Reverse cycling: What is it and how to stop reverse cyclingUpdated Aug 03, 2022
In the early days of breastfeeding, newborns tend to eat every couple of hours — day and night — or have their days and nights mixed. Although exhausting, this behavior is usually short-lived, and we’re prepared as new parents to be up all night feeding a newborn. But when your baby suddenly begins wanting to nurse every few hours again at night well after the newborn stage has ended, you’re likely wondering, “Why is my baby waking like a newborn again!?”
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What is reverse cycling?
Reverse cycling is when babies beyond the newborn period (usually 4 - 6 months old, but sometimes older babies, too) suddenly begin waking up hungry more frequently overnight. Babies stuck in a reverse cycling pattern typically eat less during the day. This results in a cycle of eating more at night to make up for the missed daytime feedings. The night wakings are usually unrelated to sleep associations and can occur in babies that have done some sleep training and used to sleep through the night.
Possible reasons for reverse cycling
Your baby is too distracted to take full feeds during the day.
Your baby’s schedule is preventing enough daytime feeds.
Your baby is not finishing bottles or refuses to bottle feed after mom returns to work.
Your baby is falling asleep during daytime feedings due to overtiredness.
Note: Reverse cycling is different from night waking due to a growth spurt. During a growth spurt, infants will eat more frequently during the day and night. Reverse cycling specifically includes feeding less often during the day and waking up to eat more during the night because of the reversed pattern.
How to stop reverse cycling
Temporarily move to a less stimulating environment for daytime feedings. It may be necessary to turn off the lights, close the door, and put down your phone so your baby can focus on feeding. Increasing the number of feedings per day should give your baby more opportunities to get those calories in — and increase your milk supply. The idea is to help encourage more milk intake during the day so that there’s less hunger at night.
Remember: It is common for babies (especially between 4 - 6 months old) to become “too busy to breastfeed” during the day. The distractible baby phase passes pretty quickly, so hang in there!
Consider if your baby’s daytime schedule is limiting opportunities to feed, which sometimes happens when following the E.A.S.Y. (eat, play, sleep, your time) routine. For example, if you usually breastfeed after each nap but your baby’s wake windows are longer now (or they’re taking long naps), you may need to nurse again before the next nap, too, to ensure enough daytime feedings.
If your baby is less interested in bottles and tends to leave bottles unfinished, consider introducing a sippy cup. Some babies as young as 4 months old are ready to learn how to drink from a sippy cup. Look for soft spout cups with handles so your baby can practice bringing the cup to their mouth.
Contact a lactation consultant if your baby won’t take a bottle while you’re at work or school and you have already tried the following:
Moving feedings to a relaxing room with no distractions or outside
Varying the temperature of the milk
Offering freshly expressed breast milk rather than frozen if high lipase is suspected
Different bottles or nipples
Feeding while rocking, bouncing, or walking
We recommend contacting a lactation consultant in your area who can provide you with personalized recommendations and help rule out issues such as tongue-tie or problems with oral motor coordination or weakness. We understand how stressful it is if you’re starting work soon or have recently returned to work and your baby will not take a bottle. There is hope!
How reverse cycling impacts baby sleep
When babies consume fewer calories during the day and more during the night, their sleeping patterns can also be impacted. Babies who do not feed well during the daytime may struggle to fall and stay asleep for naps due to hunger. Additionally, all the extra night feedings spell disrupted sleep overnight. Periodically, babies who are stuck in a reverse cycling pattern will often get less than the desired amount of sleep, leading to overtiredness.
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When to contact the pediatrician about reverse cycling
If you have any concerns about your baby’s intake or weight gain, you should contact your child’s pediatrician. They will likely also want to rule out any feeding or digestive problems, developmental issues, and an ear or upper respiratory infection as the cause for fewer daytime feedings.
If your baby seems more interested in nursing at night than in the daytime, you’re likely dealing with a reverse cycling situation. Implementing some of the tips above and beginning to space out overnight feedings can get you back on track with a new nursing schedule that is age-appropriate and supportive of nighttime sleep.
Reverse cycling FAQ
Q: Is reverse cycling a myth?
Reverse cycling is a real concern that affects many babies in the 4 - 6 month range. Another common age for babies to engage in reverse cycling behavior is 8 - 10 months old.
Q: How long does reverse cycling usually last?
Without taking any actions to correct reverse cycling, the pattern can persist for weeks or months as babies get accustomed to waking and feeding more at night — thus reducing their appetite during the day. To stop the pattern of breastfeeding reverse cycling, your primary goal is to shift caloric intake back to the daytime.
Q: How challenging is it to stop reverse cycling?
The secret to stopping reverse cycling is to gradually reduce night feedings while simultaneously increasing the frequency of daytime feeds. Depending on how long reverse cycling has been an issue, you may find it more challenging to break the cycle. Because reduced daytime feedings are often related to disinterest in nursing or bottle feeding, it is helpful to begin by increasing the time between overnight feedings. By slowly decreasing the number of feedings overnight, your baby will be hungrier and more interested throughout the day. Of course, decreasing night feedings is easier if your baby is already proficient at falling to sleep independently. Pro tip: To increase the length between overnight feedings it is often helpful to aim for 30 minutes at a time. For example, if your baby usually feeds around 1:00 AM, you can begin by setting your earliest possible feeding time to 1:30 AM the first night. If your baby wakes and is wanting to feed you can try rocking, holding, or bouncing them while they wait to feed. The next night you may aim to feed no earlier than 2:00 AM.
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Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.