Understanding Reverse Cycling

One of the challenges parents may face with their baby is a phenomenon known as reverse cycling.

While we often think of “reverse cycling” for breastfed babies only, it can happen with bottle fed babies too. This term refers to a pattern of infant feeding where the baby consumes more milk during nighttime hours and eats less frequently during the day. While reverse cycling can present logistical challenges for parents, understanding its causes and how to manage it can help you to navigate this aspect of parenting with confidence.

What is reverse cycling?

Reverse cycling is when a baby takes in more of their milk during the night, instead of during the day. Although, it doesn’t necessarily have to be reversed feeding for the entire day or the entire night. Reverse cycling can also apply when babies refuse feeds at certain times during the day, while having a stronger desire to eat at night. Often with newborns, people refer to this as a baby having their “days and nights” confused.

Is reverse cycling a real thing?

Yes and no. Yes, a baby can start drinking more of their milk during the night, but no, it doesn’t just start happening for some mystical reason. 

When babies begin drinking more during the nighttime than during the day, there is usually a reason for it. 

Often, it’s caused by babies:

    • Getting too much daytime sleep
    • Missing a daytime feed / feeds
    • Having feeds during the day that aren’t full

Over time, if we aren't consistent with an age-appropriate daytime routine, we can see a pattern of reverse cycling happen, even if it’s just for various periods of time during the day (i.e. baby doesn’t want to take their first feed of the day after eating all night).

How to avoid reverse cycling in the first place?

The most important ingredient in making sure we avoid a reverse cycling situation is to work towards following a consistent age-appropriate routine each and every day. This includes working towards:

    • The same number of feeds every single day
    • Having each feed be consistently full
    • Keeping any nighttime feeds full (to ensure we are naturally limiting the number of times we feed at night)

This will help keep your feeds concentrated to the daytime hours which can be helpful to naturally support consistent nighttime sleep.

Some things to ask yourself if your little one is reverse cycling:

    • Have you recently dropped a daytime feed?
    • Have your feeds suddenly dropped length or amount?
    • Is your baby eating an age-appropriate amount of milk?
    • Has your baby recently started solids?

As you can see, all of these questions somehow relate to less daytime milk intake, which is what typically causes babies to want to eat more frequently at night or resume night feeds. When this happens and baby begins to eat more at night, it can continue a cycle of lessened daytime milk intake and the “reverse cycling” seemingly perpetuates itself. Frustrating, we know!!!

How to reverse the “reverse cycling”?

You see what I did there?!!!! There are ways we can slowly work to move our feeds back to the daytime, thus alleviating the need to feed at night. It’s important to note this happens naturally and we never recommend removing night feeds to force fuller daytime feeds.

Here are some tips to gently work to stop reverse cycling:

    • Add a dreamfeed back or do a double dreamfeed. If you can, add a dreamfeed back into your “daytime” feeds. This is a full feed after bedtime between 10-11pm where, ideally, we want baby to remain asleep. This is a great way to “move” the milk from the nighttime and help stop reverse cycling. If you are already doing a dreamfeed, consider temporarily doing a double dreamfeed (9pm and 11pm).
    • If you’ve recently dropped a nap…it likely means you’ve also dropped a feed (i.e. Online Program MEMBERS, when you move from MONTH THREE to MONTH FOUR, you drop a feed). If this is the case, we would want to add back in that extra feeding during the day. Again, this would be a sign that they still need that extra daytime feeding, so adding it back in can help. We want to do this while we continue to increase other daytime feeds slightly (if bottle feeding) or ensure we still have full breastfeeds of 30-minutes. 
    • Are your feeds shorter than 30 minutes (for babies under 6 months old)? If your baby isn’t having full feeds during the day, they can wake overnight for food. This isn’t for any reason except they’re hungry. Babies have a certain amount of food they need in 24 hours, so if they don’t get it during the day, they will wake overnight for it.30 minute full feeds are as much about slowing your baby down as they are about making sure your baby is eating enough during the day. If your baby is eating super fast, they may feel full before their bellies are actually full. This is because the milk isn’t moving and they may have burps trapped in their bellies. Both of these can cause them to feel full earlier, which can cause them to drink less.In this case, we want to work with your baby to gently increase their daytime intake (without forcing anything), stop to burp often (we recommend every 5 minutes for up to 5 minutes) so that they can begin digesting the milk and releasing gas while they’re eating.
    • Are they really hungry at night? If your baby wakes at night and you don’t think or aren’t sure they are hungry, we recommend trying to rock them back to sleep first (if they are over 12 weeks of age). If they fall back asleep easily and stay asleep, they likely weren’t hungry. This can help to cut down on the number of times they are waking at night. Sometimes we are so quick to feed a baby at night, without really thinking about if they need the milk, and being more mindful of this can be helpful in stopping reverse cycling.
    • If nighttime feeds aren’t full…this may be a sign they aren’t waking at night due to hunger and you can work towards tweaking baby’s age-appropriate daytime routine to ensure they aren’t sleeping too much or staying awake too long during the day. Doing this will help to stop night wakings and prevent reverse cycling from happening or continuing.

What if it’s something else causing your baby to want to eat more frequently at night?

It’s not always reverse cycling that is causing your little one to wake more frequently at night. This is one of the main reasons we encourage parents to follow an age-appropriate routine in the first place and track their days/nights because keeping track of what is going on from day to day (and age-appropriately) can give us crucial information about what may be causing baby to wake more frequently in the first place. 

Babies can also start waking more frequently at night if they are sleeping too much during the day or they are staying awake longer than they should in any wake window. Both of these can cause your baby to start waking more frequently at night, and if you aren’t following an age-appropriate routine, you may assume they are waking due to hunger, offer them milk at night, and, in theory, contribute to the reverse cycling.

Remember, if your baby wakes overnight and you think they’re hungry, you should absolutely feed…100% of the time. We never withhold food from a hungry baby. However, if they wake overnight and you feed them when they aren’t hungry, this can actually cause them to wake more often, thus continuing the reverse cycling.

Should I choose to reverse cycle so I can continue breastfeeding once I return to work?

First, it’s important to note you can continue to breastfeed your baby during the day even if you have to offer bottles during feeds while you’re working. We can help support you with this via our programs and email / phone support and read this blog of going back to work after baby.

But there are many lactation resources who suggest reverse cycling to nursing mamas returning to work, as a way to maintain breastfeeding. We aren’t going to spend too much time on this because, if this is something you choose for your family, we support that fully. But what we would encourage you to do is think through if working all day and feeding all night is sustainable long-term and work towards a self-care plan that builds in ample rest for you. 

While breastfeeding is amazing for our babies, we don’t believe it should ever come at the expense of your mental, physical, and/or emotional health. We believe that sleep is necessary for parents to thrive in their personal and professional lives and is something that supports a hearty milk supply and a long-term breastfeeding relationship. If you’d like to learn some tips for achieving 12-hours of nighttime sleep while breastfeeding, read this!

Need help?

Just like with sleep ‘regressions’ we don’t believe reverse cycling happens for no reason. We believe there is always something we can do to work on infant feeding and sleep and want to empower families to take control of their lives and make decisions that support their values, goals, and their sleep…something we all need.

If you are a member of our Online Programs (with email support) and are experiencing reverse cycling, please reach out to infant@fullfeedings.com for email support.

If you are not yet a member, what are you waiting for? Check out our NO CRY IT OUT sleep method here! We have super affordable online programs that will teach you an easy 3-step method to get your little one to sleep!