I often get asked a lot of questions around early morning waking:
- How do I solve early morning waking?
- How do I stop early morning?
- How do I get my baby to sleep until 7am?
- What does early morning waking mean?
- What causes early morning waking?
- When does early morning waking stop?
I wanted to talk about that 4/5/6am feed time that our babies often wake up for wanting a feed. When feeding at 5am, it will be quite common that your baby is not hungry for their 7am feed – so the question is, do we drop that 5am feed?
This is a tricky one as some babies really do need that 5am feed to get through the night, especially if they haven’t had any feeds previously in the night. They can do this up to 9 or 10 months old.
So yes, your baby may not be hungry for their 7am feed but if they wake up hungry around 5am they will not go back to sleep and that can lead to all sorts of problems, like early morning habitual wakes, which are one of the hardest things to solve with any child. Early morning wakes can take up to 3 weeks to solve, when working consistently on a sleep plan. So to stop this early morning wake habit from starting, we need to offer that feed at 5am, so that your baby will go back to sleep until 7am and not become a habitual early morning waker.
Also, your baby may be cranky and tired by 7am, if they have been awake since 5am and they will need a nap, which then reinforces those early wakes. Having a long nap very early on in the day will lead their little bodies to accept that waking up early is absolutely fine! Rest will be coming very soon again!
So even if your baby is waking up genuinely hungry at 5am, we need to give them that feed to get them through until 7am. Even if this means that they are not hungry for their 7am feed. This is much better than having a habitual early morning wake on our hands.
Waking through the night for one feed is very common for a lot of babies up until around 9 months old. This also depends on how many calories they are taking in during the day and when they started and became established on solids.
If this 5am feed is the only feed of the night, don’t stress. It’s better that we give them that 5am feed and they go back to sleep until 7am rather than be awake grizzling from 5am to 7am because they are genuinely hungry.
In an older child, this is different - If they are well established on solids and generally over 9 to 10 months old then this feed may be habitual rather than genuine hunger.
The 5am wakeup will resolve itself once your baby can go 12 hours without eating overnight, as opposed to 9 to 10 hours.
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- My Toddler Wakes So Early!
- Night Weaning
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So should you do a dream feed?
The aim of a dream feed is for you to feed your baby and then for them to consolidate the rest of their night sleep and not wake until morning (once they are age appropriate to go onto one feed a night). The dream feed will teach your baby to have their night feed before midnight, as opposed to after midnight so that you as a parent can go to bed and get a decent chunk of sleep after the dream feed.
When can I start a dream feed?
Very early on in the newborn weeks, you will find that your baby may be cluster feeding in the early evening and then do a big chunk of sleep after that. If your baby is not cluster feeding then they may wake at 9pm or 10pm naturally for a feed. Therefore, dream feeding is not encouraged in those early weeks.
At around 6-12 weeks, you can introduce an "awake feed" at 10pm. Wake your baby up fully, give a half feed, have a kick on the mat and then give them the other half and back to bed. This awake time should be around 30 to 45 minutes. If your baby then sleeps for a good three to five hours (depending on age and size), then this shows that the awake feed is working and you should only have to get up once more before morning!
Once they are 12 weeks you can start turning this into more of a dream feed and keep them asleep, rather than waking them up.
My baby still wakes after the dream feed!
If your baby is waking around 1am or 2am after you have given them the dreamfeed then this is a sign that it is not working. I would simply skip the dream feed, allow them to wake naturally for that one feed and then go back to sleep for the remainder of the night.
If you are doing a dream feed and your baby is not taking in a decent amount of milk, they are essentially having a "snack" and this then sets them up to do this for the remainder of the night. It is better to skip the dream feed and let them wake up when they will be genuinely hungry and ready to take a bigger feed.
You should be getting 5-6 hours of good sleep after a dream feed once your baby is 12 weeks old.
When should I drop the dream feed?
Drop the dream feed if it not working - i.e. You are not getting 5-6 hours of good, consolidated sleep after 12 weeks of age.
Between 5 to 6 months is a good time to start looking at dropping the dream feed as it will start to interrupt night time sleep cycles. Interrupting night time sleep cycles leads to further nighttime wakes. It is best to just let your baby wake naturally for a feed after this age and not schedule feeds overnight.
By the time your baby is on two solid meals a day of (around one quarter to one half of a cup each) you can look at dropping night feeds altogether. This usually happens at around 6.5 months.
What time is best for the dream feed?
You want to attempt a dream feed in your baby's deepest stage of sleep over night. This runs from 6pm or 7pm through to 11pm. Therefore the ideal window to dream feed is between 10pm to 11pm, before that stage of sleep ends. If it is after 11pm, leave your baby to wake naturally for their feed. It is also important to note that dream feeding prior to 10pm only encourages that last bedtime feed to not be as full/complete as it could be, as your baby’s digestive system learns they get another feed in a couple of hours, so there is no need to have a full feed at bed time.
Dream feeds will only work 50% of the time. If your night sleep is already very fragmented and your baby is over 16 weeks, very rarely does introducing a dream feed help. You should rather work on teaching your baby some self-settling skills so that they can consolidate their night sleep.
The below list is just a guide for those of you thinking about night weaning. Your baby may naturally start sleeping all night and you may never have to consciously night wean your baby yourself – and that’s great! When your baby starts to night wean or when you decide your baby is ready to night wean is a really individual decision and definitely one you shouldn’t be comparing with friends or your mum’s group – some babies sleep through from 12 weeks of age and some are still having one night feed at 9 months. Some mums want to carry on night feeding even though their baby might be ready to stop – night times are quiet and it allows some bonding time with their bub, especially if they have gone back to work and really miss spending time with their baby during the day. This is why this topic is so individual – it is up to YOU when you want to stop – you will know when it is time.
How do I know if my baby is ready to night wean?
Sometimes night weaning is more emotional for mum than anyone else. Those warm baby cuddles in the middle of the night are just so beautiful and it can be quite a hard decision to give that up. For others who simply want their full night’s sleep back it can be easy.
Due to the fact that you are still feeding at night your body will still be producing the hormones prolactin and oxytocin (responsible for breastfeeding). It is these hormones that allow us to go back to sleep easily after a night feed as they make us feel relaxed. Once you decide to stop feeding at night, your body will stop making these hormones and you can become quite tearful and emotional as your body adapts. You are more likely to feel this change if you cut all night feeds “cold turkey” vs. gradually cutting down the amount or timing of the feeds over the course of around a week.
How do you night wean?
The key to night weaning is being consistent – if you decide to wean then stick with it. It can be really exhausting, especially if you are spending a fair amount of time resettling your baby for the first few nights. Giving in and feeding them to get back to sleep is called “inconsistent reinforcement” and sends very mixed messages, which are confusing for your baby.
There are a couple of ways that you can night wean:
The important thing to remember when resettling without a feed is not to introduce any other negative sleep association such as rocking, patting or holding. Water can also be a negative sleep association as your baby may still wake for the water – the comfort is in the act of the sucking, not in what they are getting out of the bottle. Your resettling efforts should be structured in such a way that you can do less and less over the course of a few days or a week so that your baby learns to go back to sleep on their own.
As a sleep consultant I can be really helpful during the process as I can provide you with settling tools and a night weaning schedule to make the process easy and stress free. I am a mum and I understand how hard it is to give up those beautiful, sweet cuddles in the night but I also understand how hard it is waking up multiple times a night for months on end!
Mums tell us how they night weaned
“My son did so by himself, at 8 months, with no intervention from me and I was fine feeding him up until that point.”
“We used my husband to do the resettling in the night and that worked quite well.”
“I dropped my daughter’s night feeds when she was 7 months. I'd had weeks of getting up 5+ times a night and her only settling on the breast, never for my hubby. One day I worked out that I'd fed her 14 times in 24 hours and only 4 of those were in daylight! She stopped cold turkey and we taught her to self-settle with some controlled crying at the same time. She's basically slept through ever since (illness, teething, nightmares aside).”
“We have had some success in him dropping his first feed by sending my husband in to settle him as he doesn't smell of yummy milk. We set a 'not before' time every night that got progressively later until his first night feed just got so close to his second one that he dropped it. If he woke at 2am and the not before time was 3am, my husband would just pat/shh/dummy intermittently until the feed time. Sometimes he would doze off, sometimes not, but my son isn't much of a crier. He would more just lie in bed and grizzle so it wasn't too emotionally trying for us.”
Lauryn Stanlake - Infant and Child Sleep Consultant