Parents will see the “Eat, Wake, Sleep” cycle recommended in various books and online as a way to encourage their newborn to sleep longer. The reason the eat wake sleep (EWS) cycle has persisted as a recommendation for over a decade is because it really is an effective way to get longer stretches of sleep from our babies. However, EWS is useful beyond just the newborn months, and is something I recommend my clients follow until their toddler is totally weaned off of breastmilk/formula feedings all together.
What Is the Eat-Wake-Sleep Cycle?
The definition of the EWS cycle is very simple: when your child wakes from nighttime or nap sleep, you immediately feed them while keeping them 100% fully awake from the start to the end of their feeding (with very, very young babies the “keeping awake part” is a challenge, but your job is to simply try your best and know that it will improve with time). Once the feeding is complete, you keep your baby awake until it’s time to sleep. That could be anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours depending on your kiddo’s age. Then when it’s time to put them down for a nap, they fall asleep in any way that does NOT involve feeding. If they are not yet sleep trained, this means they may fall asleep while being rocked or held, and once they’re sleep trained, they will fall asleep on their own.
When implementing the EWS cycle, you typically do not feed your baby again within the same cycle – except in rare circumstances when a child is, for example, on a two nap schedule and their first nap ends around 10 am and their next nap doesn’t start until 1:30 pm. In a case like that, they’d have a milk feeding upon waking from nap one, then another one about 2+ hrs later (say, around noon), then a nap about an hour or two after that. Even in cases like that, eating and sleeping are never associated with one another.
How the Eat-Wake-Sleep Cycle Works
The reason behind why EWS encourages longer periods of sleep is simple. In the early months of life, babies fall asleep frequently while eating. This often causes them only to take small meals, which means they wake quickly, hungry for another feeding. If you focus heavily on trying to keep them awake during feedings you will eventually see that they can take more substantive feedings at once. Things like reflux can impede a young infant from taking larger meals, but reflux can be dealt with by using medication that your doctor prescribes, or simply waiting until baby is older and has outgrown it. Once baby’s feedings get larger, they will be able to sleep for longer periods of time. If you combine the EWS cycle with other newborn sleep tips, you will likely find your newborn sleeping much longer periods of time overnight, and perhaps for naps as well. Even if you are experiencing short naps, the EWS cycle will still be helpful. Feed your baby every time they wake and focus on making it a full feed – the more they eat during the day, the less likely they are to wake to eat overnight.
For older babies (those about 4-5 months and older), the EWS cycle is helpful for the above reasons, and because it eliminated a common sleep prop. Even when I work with an 8-month-old baby, I encourage the parents to only feed upon waking, as feeding in between naps can cause a child to fall asleep while eating. Generally speaking, if an older baby takes a good, full feeding upon waking, they are unlikely to be hungry again before it’s time for their next sleep period. Tired signs are often mistaken for signs of hunger, so if a parent feeds they’ll likely find their child falls asleep, which is then defeating the purpose of sleep training because 1. The child is being helped to sleep, and 2. The child is sleeping outside of when they are supposed to be sleeping, and 3. they will be unlikely to take a full feeding once they wake, since they just took a feeding before their nap. Also generally speaking, infants and toddlers should be offered some form of calories, whether through milk or solids, every two to three hours. You can see a sample two nap schedule with feeds here.
How to Start an Eat-Wake-Sleep Cycle
Many parents simply cannot see how their child who is used to being fed to sleep could ever get on an EWS sleep cycle. The secret is in the morning feeding. If you can get your child to take a big, full feed when they wake in the morning, then not give them a milk feed before their nap, they should be hungry enough to take a full feed after their first nap. Often parents are unable to get their baby to take a large morning feeding because they are feeding too much/too often overnight. To those parents, get an okay from your pediatrician to cut out all night feeds, or to keep just one night feed. If keeping a single night feeding, try to make it a feed that occurs the first time your child wakes after 1 am. This should give them enough time to be very hungry for the first feed of the day.
As with anything feeding related, do not implement any of these recommendations without going over them in detail with your pediatrician.
Remember, the Eat-Wake-Sleep Cycle…
- Is very helpful for newborns through toddlerhood.
- The goal is to feed baby as soon as they wake up, and then NOT feed them again until after they wake from their next sleep.
- EWS can help parents extricate themselves from a feeding-to-sleep relationship.
- Start EWS as soon as baby wakes up for the day.
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