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Reverse Cycling

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Cara Dumaplin

RN, BSN, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant

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Is your baby waking throughout the night for feedings but less interested in eating during the day? If you’re in this situation, I know it can feel exhausting! This is called reverse cycling. Let’s talk about it. 

What is reverse cycling?anchor

Reverse cycling is when a baby consumes a large number of ounces or calories during the night which leads to a reduced appetite during the day.

Why does reverse cycling happen for babies? anchor

Let’s talk about the reasons that your baby may start taking in more calories during the night than they do during the day:

  1. Your baby is waking overnight, and the easiest way to get them back to sleep is with a feeding. When a baby wakes up at night, the quickest way to help them back to sleep is often by offering a feeding.  If they wake again in the night, you’ll likely feed them again. Because they’ve had so many night feedings, they likely won’t eat well the next day. This can start the vicious cycle of more calories consumed overnight than during the day. 

  2. Your baby is too distracted to feed well during the day, so they begin waking overnight truly hungry. As your baby gets older, it’s easy for them to be too interested in the world around them to sit still for a full feeding! This can often result in fewer daytime calories, which can encourage night wakings where your baby is hungry. (I often see distracted eaters starting around the 4 month mark.) 

  3. Your baby is “snacking.” A baby who is taking small frequent feedings during the day will likely wake overnight for frequent feedings as well. While they are likely getting an adequate number of ounces/calories in a 24-hour period, these frequent feedings can be a lot of work for parents. This also results in shorter stretches of sleep overnight. 

  4. Your baby had a change in routine. Maybe your little one just started daycare, you’ve added in something new to your schedule, or maybe they were sick. During times of transition, it can be common for sleep to be a bit disrupted. During this disruption, offering night feedings is common, but can easily cause reverse cycling.

How does reverse cycling affect sleep? anchor

Reverse cycling leads to more night wakings and less consolidated night sleep. Because babies aren’t getting their calories in the daytime, they make up for it at night. Most often, you will see night wakings every few hours because your baby is genuinely hungry. This doesn’t mean that it has to stay this way. We simply need to shift your baby’s calories to the daytime so that you can both get the sleep your bodies need.   

Keep in mind: In the first few months, there may be times where you will need to wake your baby to make sure they get vital calories. For babies who are staying on their growth curve, most pediatricians agree you can allow one longer stretch of sleep in the night. That one stretch shouldn’t go longer than their age in weeks plus one. So, if your little one is 5 weeks old, the longest stretch would be 6 hours between the start of one feeding and the next.

Is my baby comfort nursing or actually hungry?anchor

I know this can be confusing! But the difference between a baby who is wanting to nurse for comfort vs for hunger is this:

  • A baby who wakes out of hunger will actively feed, take a full feeding and then is likely easy to lay back down in their crib

  • A baby who is comfort nursing will most likely suckle at the breast (almost like a pacifier) or only eat for a very short while. They may then be difficult to transfer back into the crib. 

If your baby continues to rely on nursing to sleep (or back to sleep) and your days or nights are feeling hard, my classes are here to help! Every family’s needs are different, and in my classes, I’ll show you how to meet your baby where they are developmentally, set them up for sleep success, and get those needed calories while they're awake.

Is reverse cycling different from a growth spurt? anchor

Yes, they are different! A baby who is going through a growth spurt may have a new or additional waking for a night feeding. They may also want to feed closer together during the day. Reverse cycling is a trend you see when your baby simply isn’t accepting full feedings during the day, but is taking full feeds overnight.

What if my baby is not eating as much? Should I be concerned?anchor

Babies can sometimes eat more one day than the next. Try not to let their day-to-day intake cause you stress. Here are some signs that your little one is getting good, full feedings:

  • Your baby is content at the end of a feeding and able to go about 2.5-3 hours before the next feeding.

  • Your baby has at least 6 wet diapers in a 24-hour period.

  • Your baby is staying on their growth curve.

If you ever have a concern about your baby’s feeding behaviors, please reach out to your pediatrician or lactation specialist. If your baby is lethargic or not having wet diapers, it’s time to call right away. 

How do you stop your baby from reverse cycling?anchor

If you are struggling with reverse cycling, it can feel like a vicious cycle! Here are my tips:

  • Prioritize daytime feedings. Research actually shows us that babies who are offered full feedings throughout the day are much less likely to wake in the night for a feeding. Offer your baby full feedings every 2-3.5 hours during the day. You may need to wake your baby from a nap if it has been about 3 hours since the start of their last feeding. If your little one is a distracted eater, you may need to find a quiet room with little stimulation. 

  • Be mindful of daytime sleep. Follow age-appropriate wake windows, ensure your little one is active during awake time, and make sure they are not getting too much daytime sleep. This will help set your nights up for success. 

  • Consider night weaning. Sometimes when babies are getting most of their calories during the night, it’s difficult to get them to take full feedings during the day. In this instance, gradually reducing night feedings is the only way to help you shift your baby’s calories to the daytime. My classes will show you exactly how to wean (or reduce) night feedings with an age-appropriate, step-by-step plan.

  • Work on independent sleep. If babies don't have the skills to sleep independently, weaning night feedings will only solve part of the problem. Your baby may not wake hungry, but they may still wake throughout the night. My classes are here to help! Select the class for your baby’s age, and I will hand you the developmentally appropriate tools to get you and your baby set up for success. You don’t have to struggle alone.

Are you ready to have a great little sleeper?

If you're overwhelmed, exhausted, or just not sure where to start. I was there too. Let me show you everything you need to confidently handle sleep so your whole family can thrive!

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