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What is reverse cycling?

If you've found yourself feeding your baby frequently overnight and feeling frustrated that they aren't feeding so much during the day it's likely you're experiencing reverse cycling. Don't stress, all is not doom and gloom - we can change this for you!

So what exactly is reverse cycling?

Just like the name suggests reverse cycling is the term used for when a baby seeks to feed frequently overnight, consuming the majority of their calorie intake during night hours, rather than during the day time hours. This can mean that your little one wakes excessively overnight for a feed, but isn't hungry during the day. You're left thinking "Why dont you feed like this during the day?" and so the cycle continues!

Reverse cycling can often mean your baby has small, infrequent feeds across the day with long stretches between each feed. Then overnight they wake 2hourly to have full feeds and resettle back to sleep. This can happen at any age and for both breast fed babies and formula fed.

Keep in mind that most babies will still need to feed overnight up to 6-8 months of age, some beyond this. Just because your little love is waking overnight doesn't necessarily mean they are reverse cycling. Overnight feeds are still very normal, especially if your little one isn't established on solid foods and is under 7kg.

Why does reverse cycling happen?

There's a number of different reasons why reverse cycling happens. Understanding the cause behind it will help you to identify what needs to change and how we can support baby to break the cycle.

Self settling - if your baby is under 4 months old they are likely heavily reliant on you to settle them to sleep. Whether you are patting, rocking, feeding or offering assisted naps they are most probably looking to you to put them to sleep. If you've been feeding to sleep before each nap and each time they wake after a sleep cycle (day and night) they will now have an association between milk and sleep. Supporting your baby to learn how to settle independently will reduce the frequency of wakes because they won't rely on you to get them back to sleep with a milk feed.

Your little one is under 4 months - reverse cycling can happen with newborns who are yet to establish the difference between day and night. Offering more frequent feeds during the day, ensuring they are getting an age appropriate awake time and exposing them to naturally light in their awake times will help differentiate between day and night.

Awake windows need tweaking - as our babies grow and develop so too do their sleep and feeding needs. Ensuring that your baby has age appropriate awake windows will support their sleep pressure and wake to sleep balance, aiding in more sleep debt for night sleep. We also want to make sure they have enough time during their awake window to take full milk feeds, getting those calories in during daylight hours.

Too little/much day sleep - capping day sleeps at 2-2.5hr maximum and offering a dark sleep space to boost melatonin (sleep hormone) will help. It's always about finding the balance. Too much day sleep means your little one doesn't have the right sleep drive to take long, restorative stretches overnight. You may need to wake your baby from their nap to get the balance right.

Connection and comfort - from time to time our little one's seek more connection, reassurance and comfort from us. Maybe they are unwell, maybe they're sick or going through a developmental stage and separation anxiety is heightened. Whatever the case is you may have found that they are comfort feeding more frequently than actually needed. As a result, lots of feeds overnight have now impacted their milk intake during the day.

How can we change the cycle?

Now that you've established why your baby may be reverse cycling from the list above (and it might be a combination of a few!) we can have a look at how we can change the cycle.

If your baby is over 4 months and relying on a feed each time they wake to resettle overnight you can support them to resettle without, by using a responsive settling method. If your baby is relying on a feed each time they wake to resettle they will likely continue to look for this association until they learn otherwise. Little Dreamers Sleep, Settling & Responsive Parenting guide contains all our supportive settling methods to guide you.

If your baby is taking the majority of their calories overnight we need to slowly reduce these and shift these calories to the daytime hours.

  • Start by offering a full feed at their first wake and then a half feed at the second wake, alternating between the two.

  • Reduce every second feed by 30ml/less time at the breast per night over a 5-7day period (keep the 1st, 3rd and subsequent feeds full one's)

  • Once down to 2 feeds overnight determine whether your baby still needs these (age appropriate) or whether you can reduce/drop the remaining 1-2 feeds of the night as well.

Changing habits and associations take time, as does any cycle! Keep consistent in your approach and support your little one through the change. It won't happen overnight but within a few days you'll see the calorie intake increase during the day and fuller feeds in daylight hours rather than night ones.

If you need some sleep support and you are ready to make a change I'm here for you! Book a discovery call and let's chat about your little one's sleep and how I can help your family get the rest you all need to thrive.

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