At night, when your baby's crying, it could be for a variety of reasons. She could be uncomfortable, too hot/cold, or she could want a diaper change.
You could quickly figure this out by quickly checking in on your baby at night when she cries.
But your baby could also be crying because she’s hungry, or because she wants you—because let’s face it: you are to your child what social media is to folks in their 20s and 30s. This would require more intervention, and at least from a sleep training perspective, feeding could impact teaching your baby to sleep independently. So how do you tell the difference?
Here are a few guiding questions to ask yourself when attempting to solve this oh-so-common parental riddle.
IS THE BABY UNDER SIX MONTHS OLD?
Babies normally require at least one nighttime feed until the age of six months. Until this age, the baby’s tummy is small and milk digests quickly, so there's a good chance a feed will be needed in the middle of the night.
Obviously, this isn't the case for all babies. Some babies sleep through the night without a feed from as early as 10-12 weeks, but averagely speaking you can expect to be awakened for a middle of the night feed until your baby is about six months old.
IS THE BABY EATING ENOUGH DURING THE DAY?
Once your baby is able to sleep through the night without needing to be fed, you must ensure that she is getting in enough calories throughout the day. I've found that throwing in an extra feed during the day, or adding an ounce or two to each bottle during the day, is the easiest method to accomplish this switch.
This is also an excellent time to consider solid food introduction. The good news is that, once she’s no longer getting a bottle at night, a baby's body will usually adjust over a night or two to start taking in those extra calories during the day.
Just a quick but SUPER IMPORTANT reminder…
Consult your pediatrician before making any modifications to your baby's feeding routine. Sleeping at night is wonderful, but if your child is underweight or not growing as quickly as she should, weaning out night feedings may not be the best option, so consult your doctor.
IS BABY FALLING ASLEEP QUICKLY WHEN YOU FEED HER?
I'm sure you're familiar with this circumstance. You go in and provide a feed which your baby happily accepts. She then takes about three-quarters of an ounce and then drops out in the middle of feeding.
If this occurs regularly, it's a sign that your baby is feeding for comfort rather than hunger. Babies who are truly hungry will eat until satisfied, whereas those who are nursing for comfort will go to sleep fast upon receiving what they want.
DOES THE BABY SLEEP FOR A GOOD STRETCH AFTER FEEDING?
If you give your baby a full feed at night, she should be able to sleep for 3-4 hours afterward. In contrast, an average sleep cycle for babies around the 6-month mark is 45 minutes to 1 hour. So if your baby is waking up shortly after eating, it's likely that she’s relying on the sucking and soothing actions of your feeding routine to fall asleep.
WILL THE BABY GO BACK TO SLEEP WITHOUT A FEED?
It's difficult to fall asleep when you're hungry, regardless of your age. Your brain perceives hunger as a top priority and will stay alert until the demand is met, or until you're so tired that the need to sleep overrides the need to eat.
So, if your baby is really hungry, she won't be able to sleep again very easily until she’s been fed. If she nods off after five or ten minutes of crying, it's a safe bet that she was just looking for some help in getting back to sleep and not genuinely hungry.
DOES THE BABY FALL ASLEEP INDEPENDENTLY?
The linchpin is located here. This is the most important part of the equation. Can your baby fall asleep on her own?
If you can put your baby down in her crib while she's still awake, leave the room, and have the baby fall asleep without any help from you, a pacifier, or any other form of external assistance, then those nighttime cries are significantly more likely to indicate that she needs help with something.
Trying to figure out if your infant is hungry at night is obviously difficult. Calories are important, but so is sleep, so it's understandable if you’re often immobilized attempting to strike a balance between the two.
The good news is that once you've taught your baby the skills she needs to fall asleep on her own, this tightrope becomes much easier to traverse. Once she’s broken the habit of feeding to sleep, you'll be much more confident that her requests for a nighttime feed are out of necessity and not just a way to spend more time with you.
And, as always, if you need some help teaching your baby those essential sleep skills, I've got you taken care of! Just book a discovery call with me.