“Good job—you finished the whole bottle!”
As a parent, it’s natural to gauge your baby’s nutrition according to the number of bottles emptied. Half-finished bottles are worrisome and sucked-dry bottles are always the goal. Meanwhile, when babies cry, a natural first response is to try to comfort them through feeding. Maybe they are hungry.
After all, plump babies are considered healthy babies and most doctors are concerned about underfeeding. But many parents don’t realize that it’s also possible to overfeed babies—especially if they are bottle-fed formula or expressed breast milk.
“It’s more common to overfeed while bottle feeding because it’s more difficult for baby to control the flow of milk,” explains Barbara Marriage, PhD, RD, a pediatric research dietitian, scientist and regulatory associate with Abbott.
Also, new parents may not be aware of the hunger and fullness cues that baby is sending. “For many new parents, the idea of feeding cues isn’t something that they have learned before, explains Marriage. “To make sure baby gets just the right amount of nutrition, parents should feed on demand, or whenever baby is hungry, and shouldn’t feed beyond the point of fullness.
Why Is it Important to Feed According to Hunger Cues?
When it comes to feeding baby, more isn’t better. Babies have very small tummies that can’t hold much food. This means that they need to eat frequently but it also means that overfilling their bellies can trigger diaper blowouts, regular spit-ups, irritability and sleeping issues. And in the long term, overfeeding has also been linked to an increased risk of excessive weight gain.
A long-term study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in 2011 found that among 8,900 U.S. infants, 32 percent were overweight or obese by nine months of age, which the study authors attribute largely to overfeeding. A 2014 Pediatric Obesity study found that putting babies in their cribs with bottles increases the risk of childhood obesity by 36 percent.
While there are a lot of factors that can impact a baby’s weight, the truth is that it’s easier for bottle-fed babies to take in more fluid than they need, and more difficult for them to self-regulate intake. Excessive weight gain in infancy can delay your child’s development by making milestones like crawling and walking more difficult.
Your Feeding Questions—Answered
Keeping your baby nourished, happy and healthy may seem like an overwhelming task for new parents but paying attention to baby’s feeding cues can help simplify mealtime. Here, Marriage discusses bottle feeding “on demand” and helps you find a just-right approach.
1. How Much Should My Baby Eat Every Day?
“While every baby is different, there are general guidelines on how much an average baby needs to eat in order to grow,” Marriage says.
For example, pediatricians typically advise that infants under six months (who are not yet eating any solid foods like cereals or purees) drink 2 to 2.5 ounces of formula per pound of body weight every 24 hours. So if your baby weighs 15 pounds, as a rule of thumb, they will need to consume 30 to 37.5 ounces of formula per day.
Still, it’s important to split that total over the course of the day depending on when your baby is hungry. For instance, by the end of the first month, most babies consume at least 4 ounces of formula every four hours. By six months, 6 to 8 ounces of formula per feeding is typical, with four or five feedings taking place every 24 hours.
2. Should I Put My Baby on a Feeding Schedule?
Some modern sources have started to promote rigid or scheduled feedings but schedules that are too rigid may actually do more harm than good. When you’re paying too much attention to the clock, you miss your baby’s cues telling you that they are hungry or full. To make sure your baby stays on track for healthy weight gain and brain development, it’s best to take a ‘feeding on demand’ approach. As they grow older, they will develop their own rhythms and patterns that may make feedings more predictable. But remember - always follow baby’s lead.
3. How Do I Know if My Baby Is Hungry?
It’s natural to worry that hunger is the problem when your baby cries. However, typically, crying is one of the last signs that your baby is hungry—and is more often than not a signal of something else… perhaps a wet diaper or wanting a change of position.
The most common signs that your baby is hungry and ready to eat include licking lips, rooting for milk, sucking or putting fingers or hand to mouth, Marriage says. “Looking for these cues will make sure your baby is getting just enough, and not too much, to eat,” she recommends.
4. How Do I Know if My Baby Is Full?
If, partway during a feeding, your baby takes progressively longer and longer pauses, begins to fidget or get uneasy, or turns her head away from the bottle, chances are that she’s filling up. Follow your baby’s lead and put the bottle down. If after a burp or short nap she starts to show signs of being hungry again, you can always give her more then, Marriage says.
5. How Do I Make Sure My Baby Is Getting the Necessary Nutrition?
Now that you’re feeding according to your baby’s hunger cues, you should also pay attention to two things: 1) pediatric growth charts and 2) your baby’s diapers. Both can provide reassurance that your baby is receiving the right amount of nutrition.
Large fluctuations in your baby’s position on the pediatric growth chart (as determined through regular visits to your baby’s physician) can indicate either under- or overfeeding.
Wet and dirty diapers can also show that, yes, plenty of nutrition is flowing through your baby’s system. Typically, babies should have about five to six wet diapers per day, Marriage says. A lack of wet diapers may indicate that the baby is not getting enough formula. If you are concerned that your baby is not gaining enough weight or gaining too much weight, you should talk to your baby’s pediatrician to make sure that your baby’s nutrition intake is where it needs to be.