The feed-play-sleep furphy

Whoever thought of the term feed-play-sleep? I remember reading about it 15 years ago when I first became a mother, and I constantly hear it being bandied about by mums I speak to now — they’ve either read about it in baby sleep books, or told it’s a ‘must’ by maternal and child health nurses and sleep schools to get their baby to learn to self-settle. And look, sure, some babies may respond well to it, and some mums may find comfort in the structure it gives them, but the whole premise is somewhat confounding to me.

If you rely on a mother’s own instincts, comforting a baby to sleep usually means doing snuggly things in the lead up to bedtime — cuddling, breastfeeding, rocking, walking, patting — not fizzing up some poor baby on a play mat at 4 weeks old, whacking them in their cot and walking off.

Tapping into my knowledge about breastfeeding, the premise of feed-play-sleep is doubly wrong. Scientifically, we know that there’s a little something released during breastfeeding that helps babies to become drowsy — nature’s little sedative, the CCK hormone. Why would anyone NOT want to give this to a baby just before bedtime to ease them into slumber? I don’t know why this feed-play-sleep thing has become so ingrained in our culture as a way to get babies to ignore their instinctual desire to suck and be warm and close to their mama before bed (we are mammals after all, what dog wouldn’t want to sleep on the end of our bed if we let it?). Some of the mums I talk to who have tried this method tell me they felt like a failure and overwrought that their baby would never go to sleep on their own if they didn’t feed, play or sleep at these set times. Is this teaching a new mum to enjoy her baby? Is this helping bonding? Is this creating a stress-free environment to ward off post-natal-depression? No, no and no.

When using the feed-play-sleep strategy, one mum told me ‘I got myself tied up in knots and we both ended up shattered’, another said it caused ‘lots of tears and stress’ and yet another reported that she ‘tried it for about half a day but couldn’t stand it because of the crying, and I felt my previously contented baby and mother relationship was being turned into something stressful and against the grain.’

I chatted with a new mother this week, who relayed being told by her child health nurse that her 4-week-old was overtired and needed to feed-play-sleep. ‘I went home in tears after that appointment, feeling terrible for not having taught my baby to sleep properly and leaving her sleep deprived,’ she said. Luckily, this mum and the others mentioned met up with other parents who supported their decision to do away with the feed-play-sleep schedule and felt much happier for it.

Another option is to adapt the method to suit you and your baby. If bub naturally falls into a feed-play-sleep pattern (one of my three babies actually did!) and it works, stick with it! But if he/she doesn't, it's not the only way. One mum I spoke to decided feed-play-sleep was too hard and changed it to feed-play-feed-sleep and it worked wonders! Maybe we should contact all the sleep book publishers and those handouts the nurses give to new mums and let them all know they really just made a typo and add that second 'feed' into the term. How much happier would all the mums be? They are only babies for such a short time. Cuddle them. Breathe them in. Do what feels right. They WILL sleep.

For more information on baby sleep, check out https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/sleep