Updated: Nov 3, 2021
No, this isn’t a setting on your washing machine. Reverse cycling is when your baby starts taking in more calories at night, displacing their daytime feeds.
If a baby is reverse cycling, it often means they are waking frequently at night to feed and may be fussy with feeds or meals during the day due to lack of appetite.
Here are some reasons why reverse cycling occurs and what you can do to break the pattern.
Newborns – day/night confusion
Babies are born with a weak sleep-wake cycle in connection with their mother. Their 24hr circadian rhythm continues to develop for the first 3-4 months of life. So, when your baby is first born they are unable to differentiate night from day.
You can support the development of your baby’s circadian rhythm by offering certain predictable cues throughout the day. Nap them in a dark room (doesn’t need to be pitch black), expose them to plenty of natural sunlight and interact with them during play time and wake them from naps if they are sleeping too long and missing feeds. Overnight, keep their sleep environment cool, dark and calm and avoid too much stimulation during night feeds.
By following a feed, play, sleep routine and ensuring they don’t go longer than 3-4 hours between feeds you can ensure they are getting plenty of calories during the day which will encourage longer stretches of sleep overnight.
Feed to sleep associations
Feeding your baby to sleep is very natural and it is a preferred settling method for many parents of newborns. It’s quick and easy, so if your baby is waking frequently overnight it’s easy to fall into the habit of always offering a feed so everyone can go back to sleep. This is more common in breastfed babies, however it still occurs in bottle fed babies.
Babies are wonderful little calorie counters. They won’t let themselves starve and they generally won’t overeat.
So, let’s see how easy it is to fall into a reverse cycling pattern when your baby has a feed to sleep association…
Say your baby has a particularly disrupted night and they wake every couple of hours, so you feed them back to sleep each time because it’s quick and it works. They may not take a full feed each time, but the calories quickly add up. The next day they’re not very hungry and may skip a feed or two. When night rolls around again, their appetite will pick up as they haven’t fed well during the day, so they wake more frequently in order to make up for the missed calories... and the cycle continues.
So, how do you prevent a feed to sleep association leading to reverse cycling?
Build your own little “tool box” of settling techniques.
This way you won’t feel stuck in a position where feeding is your only option to settle your baby back to sleep. Practice settling your baby other ways like rocking, patting, ask your partner to have a go or even work towards your baby settling independently. Having a few options up your sleeve when it comes to settling is great as this means if your baby does wake overnight and they aren’t due a feed, you are able to get them back to sleep without feeding every time.
Busy or distractible baby
From about 4 months old babies can become very distracted during feeding times. They are far more interested in interacting and exploring the world, that having a good feed gets pushed down their list of priorities. Even though we want to encourage their curiosity, we also don’t want them skipping feeds during the day because any missed feeds will need to be made for sooner or later, and this generally happens in the middle of the night when there are no distractions.
To keep a busy baby or toddler interested in their day feeds, stick to a predictable routine. If you do this from an early age it helps regulate their appetite and they are more likely to want to feed at certain times.
If your baby is prone to popping off the breast or bottle at even the smallest sound or movement in order to get a good look at what’s going on around them, take them somewhere quiet and free from distractions when it’s time to feed. If you’ve been out and they’ve been too distracted to take a good feed, set aside some quiet time when you get home to get that feed in during the day so they’re less likely to compensate overnight.
Some babies may have underlying health issues that impact their ability to feed well. In some cases babies with reflux, lip or tongue ties, intolerances or allergies etc may form a feeding aversion due to pain associated with feeding. This can be very concerning if you are struggling to feed your baby, especially if they are flat out refusing the breast or bottle. Often the only way to feed a baby in this situation is when they are very drowsy or asleep. So, in order to thrive, most feeds will likely need to occur during the night when your baby is relaxed.
Working with your baby’s medical team to resolve the underlying feeding issue is the first step. Once your baby is able to feed well, you can then gradually shift the majority of their calorie intake to be during the day and reduce the overnight feeds.
Some working mums may find themselves in a pattern of reverse cycling, others may actively pursue this pattern of feeding in order to preserve their breastfeeding relationship. A breastfed baby who is separated from their mother during the day may refuse being fed or may only take the bare minimum by another care giver and make up for those lost calories when they are reunited with their mother.
If you know you are going to be going back to work while your baby is still breastfeeding, plan ahead. Allow your baby plenty of opportunity in the months leading up to your return to work to practice feeding from a bottle or a cup in your absence. When possible, offer a full feed before you leave and upon your return, and have realistic expectations. Once your baby is established on solids, they may be fine with just a morning and evening feed without needing the extra feeds overnight as well.
In any situation where you are trying to change a reverse cycling feeding pattern, remember to do it gradually. You can’t simply stop offering feeds overnight without compensating for those calories during the day. Depending on your baby’s age, offer additional milk feeds or increase their meal portions and allow a few days for their appetite to adjust to the change.
One on one consultations and downloadable sleep guides are all available online x