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Is my baby waking because of hunger?

I talk to parents all of the time! If I’m not rehearsing Blippi episodes with my toddler, I’m most likely chatting all things sleep with Moms and Dads. You all are my people! We’ve all been through or will go through pretty similar phases of parenthood!


One thing that comes to mind that I talk to with almost all families is about night feeds and if they’re necessary.


I often hear, “My baby wakes up 5-6 times per night to be fed but I feel like he doesn’t need it. Does he need it? I don’t think so. But then again, what if he does?!”


This is such a common question that I get but there is never a one-size-fits-all answer. The answer is: it depends. A few factors come into play and we will want to make sure we look closely at each one to be sure that baby isn’t actually needing the nutrition before we decide if your baby can sleep through the night without a feed.


Please always consult your child’s pediatrician before making any changes to their eating schedule. Sleep is important but making sure that your child is following their growth curve is essential. As a sleep consultant, I never recommend cutting out night feeds unless we’ve double checked with the doctor, taken a close look at the items listed below or if they baby has done it on their own.


So, how do we know it’s time?


First, is your baby under 6 months old?


Most of the time, babies under 6 months old will still need at least one nighttime feed. Does this mean if your baby is sleeping all night without one and they’re 3 months old that something is wrong? Nope! This is just a ballpark average of the age that babies are when they tend to drop nighttime feeds.


Under 6 months old, their tummies are much smaller, they most likely are not having much solid foods, if any at all, added into their diet, and they digest the formula or breastmilk quite quickly. Therefore, they just tend to need more frequent feeds than older babies.


Second, how is your baby eating at night?


This is a question that I really dive into because it can tell us a lot about whether the feed is a need or just a way to get back to sleep.


If your baby is bottle fed, you’ll want to look at how often they’re finishing their bottles. If they wake up three times per night but are leaving formula left in two of the three bottles, then they most likely only need that one feeding that they’re finishing.


If your baby is breastfed, do they nurse for less time at night? Or maybe just one or two particular feeds seem to be a lot shorter. Also, pay attention to how your baby is removing the milk. If your baby is taking nice, full gulps and you can hear the milk being swallowed, then this is a needed feed. If your baby is butterfly sucking, where they move their mouths in quick but light little sucks like butterfly flutters, they are most likely not needing this feed for its nutritional value but just as a way to journey back to sleep.


I recommend documenting how your night feeds go. Take notes after each one and record the number of ounces or minutes they ate so that you can go back and see a pattern over a few days. This will help you determine which ones are necessary and which ones are not.


Third, is baby eating enough during the day?


An important rule to remember is to make sure to keep no more than 3 hours between feeds for babies younger than 6 months and no more than 4 hours for older babies. Yes, this means you should cap naps to ensure that your baby is eating well during the day and consuming their calories in the daytime hours rather than mostly at night.


After 6 months, they typically begin having solids, so this helps to add calories in during the day. Once your baby starts sleeping longer, you can bulk up their normal feeds by adding an ounce or two to each bottle. This will help to make up for the calories that they were consuming during the evening hours.


And last, but most importantly, does baby know how to fall asleep independently?


Here is the biggest question of all: how does baby fall asleep at bedtime?


If you’re laying your baby down in their crib completely awake, without rocking or feeding them to sleep, without the pacifier, and leaving the room, then when your baby wakes throughout the night it is more likely to mean that they genuinely need you for some reason such as a nighttime feed.


But if baby needs the feed in order to fall asleep at bedtime, then that’s what they’ll need anytime they are coming to a more conscious state throughout the night. If you fell asleep snuggling your favorite pillow and then woke up on the floor with no pillow at all, you would be quite alarmed, too! Helping your baby learn to do the journey from awake to sleep all on their own will help you determine their needs throughout the night and avoid them feeling startled when they wake up in a different scenario than they last remember.


Making sure your baby receives proper nutrition while helping them get the sleep that they need can be a paralyzing puzzle for some parents to figure out! Let’s teach your baby how to sleep so that you can learn what your baby is needing at any moment and feel confident in meeting exactly whatever need it is that they need to be met!

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