My son (7.5 months) has no trouble falling asleep on his own at bedtime (after a couple days of sleep training), sleeps for 3 hours solid, then wakes every hour or two after that till morning. I’m okay with night nursing once or twice, but don’t know how to proceed with training him to sleep longer stretches. Should I be ‘dream feeding’ at certain intervals? Should I pick windows of time when it’s ‘okay’ to nurse him when he wakes and all other times let him cry? I don’t want to confuse him that sometimes when he cries I’ll come and give him milk and others I won’t. I struggle with hearing him cry (a lot!) so I don’t know how to proceed without sabotaging it and going in to comfort him. I need to know that what I’m doing is consistent for him before I start messing with letting him cry. Better yet, is there a way to train him without having to let him cry but still nursing a coupe times a night? Also possibly important: he’s not a great day nurser. He gets distracted and isn’t patient enough to wait for my letdown, so maybe he’s also on a nursing binge at night to make up for the daytime.
Waking Every Hour
Waking every hour to feed is not uncommon at this age – but it certainly doesn't have to be the way things are. There are a few steps, however, from where you are and where you want to be.
Let's unpack where you are... or at least my best guess of where you are:
I'm guessing you sleep trained him at bedtime to break a nurse-to-sleep association. But – because he doesn't feed well in the day – you were unsure about how to handle the night feeds.
If this is the case, then likely he is still holding on to his overnight nurse-to-sleep association, even though his bedtime nurse-to-sleep association has been curbed. Overnight nurse-to-sleep associations are the most common culprit behind the hourly wake ups that you're seeing.
Now, if in addition to this you've been inconsistent with the way you've been feeding him at night – responding to him sometimes and not others, for instance; or waiting a long time before responding – you've been amplifying this behaviour (however unintentionally) by practicing intermittent reinforcement.
Intermittent reinforcement is a psychological term in the field of behaviour studies, and happens when an operant (in this case, your baby) is rewarded inconsistently for certain behaviour (in this case, crying to be fed in the night). Without fail, the practice of intermittent reinforcement causes an increase in the behaviour being inconsistently rewarded.
Check out this video on Superstitious Pigeons to learn more about this fascinating phenomenon.
Add in the fact that your son is getting most of his day's calories at night, and it's no wonder you're seeing such frequent nighttime wake ups.
Cutting Back on Night Feeds
The only babies who need to feed frequently throughout the night are very young, newborn babies whose stomachs are tiny and whose circadian rhythm is not yet developed.
By 7-8 months, most babies will do fine with 2, 1, or even 0 feeds overnight. Not only can their bellies hold more milk, their circadian rhythm slows down the digestive process at night.
One thing though... these babies are eating in the day.
If you want to get your baby down to two feeds in the night, you are going to have to get him to eat in the day.
This will likely mean taking him in a calm, private space for feeds and insisting that he drink fully. You will likely have to do this in conjunction with weaning back on the nighttime feeds, in order to have him be hungry enough in the day to eat.
If you're at all concerned about your milk supply or his growth and weight, then please consult a doctor and/or a lactation consultant before starting this process.
Dream Feeds vs. Feeding Windows
Dream feeds are when you wake your baby up (even if only partially) for a feed. You do not wait for your baby to signal for food. Feeding windows are when you wait until after a certain time (e.g., 11:00pm & 3:00am), at which point you respond to your baby's calls by feeding him.
Each method serves the purpose of regulating his nighttime feeding schedule and each has its pros and cons.
Dream feeds eliminate the risk of intermittent reinforcement because he didn't do anything to trigger the feed. There's nothing to associate (other than maybe falling asleep – bonus!).
But, if your baby wasn't previously waking up for night feeds at these times, you risk establishing an avoidable habit. He may even start waking up early, in anticipation of these feeds. And then what do you do?
Furthermore, if he's ready to start dropping night feeds, these regular, unrequested feeds may disrupt this natural progression.
Feeding upon signalling, on the other hand, allows for more of a dialogue between you and your baby. It allows him to have a bit of a voice, which comes in handy during growth spurts and developmental leaps when babies tend to experience heightened emotional needs.
However, as you suspect, it carries a significant risk of intermittent reinforcement.
In order for the feeding windows approach to not be totally disastrous, two conditions must be met before you feed him:
Instead, he has to fall asleep again, even if only briefly, before you can feed him. Then, you do so immediately. Sometimes what happens is he'll just sleep through until morning.
Each of these methods is effective in training his circadian rhythm to expect feeds at certain times. But one allows a bit more flexibility and carries a greater risk of intermittent reinforcement than the other.
Handling Crying While Sleep Training
Sleep training is at its best when it targets the narrowest possible behaviour or set of behaviours possibly. It can only do this when it takes into consideration that behaviour is a message.
Differentiating between your baby's needs and his habits can take a bit of working out. For your baby, the sensation of hunger may be all mashed up with yearning for help falling back asleep, for comfort and closeness. Out of these, which are needs and which is learned behaviour?
Clearly food is a need. But eating at night is not.
Closeness and comfort are needs. Especially when going through a challenging time, like being denied food at night.
Sleep is a need. But being nursed to sleep is not. (Besides, he already knows how to fall asleep on his own.)
When you break things down this way, your path is much clearer:
Susannah Ritchie is a family educator specializing in infant & toddler sleep. She works with tired parents to find sleep solutions for the whole family.