As we take on the new role of parent, we quickly learn that this new little human depends upon us 24/7, for 100% of their care. A large part of baby’s care is meeting the feeding and nutritional needs of baby, so they are growing and developing normally. Often times parents feel substantial pressure and anxiety surrounding feeding, especially if breastfeeding isn’t going well or baby isn’t gaining weight well. Other parents find that feeding is a breeze and run into an issue a few months on. This likely will set the tone for our interaction with our child going forward and make feeding a very anxious experience well into the toddler years. So is your baby waking from hunger? Read on for more information on this hot topic:
Along with feeding comes the question, “how do I know if my baby is crying because they are hungry?” Let’s back up a minute and dive into exactly how baby signals (demands at times) our attention. Babies know one way to communicate and that is to cry. If they could yell “hey mom I’m hungry” they would but without that verbal communication in place yet, displeasure or the signal that something is wrong, is made loud and clear by crying. This is absolutely normal and instinct – as parents it is our job to meet our child’s every need.
Babies often cry when they have a true need – a dirty diaper, gas, pain, sleepiness, or hunger, to name a few. This is normal and instinctual and a great sign that your baby is developing normally. I encourage parents to meet every single one of their baby’s needs and to follow their instinct too, as they navigate the new world of parenting.
How do I know baby is waking from hunger?
When baby wakes up in the middle of the night and they start crying, it’s tough to determine whether it’s because they need to eat or because they just want to see mom back in the room. Are they waking from hunger or something else?
I encourage parents to meet every true need their baby has, which includes nutritional needs at night during the first few months of life. 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 of crying. 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.
A lot of babies 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.
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 about the six-month mark, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, they haven’t started solid food yet, and 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 infants sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age and gain all of their nutritional needs during the day, but generally speaking, you can expect to be summoned for a nighttime feed up until baby’s hit about six months. If you find your baby ready to sleep through the night earlier than this, based upon weight and feeds during the day, there is no need to keep feeding until 6 months old.
IS BABY EATING ENOUGH DURING THE DAY?
Once baby is capable of sleeping through the night without a feed, you need to make sure they’re getting the calories they need during their daytime hours. 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. 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, talk to your pediatrician. Nighttime sleep is 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.
IS BABY FALLING ASLEEP QUICKLY WHEN YOU FEED THEM?
This scenario may be familiar to you – baby starts crying 45 minutes after you put her down, you go in and offer a feed which she eagerly accepts, she takes about three quarters of an ounce, or nurses for 2-3 minutes, then promptly falls asleep right in the middle of the feed, still on the breast or bottle.
If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your baby is feeding for comfort instead of hunger. Babies who are genuinely hungry will usually eat until they’re full, 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 the 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 long after they eat, it’s likely that they’re dependent on the sucking and soothing actions of your feeding routine to get to sleep.
WILL THEY GO BACK TO SLEEP WITHOUT A FEED?
Falling asleep while you’re hungry is tough, regardless of your age. 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 usually 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?
The cornerstone of this entire nighttime feed scenario is, can your baby fall asleep on their own? This means without the assistance of feeding, rocking, a pacifier, holding, or a great amount of parental intervention.
If you answered yet, you can put your baby down in her crib while she’s 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 she genuinely needs a hand with something when she wakes up crying at night.
If your answer is no, likely your baby is crying often in the night because they need you to come back and put them back to sleep at the end of a sleep cycle. This scenario will play out all night and likely feeding or pacifying will stop their crying right away, as they fall back to sleep.
Determining whether your baby is waking from hunger can be a complicated situation. Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we typically end up paralyzed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is immeasurably easier to walk once you’ve taught your baby the skills they need to fall asleep on their own. Once the habit of feeding to sleep is broken, 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 mom.
If you’re looking for some extra help determining if your baby is waking from hunger or they just need help getting back to sleep, reach out! As a pediatric sleep consultant, you and your baby’s sleep are my priority.
If you want to solve your baby’s nighttime waking – be it waking from hunger or otherwise – click here to get started.