To say my first baby wasn’t much of a sleeper is a giant understatement. I gradually lost my mind as he didn’t sleep for more than three hours at a time until he was about eight months old, when getting him to finally sleep through the night felt like a damn miracle. In the foggy days of waning maternity leave, I spent time in the middle of the night typing baby-related search phrases into my Kindle. I treated these middle of the night awake periods like a fact-finding mission, desperately seeking some magic trick, tip, or to-do list item that would get my kid to go the fuck to sleep and stay that way. It was in those nearly hallucinatory 2am Google searches that I came across the suggestion to dream feed.
The dream feed is packaged as a magical way to make your baby sleep longer stretches. You do your normal night routine, whether it’s a soothing bath followed by a quiet (and very soulful) baby massage where you bond with your offspring by staring deeply into their non-focusing eyes, or more realistically, skipping a bath, wiping off some, but not all, of the spit-up neck cheese, maybe changing them into clean pajamas and nursing/feeding/rocking/dancing your baby to sleep. When you’re ready to go to bed, you sneak the baby out of their bed without waking them up, but get them to eat more.
The basic premise of the dream feed is the “fill the tank,” or alternately called “top off,” idea. Clearly, your baby is waking up as soon as you fall asleep, and every one-to-three hours thereafter because they’re hungry. If you just fed them enough in the first place, or fed them more, or give them something bigger and better, they would sleep.
It’s this idea – that the sleeplessness is caused by hunger – that has at least one well-meaning older person, usually in the grandparent generation, telling new mothers to give a breastfed baby a bottle of formula to fill them up, or to give a baby that isn’t eating solids a bottle with rice cereal mixed into it. Some moms inherently know that this isn’t a good idea, or someone tells her so: a baby who hasn’t had formula could end up with an upset stomach from something new, or if the babies are kids like mine, giving formula could reveal a milk protein or soy protein allergy just as you’re trying to get them to sleep. Some mothers have read about when and how to start solids and realize that giving a young baby calorically useless, potentially high-arsenic rice cereal doesn’t seem smart, and that it’s probably not how they want to start solids with their baby. While we detest the concept of force feeding animals to make pate or veal, somehow force feeding a baby labeled sweetly as a dream feed seems like a good idea when you’re really tired of waking up all night long.I did try the dream feed with my first child, and thankfully, very quickly realized it wasn’t going to work for us. My babies love to nurse, especially my first who was a slow, frequent nurser thanks to an unclipped lip tie. There was no keeping him asleep if he was going to nurse. Either he would wake up when I moved him to get him on the boob and eat, or he would stay asleep and not nurse, although sometimes he would casually hang out with my boob in his mouth. Now I was trapped and not helping anything. Regardless, when he did nurse I didn’t see improvements that I could attribute to the extra feeding, which I would have measured as any long stretches of sleep at any point in the night. It took a few times of successfully getting him to eat for me to realize that I was actually disturbing his only long sleep stretch that I would get. Now the baby who could sometimes give me a three hour stretch at the front of the night became the baby who was up every two hours, and I didn’t get that little nap before the nightly hellscape of endless feedings began. I also saw that this could very quickly create a night waking habit in him, and he was already up so damn much that why would I want to give him a reason to wake up again.
All of my suspicions on the stupidity of the dream feed weren’t confirmed until my first insomnolent son was older, and I had finally caved to reading yet another book on infant sleep. I was getting into Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, which I now recommend to all new mothers, when I had my lightbulb moment.
I’m going to paraphrase the doctor, but basically he said that if newborn babies woke up during the night because of hunger and not for other reasons, babies in the NICU that were being fed continuously and intravenously wouldn’t have night wakings. I read that and thought NO SHIT. My first nursed all the damn time. Early on, I had an oversupply of milk that came gushing out of my boobs like a fire hydrant pummeling my infant in the face, making him choke on the flow and blasting enough milk all over his face and hair if he wasn’t suckling. After letdown when it would slow down a bit, it would still flow ferociously enough to leak out the sides of his mouth if he relaxed his latch. I would soak a cloth diaper tucked into my non-nursing side bra. My baby wasn’t hungry, and he also wasn’t sleeping.
As a sleep deprived zombie doing anything I could to function in the early months, I get why the dream feed sounds like a good idea. Chasing good baby sleep will make a normal person do weird things, becoming as superstitious as a serious hockey fan wearing lucky underwear and rocking a scraggly playoff beard. When my baby slept I would try to recreate everything to see if it would happen again, from the night routine, the time he went to bed, the lullabies, the pajamas, room temperature, position of the blinds, the pattern of the blanket used for swaddling, socks that my husband was wearing, incantations and mumbled hopes, or anything else I thought could help. In this magical thinking, attempting to force feed my baby seemed like a totally logical thing to do. It just didn’t work for us, and very rapidly had the potential to create an additional night waking that would have been a monster of my own creation.