‘My baby is waking between 1 – 4 times overnight. I always feed her because it helps to get her back to sleep quickly. Is my baby waking because she is hungry? Should I keep feeding her every time she wakes up or should I try and settle her without a feed?’
I hear this question a lot! And it’s asked for a variety of reasons. Some parents are keen to help their baby move towards sleeping through the night. Others are wanting to better understand their baby’s cues or behaviours, so if baby isn’t hungry, they want to respect that rather than offering food.
Whatever the reason, my response is always the same…
Is baby under six months old?
Research suggests that a thriving healthy baby will need at least one feed overnight until 6 months of age. Prior to this, the stomach is small, solids likely haven’t started, and the breastmilk or formula digests fairly quickly. Hence the need for feeds during the night. If your little one is under 6 months of age, I would encourage you to continue to feed overnight.
If you can, and there are no weight or developmental concerns, space these feeds out to every 3-4hours. Always follow the advice of your GP or health professional.
If your baby is over 6 months of age, it is likely you can start taking your baby’s cues and wean from night feeding. Some babies will hold onto one feed past 6 months of age. Don’t feel pressured to remove the feed if you don’t want to. But, if you are trying to determine whether these wakings are due to hunger or habit consider the following points…
Just a reminder to always consult your GP or health professional if your little one has had weight or developmental concerns before you decide to try weaning from night feeds. The following points relate to a healthy baby, with no weight or developmental concerns, who is over the age of 6 months.
Is baby eating enough during the day?
One indication of whether your baby is waking due to hunger is to look at their intake during the day. Like sleep, intake is measured across a 24-hour period. If your little one is feeding well during the day generally, they don’t then need the calories overnight.
It’s important to remember that every baby is different, and one feed might still be needed overnight. However, if you are finding your baby is feeding well during the day, but they are waking more than once for a feed overnight, I would suggest they are not waking due to hunger.
If you’re looking to start weaning from night feeds, you might need to include extra calories during the day. This could be as easy as just offering an extra feed somewhere in the day. This is also a great time to introduce family foods/solids.
Consolidated sleep overnight is fantastic and beneficial for all family members, BUT calories are essential. If your little one is underweight or not growing as fast as they should be, it might not be the right time to wean from night feedings, so chat with your GP or health professional first.
Is baby falling asleep quickly during a feed?
I’m sure you know this scenario: your little one starts to cry 45 minutes after you put them down, you go in and offer a feed which is eagerly accepted. But your baby only takes a small amount from the bottle, or has just a few quick sucks at the breast, before quickly falling back to sleep.
If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your little one is feeding for comfort rather than hunger. A baby who is legitimately hungry will typically feed until they’re full. This means they would likely finish a bottle or completely drain the breast of milk. A baby who is feeding for comfort tends to drift off after a couple of sucks.
It’s tricky to determine how much baby is taking in when breastfeeding. Pay close attention to your baby during every feed across a 24-hour period. This will allow you to see full feeds vs comfort feeding. During the feeds, watch and listen for 2 actions:
Remember: if your little one is comfort sucking at the breast you will see a lot of sucking but not much swallowing.
Does baby sleep for a good stretch after feeding?
Following a full feed, your little one should manage a good stretch of solid sleep (ideally around 3-4 hours). I’d like to stress again here that I am referring to a typical healthy 6+ month old. If there are any weight or health problems, 3-4 hours between feeds overnight (or even during the day) may not be a possibility for your little one yet.
An average sleep cycle for a baby 6 months or older is between 45-60minutes in length. The science behind sleep suggests we all (babies, children, and adults alike) cycle through various stages of sleep, which differ in depth. We are in our lightest stages of sleep when one sleep cycle ends, and another begins.
Now it’s no secret that it is very normal for a human of any age to rouse or wake during this lighter stage of sleep as we complete one sleep cycle and transition into the next. It’s also very normal for this to be so brief that we do not remember it in the morning.
But, if your little one relies on the sucking or soothing action that comes with bottle or breastfeeding to sleep, they won’t be able to drift back to sleep without it.
This brings me to the final couple of points…
Will baby go back to sleep without a feed?
No matter your age, falling asleep while you’re hungry is difficult! Our brains recognise hunger as a priority and will stay alert until either the basic need is met, or until you’re so exhausted the need to sleep overrides the need to eat.
If your baby is legitimately hungry, it’s safe to say they won’t go back to sleep easily until they have been fed. So, if your little one settles down quickly either when you enter the room or when you pick them up, that’s a pretty reliable sign that they woke looking for some help to get back to sleep and not because they were hungry.
Does baby fall asleep independently?
Let’s touch on sleep associations. You may have also heard the term ‘sleep prop’. In a nutshell a sleep association is something external that a baby relies on to get to sleep. One of the most common sleep associations is feeding to sleep. Followed closely by rocking or sucking on a dummy.
These are not things that can be overcome in 15 or 20minutes. Replacing external sleep associations with something that a baby can independently manage takes a lot of persistence and a big commitment from you as a parent.
The questions for now relating to independent sleep skills are:
- Can you put your baby into her cot awake (but ready for sleep) and leave the room?
- Is she then able to happily drift off to sleep without any help from you, a dummy, or any other kind of outside assistance?
If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’ my bet is that those overnight wakings are because she genuinely needs help with something. If she cries out for you during these wakings, I would suggest she is legitimately hungry. She may also be calling out for help with a nappy change, she may be hot/cold, have teething pain, or other discomfort.
If your answer to these questions is ‘no’ my bet is that the overnight wakings may not be due to hunger but due to your baby relying on you to get back to sleep. This is when you would see the comfort feeding, or be called in to provide constant rocking, or having to replace a dummy during most of the transitions between sleep cycles.
Bringing it all together
Hopefully these points will help you identify whether your child is waking due to hunger or wanting some help getting back to sleep.
Determining whether your baby is hungry at night is a complex task. Calories are vital but so is sleep! It can be incredibly stressful trying to balance the importance of the two. It also doesn’t help when you’re already struggling to drag yourself out of bed at 3:00AM!
Once you have taught your baby the skills they need to fall asleep on their own and you know your little one is not using feeding as a sleep association to get to sleep, you will feel much more confident responding to their cries overnight. There will then be no question in your mind that your baby is waking due to true hunger, rather than needing you to help them get back to sleep.
The great news is that once baby picks up some independent sleep skills, the number of night wakings will decrease and everyone will get a better night sleep!
And, as always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, I’m happy to help!