Dream feeding is one of those terms that gets tossed around so much that everyone assumes that everyone else knows the exact meaning of the term. Yet when you dig a little deeper, you realize that people have WILDLY different definitions of the same exact word!
Just so everyone is on the same page – a dream feed is when a parent goes to their sleeping infant, picks them up (or props them up in their crib to offer a bottle), feeds the child, and then puts them back down *asleep* without the baby ever having woken up. A dream feed is NOT a dream feed if a child opens their eyes at any point in the process. Generally speaking, a dream feed is done between the hours of about 9:30pm and 12:00am. Technically, if all other terms are met, but the feed is done outside of these hours, the feeding is still a dream feed.
Dream feeds are a great tool from birth (or a few weeks after, when babies are not quite so sleepy), through to when a baby is done being swaddled. It is very challenging to dream feed a baby, even a very young one, without waking them up if they are not swaddled. Generally speaking, it’s wise to stop dream feeding around 14-16 weeks of age.
I like dream feeds for young babies not because they necessarily prevent babies from waking up to eat at night, though sometimes this is the case, but more so because I appreciate the “insurance policy” of extra calories at night. As long as a baby is young enough that the dream feed itself does not wake them and fracture their sleep, doing a dream feed can insure that they are getting as many calories as possible during their day.
Some babies respond beautifully to a dream feed, especially those with reflux! From about 7pm on through to about 2 or 3am, the body is flooded with the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is responsible for many things, chief amongst them making the body feel drowsy and relaxing the long muscles (abs, legs, and arms). Since the abdominal muscles are relaxed, it’s common for babies with a lot of reflux to tolerate a dreamfeed without spitting up, and without needing to be burped or held upright afterwards. I can speak to this from personal experience with my own extremely reflux-y, wholly unmedicated daughter. Since the concern for calorie intake is so high with reflux babies, dream feeds can be especially useful for them.
The bottom line, is that a dream feed – if understood for what it truly is, and if done correctly, can benefit baby AND parents by offering an extra dose of nutrition and helping baby sleep (parents too)!