If you spend any time at all on Facebook, I’m willing to bet you’ve seen this meme floating around in the past couple of weeks. It’s so widespread, in fact, that I’ve even had a conversation about it on several discovery calls and another conversation about it in the grocery store aisle!
Let me be the first to say this- at no point will I ever ask you to starve your baby or deprive him or her from any feeds.
However, all too often, I talk to people that are feeding their baby (or toddler) multiple times a night, because babe won’t fall asleep any other way. And that means your child, and YOU, aren’t getting the sleep that is absolutely needed.
And if you didn’t know this already… your baby is SMART! Super clever, and absolutely tuned in to what’s going on around him. That translates into the fact that your baby knows exactly how to push the perfect combination of buttons to get what she wants- which is your attention.
Of course, your baby isn’t trying to be manipulative. She’s a baby! She’s totally working off instinct here.
If baby wakes up in the middle of the night, and realizes that mom has left the room and things have changed since bedtime, it makes sense that he will cry until she returns.
However, obviously babies don’t only cry because they want mom. They cry because they’re uncomfortable, or because they’ve got a dirty diaper, 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 whether it’s because they need to eat or because they just want to see mom back in the room.
Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t respond to this crying, and go back in the room. While I am a sleep expert, YOU are the expert on your baby, and you know better than anyone what their crying sounds like. If it’s at a certain decibel, pitch, intensity, or duration, you know whether baby is rolling over in the middle of the night, just had a big poop, or is hungry.
BUT. If your baby is waking up six times a night, and needs you to rock her back to sleep, or nurse her back to sleep each time (or even a couple times), this can lead to some serious sleep deprivation for both her, and you.A lot of babies, and toddlers as well, have become dependent on their parent’s help to either fall asleep, or stay asleep, perhaps through nursing, rocking, bouncing, etc., and this isn’t something that can be magically solved in 15 or 20 minutes. Solving that issue takes some real work and a firm commitment from you, but we can talk about sleep training in a minute here.
Is Your Baby Truly Hungry in the Middle of the Night?
Here are a few things to consider when you’re trying to figure out if your baby is truly hungry, or is waking instead out of habit.
1. IS BABY LESS THAN SIX MONTHS OLD?
Up until about the six month mark, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed.
Because their tummy is small and can only fit so much, it’s pretty likely they’ll need to refuel about halfway through the night.
Keep in mind that not all babies follow this guideline- I’ve totally worked with families whose babies were sleeping 10 hour stretches at 10 weeks old. As a general rule though, most babies need that one feed until they are about six months, or 15 pounds.
2. IS BABY GETTING ENOUGH CALORIES DURING THE DAY?
If your baby is older than 6 months, and/or weighs more than 15 pounds, then barring any medical issues, they are absolutely capable of sleeping through the night (11-12 hours) without needing a feed.
But this is only true if they are able to take in their entire caloric needs during the daytime hours.
To do this, you should encourage baby to take full feeds after waking and after every nap. You might even need to add in one extra feed at some point during the day.
Alternatively, you could make each nursing session about five minutes longer, or each bottle a couple ounces larger to get in those milk calories.
After your baby is six months old, you’ve also probably been cleared to introduce solid foods, which can add calories as well.
And, once your baby starts sleeping through the night, his metabolism will adjust to take in those needed calories within just a day or two.
**Of course, before making any changes to your baby’s feeding schedule, always make sure to clear this with your pediatrician!
Nighttime sleep is awesome, but so is making sure your baby is gaining along their growth curve!
3. IS BABY FALLING ASLEEP WHILE BEING FED?
I can just about guarantee that you’ve experienced this: Baby wakes up, and starts crying 45 minutes after being put down for bedtime, or after a short nap. So you go in, and offer a feed. She seems excited, but literally only drinks a half ounce, and promptly passes back out while feeding.
If this happens pretty frequently, I’m going to just say it- your child isn’t hungry. Instead, he’s just waking up and feeding for comfort. If he was genuinely hungry, he would eat much more than a piddly half of an ounce.
4. AFTER A NIGHTTIME FEED, DOES BABY SLEEP FOR A LONG STRETCH?
If baby does need a nighttime feed, she should be able to sleep for around 3-4 hours afterwards. But if she’s waking up just 45 minutes, or an hour and a half after falling asleep, then it’s more likely she’s moving through a sleep cycle, and waking up because she’s dependent on your help (through nursing, feeding, rocking, etc.) to fall back asleep.
5. IF FED, WILL BABY GO BACK TO SLEEP?
Have you ever tried to let baby fuss for a moment before going in? And if so, did you notice that baby actually fell back asleep? This is another strong indicator that he wasn’t very hungry, and instead just looking for your help to get back to sleep.
Now, if your baby is truly hungry, then she isn’t just going to give up and fall asleep after a few moments. That tells you that she does actually need that feed.
6. DOES BABY FALL ASLEEP INDEPENDENTLY?
Here lies the foundation of good sleep skills. Does your baby go into his crib awake, and is he able to fall asleep that way?
If you say yes, you put your baby down awake, and you can leave the room without helping her fall asleep, without feeding, rocking, giving a pacifier, and so on, then it’s very unlikely that she is waking up at night for no reason. At that point, she probably does need some assistance from you, like a feed.
There are obviously a lot of things that need to be factored in to determine whether your baby is truly hungry at night. Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we typically end up paralyzed trying to balance the importance of the two.
This questioning game becomes so much simpler once you have helped your baby establish independent sleep skills. Once sleep props are removed, you can feel much more confident that baby’s waking for a nighttime feed is out of necessity and not just a way of grabbing a few extra minutes with mom.
In conclusion, I propose that almost all babies over 6 months old are absolutely capable of sleeping LONG stretches through the night, without needing a feed. And therefore, we should aim to normalize nighttime sleep!
Who’s with me here!?