There are different theories about daytime feeding and the link to nighttime sleeping. Parents often wonder if they should feed baby on a schedule or feed babies on demand. 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? As a sleep consultant for over 10 years, today’s post will discuss each to help you decide what’s right for your baby.
Feeding on a Schedule
When you feed your baby on a schedule, the idea is that you feed them at the same times every day throughout the day or at a predictable interval. For example, you might feed your baby every 3 or 4 hours, depending on their age.
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 your baby get used to going 3-4 hours between feedings during the day, they will be able to go longer at night without a feeding, too.
Another thing parents really like about a feeding schedule is that it deters baby from being a snacker, which can be rather inconvenient at times. If your baby is a snacker, they might eat randomly throughout the day every 1 to 2 hours. Snacking and irregular feeding can be even more difficult when you have a toddler and a new baby.
Feeding on Demand
The goal of feeding on demand is to let your baby guide you. Rather than feed on a predictable schedule, you feed your baby when they feel hungry or thirsty (since breast milk and formula are 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 also a healthier way to teach your baby how to eat. Dietitians will tell you that you should eat when you’re hungry, and to avoid overeating to make up for waiting until you are famished.
Feeding and Nighttime Sleep
Does a feeding schedule or feeding on demand promote more nighttime sleep?
Based on my experience over the last 10+ years as a sleep consultant, I can tell you that how you feed your baby during the day can influence how long they sleep at night. However, it doesn’t always impact their nighttime sleep. Let me explain.
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 milk they get in during the day, the less they will need at night.
Factors Influencing How Much Your Baby Will Eat During the Day
The challenge to getting your baby to eat as much as possible during the day depends on several factors:
- How Much Milk They Need – Some people have small appetites and others have large appetites. Therefore, two different 6-month-old babies might drink a different amount of milk each day. Even though they are the same age, they will need different amounts though we know the total will fall between 20-30 ounces, on average.
- How Big Your Baby’s Tummy Is – A baby’s tummy will only be able to fit so much breast milk or formula in there, so even if you CAN get them to wait 3 or 4 hours to eat on schedule, they might not necessarily be able to drink more milk.
- Breast Milk or Formula? – Breast milk is more concentrated than formula and, therefore, feedings are usually smaller. For example, similar babies might take a 4-ounce breastmilk bottle versus a 6-ounce formula bottle. However, breast milk digests faster. So, to get your baby to consume more calories during the day, you may need to feed more often.
- Breast Capacity – If you are breastfeeding, another factor is that your breasts can only hold so much milk (and it has nothing to do with your bra size). A mom’s breast milk storage capacity along with how much milk your baby needs will dictate how many feedings a day you need to offer.
Combining the Factors
When we combine these factors, it can be a little complicated getting your baby to eat more during the day.
The book 12 Hours By 12 Weeks promotes going 4 hours between feedings by 12 weeks old. However, if your baby has a small tummy and you are making them wait 4 hours between feedings, you will likely be up a lot at night. If you are breastfeeding, this isn’t always great for your milk supply either. Stretching these babies during the day too long can actually work against you to get them to sleep in longer stretches at night. They might simply get one less feeding a day which means even more waking at night!
Another tough combination is when the milk feeding is smaller than what a baby can consume. For example, your baby can take a 6-7-ounce Formula bottle but you are offering 5 ounces every 4 hours. Your baby might be easy-going and won’t complain but now has eaten 4-5 ounces less during the day than they were capable. You might then have an extra night feeding.
On the other hand, some babies are super easy. They eat every 3-4 hours and maximize their milk intake which means less waking at night. These parents often don’t have to decide whether to feed on schedule or demand. It just works naturally!
How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Longer at Night
The key to helping your baby sleep longer at night is to maximize how much milk they drink during the day. They will wake less at night for feedings if you find the point at which they will drink the most milk at one time without overeating (and spitting up).
For example, if your baby is capable of drinking 5 ounces of milk but they are sometimes only drinking 3 ounces, you are likely feeding them too often during the day. This can work against you and promote snacking. Your baby might be more likely to need more night feedings due to this.
Believe me, if your baby is waking every 2 hours at night and is older than 2 months old, most likely they have a sleep association with breastfeeding or a bottle and it has nothing to do with hunger.
Feeding on demand works a lot of the time but there are a few cases when a baby will eat every time they are offered. If it has been less than 3 hours since their last feeding, ask yourself if your baby might need a change of scenery or activity rather than a feeding. Don’t assume all fussing is due to hunger. They might be trying to communicate something else.
On a Personal Note:
Both my boys ate every 2 hours during the day for several months. They were both exclusively breastfed 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!).
And a 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). My view about cry it out and sleep training, in general, is not that it is absent parenting in all cases. 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 foods as options.
My eldest son snacked a lot, too, taking 2 ounces and then another 2 ounces an hour later (or nursing one side and then the other an hour later). 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, all on his own. My older son continued to eat rather often and got cranky when he was hungry. His afternoon snacks were close to the size of a whole meal. My younger son snacked a lot less than his older brother. 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 guys 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 their 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 choose one or the other based on how it may or may not affect their nighttime sleep. Babies thrive on routine and the schedule can be as loose or strict as you make it.