How to Break the Feed to Sleep Association

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Raising your baby until they fall asleep in your arms is one of the most magical moments of early parenthood. However, as your baby grows, they may become dependent on that bedtime food for bedtime. This is known as the food-to-sleep association or sleep nourishment, and it can lead to disrupted sleep for everyone.

The link between food and sleep can work well for many families. While others may choose to make some changes to optimize their sleep schedule and teach their baby to self-soothe. If you’re interested in breaking the food and sleep cycles, we’ve outlined a guide below.

Put babies to sleep

For babies, falling asleep during or after being fed is a natural response to getting a full feed of warm milk. Studies have even shown that breast milk expressed at night contains higher levels of natural sleep-inducing chemicals than during the day. Theoretically, this biologically supports the idea that milk could be used as a way to cool down.

“Many young children find breastfeeding very soothing and a great time to bond with each other,” says Sujay Kansagra, MD and director of the Pediatric Neurological Sleep Medicine Program at Duke University Medical Center. mom.

Since babies in infancy are awake for such a short amount of time – only the first hour – sucking can take up two-thirds of that small time. It’s typical to put babies to sleep for the first few months of life, says Susie Menkes, PhD, CPSC, CCBS, a certified infant sleep specialist at Healthy Little Sleepers.

What is the Food for Sleep Association?

As babies get older, they can still sleep while nursing. Dr Menkes says this is normal. However, if your baby can only go to sleep with the help of milk, your baby may have developed a link between food and sleep. This is a term that describes a baby’s reliance on receiving milk as an important step before sleep.

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“This means that the baby associates the process of falling asleep with breastfeeding, and will need to be fed every time he wakes up at night to be able to go back to sleep,” Dr. Kansagra explains. He notes that the sleep association occurs when babies are older than 4 to 6 months, when they are going through a developmental leap.

However, the link between food and sleep is still an issue if babies wake up many times during the night because they don’t know how to put themselves back to sleep. Dr. Kansagra continued: “In this situation, the baby is usually not hungry, but only uses breastfeeding to help them fall asleep.

Furthermore, when a child sleeps on top of a parent but then wakes up in their crib, they are likely to be startled and confused. “They will cry when they get what helped them sleep in the first place,” says Dr. Menkes.

Parents often respond to their baby screaming or making noises at night by assuming they need to be fed when they can’t. “This becomes a cycle and the result is [the baby] ends up being fed four or six times a night to go back to sleep and no one gets any real rest,” Dr. Menkes explains.

How to break the habit of eating to sleep

Putting babies to sleep is an easy pattern to follow, especially when you’re active with little or no sleep. Unless your baby is learning to fall asleep without the help of milk, you can set yourself up for sleepless nights in the near future. Thankfully, there are ways to break the habit.

First, try moving your bedtime food to before bath time or to another room instead of the nursery, Dr. “Ideally feeding [should not be] the last thing happens right before sleep,” she said.

While every baby and every family is different, if your baby currently wakes up four to six times a night, Dr. Menkes recommends not giving cold turkey at all at night. . “I’m less concerned with midnight than at the beginning of the night when I set out to dismantle this association,” she said. She also says it’s ideal to put your kids to bed while they’re awake but sleepy, although this isn’t as important as midnight.

But be warned, your child will likely protest this change in their routine through the most powerful communication tool they have – crying. The older they get, the harder it is to fight.

While your instinct may be to troubleshoot, you can reassure and soothe them without feeding them. “The discomfort you hear is not a mere protest because things have changed,” says Dr. Menkes.

She insists that you don’t harm or hurt them by refusing to feed them. “You can even hold your baby without feeding them, and they will still be upset,” she said. “It’s okay. The best thing you can do if you’re willing to make this change is be consistent with them. Your consistency builds trust because there will be less mixed messages.”

If you want to break the association between food and sleep gradually, Dr. Menkes recommends feeding your baby while introducing other sleep associations, such as patting or rubbing his back or making noises. assured. You can then phase out feeding gradually but continue with other methods, before phasing them out.

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Establish good sleep habits

Of course, the easiest way to break the link between feed and sleep is to not form one at all. Dr Kansagra said: “Sleep associations can begin very early in infancy. “The goal even when a child is young is to allow them to fall asleep on their own when drowsy. This helps teach self-soothing skills.”

You can do this by establishing an active nighttime routine that lasts about 20 to 30 minutes and begins with feedings, says Dr. “Then maybe a bath and other calming activities, then going to bed. If the feeding is too late, the baby is already quite drowsy and it is very normal for babies to fall asleep while feeding.”

Dr. Menkes agrees that a great bedtime routine begins with breastfeeding, preferably in a different room than the one in which the baby will sleep. The final step before bed can be a lullaby or, for older children, reading. “Changing the order of things can make a world of difference,” she concludes.

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