Since there is typically more concern about underfeeding, 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 a baby to control the flow of milk," explains Barbara Marriage, Ph.D., a pediatric researcher and dietitian with Abbott.
Also, new parents may not be aware of the hunger and fullness cues that a 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 a baby gets just the right amount of nutrition, parents should feed on demand, or whenever the baby is hungry, and shouldn't feed beyond the point of fullness."
Feeding According to Hunger Cues
When it comes to feeding your baby, more isn't necessarily 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 sleep issues.
Related: Feeding Problems? The Tummy Tool can help.
Overfeeding has also been linked to an increased risk of excessive weight gain. A Pediatric Obesity study found that the risk of childhood obesity increases by 36 percent when babies are put in their cribs with bottles.
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 a child's development by making milestones like crawling and walking more difficult.
Feeding Questions For New Parents
Keeping your baby nourished, happy and healthy is one of the most important parts of parenthood, and paying attention to your baby's feeding cues can help simplify mealtime. But sometimes finding that just-right approach isn't so simple. Marriage offers these answers for your most common feeding questions, and highlights why bottle feeding "on demand" is so key in maintaining good nutrition.
1. How Much Should a 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 younger than six months (who are not yet eating any solid foods like cereals or purees) drink 2 to 2.5 ounces of formula or breast milk 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 or breast milk per day.
Related: Baby Feeding Chart
Still, it's important to split that total over the course of the day based on when your baby is hungry. For instance, by the end of the first month, most babies consume at least 4 ounces of breast milk or formula every four hours. By six months, 6 to 8 ounces per feeding is typical, with four or five feedings taking place within 24 hours.
2. Should I Put My Baby on a Feeding Schedule?
While some regular routine can be a good thing, schedules that are too rigid may actually do more harm than good. When you're paying too much attention to the clock, you might 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 development, Marriage says 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.
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, crying is typically one of the last signs that your baby is hungry, and can often indicate a different problem — 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 fingers or putting hands to mouth, Marriage says. "Looking for these cues will make sure your baby is getting just enough — and not too much — to eat."
4. How Do I Know If My Baby Is Full?
If partway through a feeding, your baby takes progressively longer and longer pauses, begins to fidget or get uneasy or turns their head away from the bottle, chances are they're filling up. Follow your baby's lead and put the bottle down.
If after a burp or short nap they start to show signs of hunger, you can always give them 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: pediatric growth charts and 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 moving 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 ever feel like your baby's nutrition intake or weight isn't where it needs to be, your pediatrician will be able to offer additional ways to help get your child on track for healthy development.