Is My Baby Waking in the Night Out of Hunger?

 In Night Wakings

Is it Hunger or Habit?

When your baby wakes in the night it can be hard to decipher whether it’s out of hunger or habit. We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that our babies are properly nourished. But as anyone who’s been through this glorious journey of motherhood will tell you, kids are unimaginably clever. They will find ways to get what they want and they will repeat them relentlessly.

Which is not their fault, obviously. They’re just working off of instinct. They know what they like, and at a young age, they like mom.

A lot.

Given that babies really only have one method of communicating, if mom’s not around and they don’t think that’s cool, they fire up the lungs and they cry.

However, wanting Mom isn’t the only reason babies cry. They do so 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.

I’m not trying to tell you that you shouldn’t respond to your baby’s crying.

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.

A lot of babies have developed a dependency on nursing, rocking, sucking, and so on, in order to get to sleep. It is not something they can overcome in 15 or 20 minutes. Solving that issue takes some real work and a firm commitment from you.


A Few Things to Consider.


Baby’s Age


  • Newborns

Newborns, have very small stomachs and will need to feed around the clock. This will ensure their growth and development in those early months. If they wake in the night, it is likely they will need to be fed. But instead of rushing in at the first peep, give it a minute or two, then respond. Newborns are loud sleepers and it may be that they are just grunting in their sleep, transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next, or finding a new comfy position.

  • 3-5 Months

Up until about the six month mark, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Some smaller babies may even require two feedings in the night. At this age their tummies are still small, they haven’t started solid food yet, and formula and breast milk digest fairly quickly. This isn’t the case for all babies, obviously. Some infants sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age. But generally speaking, you can expect to be up for a nighttime feed up until baby’s hit about six months.

  • 6 Months and Older

Once your baby hits the 6 month mark, they are getting the added daily calories and nutrition from solid foods. If there are no health or weight concerns, they will likely no longer need a feed in the night.


Is Baby Eating Enough During The Day?


Once baby’s 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. Throw in an extra feed during the day, or add 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 great but nutrition is 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.


Is Baby Falling Asleep Quickly When You Feed Them?


I’m sure you know this scenario. Baby starts crying 45 minutes after you put her down and you go in and offer a feed. She will likely accept the feed, but only takes three quarters of an once before falling asleep.

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. 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 afterwards. An average sleep cycle for babies around the 6 month mark is around 45 -60 minutes. So if they’re waking up roughly 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. Not actually in need of a feed.


Does Your Baby Fall Asleep Independently?


This is the most important part of the equation. Independent sleep skill are essential to how well your child will sleep at night and for naps.

Independent sleep comes when you are able to put your baby down in their crib still awake, leave the room, and have them fall asleep. This means without any help from you, without a pacifier, or any other kind of outside assistance. If this is the case, 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.

Determining whether your baby’s hungry at night is obviously a complicated situation. Calories are vital but so is sleep. 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 gaining a few extra minutes with mom.

As always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, I’ve got you covered.

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