Feeding your baby and watching them fall asleep in your arms is often one of the sweetest and most magical moments of parenthood. Unfortunately, doing this over and over can create a feed-to-sleep or nurse-to-sleep association. This means your baby is so reliant on their pre-bedtime feed that they can’t fall asleep without it.
Feeding to sleep is one of the most common sleep props I encounter as a sleep coach. A snuggle with your infant at bedtime might not seem like a big deal. It can be less appealing when you have to repeat it throughout the night, just to get your child back to sleep. Not every baby actually develops an association between feeding and sleeping, so if feeding your baby to sleep works for the two of you, then there is no reason to make a change. If you’re interested in breaking the feed-to-sleep cycle, I’m giving you all my best tips below.
Feeding a Newborn to Sleep
Your newborn can spend a large part of their wake time eating and this often leads to them falling asleep during that time. This is completely natural. Nursing or bottle feeding is a great time to bond with your baby and this often makes them feel relaxed. Add a full tummy of milk and it’s no wonder they wind up asleep.
This process may be unavoidable for the first 4-8 weeks of your baby’s life. So use this time to solidify the feeding relationship, bond with your baby, and recover from delivery. Your baby will likely be ready to start transitioning out of feeding to sleep when they’re around 8 weeks old. Of course, I’m not talking about sleep training at this point since babies aren’t ready for this until at least 12-16 weeks.
Want to set yourself up for successful sleep for your newborn? Then check out my Born to Sleep Course.
What’s a Feed-To-Sleep Association and How Does It Happen?
As I said, having a baby fall asleep in your arms while eating is a very common and natural thing when they are young infants. Most of your child’s day is taken up by eating and sleeping. So it’s no wonder that the two overlap.
As your baby gets older they spend more time being awake. They also start to develop a rhythm to their day that allows them and you to predict when it’s sleeping time, play time, and eating time. An older baby is able to stay awake during a feed and needs to eat less often. They should not be falling asleep while eating, although some might continue doing it out of habit. Your baby should be able to fall back to sleep during the night without eating once they’re 4-6 months old. Always consult your pediatrician if you’re concerned about decreasing or dropping night feeds.
If, as your baby gets older, they can’t go to sleep without being breastfed or drinking from a bottle, that’s a feed-to-sleep association. A sleep association is anything that a baby is reliant on to fall asleep. In this case, a baby with a feed-to-sleep association will not fall asleep without milk.
Benefits of Breaking the Feed-to-Sleep Cycle
- Win#1: I don’t need to tell you that one of the best benefits is… drumroll… getting more sleep for you. Your baby waking up less often – because they don’t need you to feed them – means that you can get a longer stretch of sleep. So you can be more rested. What a concept. Happier, more rested parents means the whole family benefits.
- Win#2: A baby that sleeps better during the night will be healthier, happier, and will actually nap better during the day. Ta da! Not only will you get more sleep at night, but you can also do more during the day while your baby snoozes.
Breaking the Feed-to-Sleep Association
As I’ve mentioned, it’s extremely easy to fall into a pattern of feeding your baby to sleep and then get stuck in it. You’ll need to teach your baby to fall asleep on their own without eating unless you want to be getting up multiple times during the night for the foreseeable future. Below are my tips to help you with this process.
Pay attention to your baby’s level of drowsiness while eating
One of the best ways to break the feed-to-sleep cycle is to pay attention to how drowsy your baby is during a feed and act accordingly. There are five stages of drowsiness:
- Stage 1: Baby is alert, wide-eyed, and eating actively. They take very few pauses. This stage will be the goal once you begin sleep training.
- Stage 2: Here baby gets a far away look in their eyes and the focus softens. They take longer pauses during the feeding. This stage is our goal for helping avoid the feed-to-sleep cycle as it keeps the baby awake enough while also ensuring that they are relaxing and getting ready to go to sleep in the near future.
- Stage 3: Eyelids get heavy and start to close halfway. Baby is taking longer pauses while eating, and you’ll notice less actual swallowing. It’s important to stop feeding and try to wake your baby at this stage.
- Stage 4: Eyelids close or heavy blinking occurs. Eyelids may close for several seconds and then pop open again. This stage should be entirely avoided – it’s creating a feed-to-sleep association right in front of your very eyes.
- Stage 5: Eyelids are mainly closed. Baby takes long pauses and sucks lightly. Eyes will open periodically every few minutes. This stage is most likely comfort-feeding and should also be avoided.
Download my handy cheat sheet for the stages of drowsiness, so you can easily reference it later.
Have a bedtime routine
Everyone, from baby to adult, benefits from having a bedtime routine. A routine tells your child that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep. A series of calm and relaxing activities is key to a strong bedtime routine.
A critical point is that the feed (whether bottle or nursing) should be several steps removed from the time you actually place your child in bed. Ideally, a bed-time routine is 20-30 minutes and could look like this:
- Reading or singing
Ensuring that the feed doesn’t happen right before sleep makes it easier for your baby to disassociate one from the other and creates stronger sleeping habits.
Use wake windows to keep baby’s schedule on track
A wake window is the time from your baby waking up from a nap to going back down for another nap. Wake windows can vary highly depending on your child’s age. Paying attention to the wake windows and using them to time naps can save you a lot of trouble in the long run. It helps ensure your baby gets the right amount of sleep and doesn’t get overtired during the day. Read all about wake windows here.
Utilize baby’s sleep cues
In addition to using the appropriate wake windows for your child, you should pay close attention to sleep cues. These are little signs your child gives you to let you know that they are ready to hit the hay. Paying attention to these will prevent your baby from getting overtired and needing more help to fall asleep, including being fed.
Your child will have their own individual sleep cues that you will start to notice. Here are some examples:
- Early cues: yawning, eye rubbing, redness under eyes, staring off into space
- Late cues: increased body movement, agitation, full-out crying
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most common questions I get about how feeding your baby and falling asleep are related.
What if my baby still needs a night feed?
If your baby continues to need a night feed (please consult with your pediatrician), then you can still help avoid creating a feed-to-sleep association.
Your instinct might be to wake your baby up as little as possible while doing a night feed so they can settle back into sleep easier. In reality, it’s important that you actually allow your baby to completely wake up and help them stay awake during the feeding. You can do this by turning on a night light, changing their diaper, talking to them, or tickling them. Help your baby stay awake until they finish eating, then place them back in their crib to fall asleep independently. Sleep association avoided.
Should I dream-feed?
A dream feed is when you feed your baby while they are asleep with the hope that it prevents them from waking up later. Younger babies that require a feed during the night should be awake during that feed (see above). Older babies should not need a night feed at all (check with your pediatrician about dropping night feeds).
Can I avoid creating a feed-to-sleep association if I am nursing?
You can still nurse your baby while following the tips above. The most important tips are to keep your baby in stage 2 of the drowsiness scale and move the feed further from sleep in the bedtime routine. Remain consistent and your baby will get the hint that they don’t go to sleep while eating. Voila: feed-to-sleep association no more.