There are different theories about daytime feeding and the link to nighttime sleeping. Babywise is one of the books that popularized the thought that if you can help a baby go longer between feeds during the day, the baby will sleep longer stretches at night. But, attachment parenting advocates recommend feeding on demand, when your baby is hungry. Which method promotes better nighttime sleep?
The benefits of a feeding schedule is that it is predictable for both parents and baby, reducing stress when you have a newborn. Also, the theory is if you help him get used to going 3-4 hours between feedings during the day, he will be able to go longer at night without a feeding, too. Another thing parents really like about a feeding schedule is it deters baby from being a snacker, which can be rather inconvenient at times.
Feeding on Demand
The goal of feeding on demand is to let your baby guide you and feed when she feels hungry or thirsty (since breast milk and formula is also their source of water for the first 6-12 months of life). Proponents of feeding on demand feel this not only respects your baby more, but is a healthier way to teach your baby how to eat, since dietitians will tell you that we should eat when you’re hungry, and to avoid overeating to make up for waiting until you are famished.
Feeding and night sleep
Does a feeding schedule or feeding on demand promote more night sleep? I am not a doctor, but it is my belief that feeding on demand would most likely promote more night sleep more than a feeding schedule, if either do at all. Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone and the way I think about feedings is that your baby (and you) need so many calories a day and the more she gets in during the day, the less she will need at night. Add to that, their tummies will only be able to fit so much breast milk or formula in there, so even if you CAN get her to wait 3 or 4 hours to eat, she might not be able to fit as much in as if you fed her twice every 2 hours, during the day. Believe me, if your baby is waking every 2 hours at night and is older than 2 months old, most likely she has a sleep association with breastfeeding or a bottle and it has nothing to do with hunger.
On a personal note, both my boys ate every 2 hours during the day for several months. They were both exclusively breast fed and since breast milk digests in 1 to 3 hours, this made sense to me. They simply became too hungry to wait any longer than that and my view is why should they? It’s not like they can go in the pantry and get their own food and don’t I eat when I’m hungry most of the time? Because I worked and pumped I know the size bottles each of my sons took in. My eldest son never took bottles bigger than 4 ounces of breast milk, either, while my younger son ate up to 5 1/2 (he was a chunk at 6 months!).
Side note: I would not categorize myself as an “attachment parenting” mom (though both my boys do have a healthy attachment to me and my husband), mostly since my view about cry it out is not that it is absent parenting in all cases, but I do believe in letting a baby guide you in the feeding department that might build healthier eating habits when they are an adult. The trick is to make sure you offer enough healthy food as options.
My eldest son snacked a lot, too, taking 2 ounces here and then another 2 ounces an hour later (or nursing one side and then the other an hour later) and the snacking was a bit hard to handle, sometimes, but he was only eating at night twice at 4 months and once by 7 months, on his own. To this day, my older son (now 3 1/2) eats rather often and gets cranky when he’s hungry. His afternoon snack is close to the size of a whole meal. My younger son (17 months now) snacks a lot less than his older brother. So, in general, I try to accept that they are just different, but neither could go too long without eating when they were very young. I am honestly not sure how people wait 3 hours to feed because my sons would cry so hard, but I also attribute that to their intensity.
In general, as long as your baby has the appropriate number of night feedings for her age, the decision whether to feed by schedule or on demand will depend on what works for you and your baby (keep in mind that some babies are more regular than others). I would not really choose one or the other based on how it may or may not affect their night sleep. Babies thrive on routine and the schedule can be as loose or strict as you make it.