13-15 pounds (about 6 kilograms).
- Your child is getting all of their nutritional needs met during the day (especially total calories).
- And your child’s doctor has given their seal of approval.
Now, most babies aren’t going to be able to quit nighttime feeds cold turkey. Instead, they’re going to need to wean off of them over a period of days, weeks, or months.
This is for a couple of reasons:
- Babies have tiny tummies. They still need frequent feeds in order to make sure they get enough calories to grow!
- Getting adequate nutritional and caloric intake during the day is a lot of work for babies, even once they start solid foods.
- Babies like eating at night because it means more cuddle time with you.
So just because your 5-6-month-old baby can stop feeding at night doesn’t mean they’ll be able to make that change overnight. Expect the transition to take some time.
In our family, we focused on minimizing the number of nighttime feeding sessions rather than eliminating them. When our kids were 6 months old, our goal was to have no more than 2-3 nighttime feeds. By a year old, the goal was no more than 1 nighttime feed.
You Can Sleep Train While Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is a natural and beautiful thing. One of the most wonderful parts about it is that babies full of breastmilk sleep!
Sucking releases the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) and it peaks immediately after breastfeeding. Then, it has additional peaks at 30 and 60 minutes after eating.
CCK release in response to breast feeding may therefore in addition to exerting stimulatory effects on digestion and metabolism contribute to relaxation and sleepiness seen after breast feeding. The high CCK concentrations seen in younger infants may help the infant to remain satiated and calm…Study: Plasma cholecystokinin concentrations after breast feeding in healthy 4 day old infants (available here via the US National Library of Medicine)
In other words, it is totally possible to both breastfeed and sleep train. Breastfeeding your baby may actually help the sleep training process along, thanks to those sleep-inducing hormones.
Fun fact: since it’s sucking that releases the sleepy hormone, bottle-feeding and pacifier use can also trigger an initial CCK release.
Breastfeeding while sleep training can definitely impact how long the sleep training process takes, though. Exact timing will depend on how much you decide to accommodate your baby’s wants and needs.
Longer Sleep Times Won’t Usually Hurt Your Milk Supply
Once your baby is old enough to go all night without eating, many women worry that a 12 hour stretch without feeding will impact their milk supply.
For some women, especially if milk supply is already an issue, this can definitely be the case. In these cases, you may decide to keep breastfeeding at night in order to preserve your milk supply.
However, if supply hasn’t been an issue to date, going all night without a feed probably won’t be an issue. It may take your body a few days to adjust to the new schedule. And you may wake up ready for that morning feed. But you and baby will both be able to adjust to the new schedule.
As our babies fed less at night, I found that we adjusted. It did take time. And each morning where there were fewer feeds, if my baby didn’t wake me up demanding a feed, I found pumping to be absolutely necessary (if only for my own comfort and sanity!).
Use Dream Feeding (or Sleep Feeding) to Your Advantage
If your baby can’t quite make it through the night without a feed, it is still possible to sleep train them to sleep all night. All you need to do is use dream feedings (or sleep feeds) to your advantage.
Here’s what that means:
Sleep feeding is a parent-initiated feed (bottle or breastfed) that starts when the baby is still asleep. Your baby will probably wake up a little bit, but the immediate feed should help them doze right back off to sleep. Once the baby has finished eating, put them back to bed.
This may require that you set an alarm, so that’s not very fun. But if you can beat the hunger cues that normally wake up your child? You may be able to keep them asleep – which can help them learn to sleep all night.
Now, dream feeds aren’t perfect – because some babies will wake up and start crying once you enter their room. What you’re supposed to do, in this scenario, is to use your preferred sleep training method to get them back to sleep.
- If you’re using a controlled crying method, you let them cry for a few minutes between checking on them so they go back to sleep.
- Gradual fading will require comforting them back to sleep and then excusing yourself from the room.
Then once the baby is solidly asleep (again), you pick them up and initiate the dream feed.
In other words, dream feeds are a LOT of work. However, they do work. And once the pattern has been established (after all that up-front work), you’ll be able to get better sleep.
Using dream feeds should also set you up for successful nighttime weaning – because your baby will be used to nighttime feeds on a schedule. You do this by decreasing the amount of time of one dream feeding until it disappears completely – then working on the next sleep feeding session.
Just make sure you don’t remove more than one dream feed session per week, or it’ll be too fast of a change that it could cause sleep regressions. Oh, and be prepared for an earlier wake-up time for several weeks, because the hungry baby is hungry.
If that’s the case, you may want to reinstitute a dream feed just before they’re waking up crazy early in the morning. That way, you can sleep train them to stay asleep to a proper waking hour – and then gradually phase that sleep feed back out.
Dream feeding can be amazing, but it doesn’t work for everyone. It didn’t work well for us. Partly it was user error (I didn’t understand the concepts or how to implement it well enough at the time) and part of it was just that my children needed nighttime nutrition, so taking those away didn’t work.
You Can Wean While Sleep Training
Some babies can be completely weaned while sleep training. If it’s what’s best for your baby and your family, don’t feel bad about doing it.
Here are some important things to note while sleep training and weaning:
- Nighttime weaning is very different than daytime weaning – and should be done separately.
- Nighttime weaning may trigger sleep regressions. Read more about sleep regressions and weaning by clicking here.
- Think about using dream feedings to ease weaning while sleep training.
- Weaning while sleep training is much easier if done slowly.
In any case, weaning and sleep training is a huge topic that deserves (and has) its own post. Click here to go read our article about 20 things to know about sleep training and weaning.
Comfort Nursing at Night is Not the Same as Feeding Your Baby
Comfort nursing isn’t the same thing as feeding your baby. Comfort nursing is when your baby is, essentially, using you as a giant pacifier. That being said, comfort nursing is the original pacifier, so if you choose to, go with it!
Babies suck – that is, they have to suck in order to get their food (whether by nursing or bottle-feeding). Sucking is also hugely comforting for them. So they love to do it. And some babies love (and need) sucking more than others.
So if your baby requires more comfort nursing, that’s totally fine. You may be able to give them that same level of comfort simply by keeping them close, like by babywearing.
To see the babywearing gear that I recommend, click here.
Our kids all required lots of comfort nursing during the night – and extensive babywearing (with on-demand nursing) during the day. Being on-call like this 24/7 is exhausting! But it does have its rewards. My kids, while becoming more independent as they grow up, still love to cuddle and have family time. And I love it, too.
Some Sleep Training Methods Discourage Feeding Baby at Night
Not all sleep training methods encourage nighttime feeding. However, any sleep training method can be personalized and adjusted to fit your family’s sleep goals.
|Sleep Training Method||Nighttime Feeding Recommendations|
|Graduated Extinction||Up to the parents’ discretion.|
|Bedtime Fading||Parents decide on feeding frequency at night.|
|Controlled Comforting||Recommends feeds on demand.|
|Adult Fading||Up to the parents.|
|Camping Out||Nighttime feedings aren’t explicitly discouraged, but it sure seems like they are implicitly discouraged.|
|Pick Up, Put Down||Recommends feeds on demand.|
|Pure Extinction (Full Cry It Out)||Strongly discourages allowing nighttime feeding.|
But Really, Feeding Baby is Still Your Choice
Now, if you decide that you’re going to personalize nighttime feeding while sleep training, note that you are very probably stepping away from the recommended plans. And that’s okay.
It just means you have to decide how you’re going to handle feedings in the night – including how you react when the baby is crying. Or perhaps you’ll decide to implement dream feedings to prevent crying.
There’s not a wrong answer – there’s just finding what works for your family’s needs.
Because feeding the baby at night, as long as they can go all night without the feeds, is your decision.
For our family, we chose to personalize nighttime feeds. At six months old, we tried molding our oldest boy onto a set nighttime feeding schedule – and it just didn’t work, even with dream feeding. So we chose to go back to on-demand nighttime feeds – knowing we’d try again later.
When Feeding While Sleep Training Can Be a Negative Sleep Association
Sleep associations are what help us sleep. Positive ones are ones we can reproduce on our own. Negative sleep associations require someone else’s intervention or help.
So nighttime feeding (nursing or bottle-fed) can become a negative sleep association – because the baby can’t feed themselves.
However, this doesn’t mean it’s a BAD thing. It just means that it’s going to take time to help your child adjust to sleeping without requiring nursing (or a bottle) to fall asleep.
If your baby has reached the point where they absolutely have to have a bottle (or nurse) in order to fall asleep, you have to decide if that’s something you’re willing to continue supplying.
Because if you are, that’s fine. Just know that this is a negative sleep association that will need to be addressed at some point.
However, if you’d like to break that negative sleep association, it’s time to use your preferred sleep training method to slowly change that habit.
Don’t have a preferred sleep training method? Here is my article about all of the best behavioral-based sleep training methods.
Stressing About Feeding Baby During Sleep Training Will Backfire
Stress, and how we react to it, is a funny thing. Because the more we worry about something, the more likely we are to subconsciously make it happen.
So if you’re worried that nighttime feeds will become a problem, they will. That may be because our brains are subconsciously so stressed that we create an environment that makes sleep difficult – or it could be that your baby is able to feel that stress – and it makes it harder for them to sleep at night.
Either way, it’s important to take a step back. Remember your plan. Trust that it will work. And if need be, do some deep breathing to keep the stress under control. That way, your baby will feel your calmness – and they’ll be able to sleep train and manage nighttime hunger better, too.
Co-Sleeping is Still a Valid Option
Despite all of your best efforts, some babies just may not be ready to do nighttime sleep training or weaning just yet. Or perhaps you aren’t ready for it.
No matter the case, co-sleeping and/or on-demand feedings are still an option. As long as it works safely for you (and your family is on board with it) go for it.
So if you decide to feed your baby on demand, co-sleep, bed-share, or all of the above, that’s great. Find what works so that your family gets the sleep they need to function and go with it.
And if it isn’t broke? Don’t fix it until you need to – or you want to change the status quo.
While we had to sleep train our baby, I get asked (a lot!) if it's necessary. Spoiler alert - it's not. But then the harder follow-up question inevitably gets asked: what happens if I don't sleep...
After the first two weeks of sleep training our baby, we were crestfallen to discover that things weren't 100% "fixed." Our baby still had sleep issues, we were still exhausted, and we weren't sure...