I think it’s probably fair to say for the majority of parents, our biggest concerns for our little ones, especially before they can talk, revolve around sleeping and eating (you know, the things we totally took for granted before we had kids?…).
Obviously, being a sleep consultant, I talk a lot about sleep (well, duh!), but I’m going to talk a little about feeding now (not least because I’ve just finished a really interesting short course in infant nutrition), so this is a bit of a two-parter!
Here, I’ll be talking about babies up to the age of 6 months and primarily how we can tell if they really do want that night feed, then next time from 6 months and over and solid foods.
We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that our babies are properly fed (whether that’s by breast or bottle or a mixture of both), but as anyone who’s been through this glorious journey of parenthood will tell you, kids are shrewd. They’re unimaginably clever. They will find ways to get what they want and they will repeat them relentlessly, even when they are mere months old!
Which is not their fault, obviously. They’re just working from instinct. They know what they like, and at a young age, more often than not, they like Mummy.
I’m talking all Mummy, all the time. You are to your baby what Pinterest is to middle age homeowners. Too much is never enough. Of course, Daddy can often be in joint first-place, or at least a very close second!
And given the fact that they really only have one method of communicating (not including their very cheeky smile, which is invariably total manipulation, but what joyous manipulation it is!), if Mummy (or Daddy, of course!) are not around and they didn’t give permission for their absence, they fire up the lungs and they cry.
I’ll be quick to point out here that I’m not totally Mummy-centric, and neither are our wee ones. They cry because they’re uncomfortable, or because they’ve got a dirty nappy, or because they’re too hot or too cold, and they cry because they’re hungry.
So when they wake up in the middle of the night and they start crying, it’s tough to determine (in your sleep filled fog) whether it’s because they need to eat or because they are just requesting an audience with Mummy or Daddy.
I’m absolutely not trying to tell you that you shouldn’t respond to your baby’s crying. Especially as you know your baby better than anyone and I imagine you can tell when something needs to be addressed based on the decibel level, intensity, pitch, and duration.
But having said that, if your baby is waking up seven or eight times a night and insisting that you come in and rock her back to sleep, that can have a serious impact on everybody’s sleep, including hers.
I’ve met so many babies who have developed a dependency on nursing, rocking, sucking, and so on, in order to get to sleep, and it’s not something they can overcome in 15 or 20 minutes. Solving that issue takes some real work and a firm commitment from you, but we can talk more about that shortly.
First things first, here are a few things to consider when you’re trying to determine this oh-so-prevalent parental riddle.
Is Baby Under Six Months Old?
Up until they’re around six month old, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, they usually haven’t started solid food yet. Formula and breast milk digest fairly quickly, so there’s a good chance they’re going to get a case of the munchies during the night.
This isn’t the case for all babies, obviously. Some little ones sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age and then pig out during the day, but generally speaking, you can expect to be summoned for a nighttime feed up until baby’s that time.
Is Baby Eating Enough During The Day?
Once they are capable of sleeping through the night without a feed, you need to make sure they’re getting the calories they need during the day. The best way I’ve found to make this switch is to throw in an extra feed during the day, or by adding an ounce or two to each bottle throughout the day.
This is also a great time to think about introducing solid foods. Between 6 – 8 months, feel free to offer solids after they’ve had a feed, but from about 8 months, you can start offering solids first, then milk to top them up.
It’s worth thinking about the timing of their feeds generally around this age too – if they have milk too close to solids, they’re simply not going to be hungry enough to eat, leaving you thinking that they’re just not interested in food (and making it more likely they will wake in the night because they are hungry). The good news here is that baby’s body will typically adjust over a night or two to start taking in those additional calories during the daytime once they’re no longer getting them at night.
Just a quick but SUPER IMPORTANT reminder… Before you attempt to make any changes to your baby’s feeding schedule, maybe chat to your health visitor. Nighttime sleep is (obviously) awesome but calories are essential. If your little one is underweight or not growing as fast as they should be, it might not be a good time to wean out night feedings, so again, chat with your doctor or health visitor to get their take on things.
Is Baby Falling Asleep Quickly When You Feed Them?
I’m sure you know this scenario. Your little Prince or Princess starts crying 45 minutes after you put them down, you go in and offer a feed which they eagerly accept, they take a couple of mouthfuls, then promptly passes out in the middle of things.
If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your little one’s feeding for comfort instead of hunger. Babies who are genuinely hungry will usually eat until they’re full (which should be more than just a couple of gulps), whereas those who are feeding for comfort tend to drift off pretty quickly once they’ve gotten what they’re looking for.
Does Baby Sleep For A Good Stretch After Feeding?
If baby does take a full feed at night, she should be able to sleep for around 3-4 hours afterward. An average sleep cycle for babies around the 6 month mark is somewhere in the 45minute – 1 hour range, so if they’re waking up around that point after they eat, it’s likely that they’re dependent on the sucking and soothing actions of your feeding routine to get to sleep, and not because they’re starving.
Will They Go Back to Sleep Without A Feed?
Even as adults, we know that falling asleep when you’re hungry is tough. Think about when you’ve had a large late lunch so couldn’t face dinner, but around 10pm you’re suddenly feeling peckish. Your brain recognizes hunger as a priority and will stay alert until the need is met, or until you’re exhausted enough that the need to sleep overrides the need to eat.
So if your baby really is hungry, they often won’t go back to sleep very easily until they’ve been fed. If they nod off after five or ten minutes of crying, that’s a pretty reliable sign that they were just looking for some help getting back to sleep and not actually in need of a feed.
Does Baby Fall Asleep Independently?
This, my friend, is the million-dollar question. The cornerstone of the whole equation, this right here. Can your baby fall asleep on their own?
If you can put your baby down in their crib while they’re still awake, leave the room, and have baby fall asleep without any help from you, without a pacifier, or any other kind of outside assistance, then those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that they genuinely need a hand with something when they wake up crying at night.
Working out whether your baby’s hungry at night is obviously a complicated situation, and often not helped by the fact that you’re all pretty sleep deprived.
Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we typically end up paralysed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is so much easier to walk once you’ve taught your baby the skills they need to fall asleep on their own.
Once you’ve cracked the habit of feeding to sleep, you can feel much more confident that their requests for a nighttime feed are out of necessity and not just a way of grabbing a few extra minutes with their favourite people in the world (yup, that’s you and Daddy!).
And, as always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, you know where I am!