is baby waking up hungry dad is asleep while feeding baby

Is baby waking up hungry?

As a Baby Sleep Consultant, exhausted parents ask me this question a lot. It is an extremely important question that parents need to have answered. Our babies are completely dependent on us for getting the food they need, so making sure we feed them when they are hungry is important! The challenge is answering the question ‘is baby waking up due to hunger or due to something else?’

You know your baby better than anyone. The decibel level, intensity, pitch and duration of your baby’s calls help you, as the parent, tell when there is something baby needs. But having said that, if your baby is waking up seven or eight times a night and insisting that you come in and feed her back to sleep, it can have a serious impact on everybody’s sleep, including baby’s. Often parents wonder why their baby seems to need to eat so frequently at night when this is not the case during the day.

Why does this happen?

The actual sleeping part of sleep is something very natural for our bodies, but the falling asleep part of sleep is something we learn how to do. The learning process is something you can think about as the way you figure out what helps you easily make your journey to sleep, or how you help prepare your body and brain to go from being awake to drowsy to asleep. 

We are all very attached to our routines and strategies for falling asleep. Think about it, you probably have some specific steps you go through each night as you get ready for going to bed and falling asleep. You likely don’t consciously think about it as “I’m helping my body and brain on the journey to sleep”, but if there is a night when things don’t go the same as normal, you may have a harder time getting to sleep. 

If the only way babies have ever, or at least primarily, fallen asleep is while nursing, eating, sucking, rocking or some combination, they can learn that this is the way they reliably know how to get to sleep. Sleep is important for our bodies and brains. Tired babies understandably want to use the method they have learned is the easiest and most successful at getting to sleep.

We all wake up at night

None of us go to sleep and sleep all night long. It is just not how our bodies work, however, as adults we typically don’t remember these 4-8 wake ups per night because they are so brief. Plus, we have had many years practicing getting back to sleep on our own. 

Some babies learn the way they get to sleep is through nursing, eating, sucking, rocking, etc. When these babies experience brief wake ups during the night, they realize they are no longer nursing, eating, sucking or being rocked. This change alarms them. Then they are fully awake, calling out for you to help them recreate the situation that they know will help them easily get back to sleep. 

confusing for parents to try to determine if baby is hungry or waking up for other reasons

Why this can create confusion for parents

For parents it can be very confusing because your baby wakes up, cries and is content, settled and goes back to sleep if you feed them. It is easy to see why parents can quickly jump to the conclusion of ‘my baby must be hungry and once they got some food they were able to get back to sleep.’ Because feeding a hungry baby is of utmost importance. 

When it seems like your baby is hungry more often at night than during the day and not really eating well at each of those wake-ups, it is often time to look at how baby is falling asleep at bedtime. This can help us determine if hunger or habit is the primary factor in these frequent wake ups.

How to determine if baby is waking up hungry

Here are a few things to help you determine the answer for your baby to this oh-so-prevalent parental riddle – Is my baby waking up hungry or due to habit?

Is Baby under six months old?

Up until about the six-month mark, many babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, they probably haven’t started solid food yet. Both formula and breast milk digest fairly quickly, so there’s a good chance they’re going to be legitimately hungry during the night and need some nighttime calories to help them continue to be healthy and grow and develop on track.

This isn’t the case for all babies. I’m sure you’ve heard of the infants who sleep through the night from a much earlier age, but this isn’t necessarily something you can expect. Generally speaking, you can expect to be up for a nighttime feed up until babies hit about six months.

Is Baby eating enough during the day?

Once baby is capable of sleeping through the night without a feed, you need to make sure they’re getting the calories they need during the daytime. The best way I’ve found to make sure this is happening during the transition is to add in an extra feed during the day or add an ounce or two to each bottle throughout the day. Typically, about 2 days after baby is not getting calories (or as many calories) during the night, parents see a marked increase in daytime consumption.

(Nighttime sleep is awesome but calories are essential. If your little one is underweight or not growing as they should be, it might not be a good time to wean out night feedings. If you have any concerns, please chat with your pediatrician.)

Is baby eating like they are hungry at each of these nighttime feedings?

If baby is falling asleep after taking an ounce or nursing for only a couple of minutes, this may be a sign that your little one’s feeding because that is what they know will help them easily get back to sleep instead of hunger. 

Babies who are genuinely hungry will usually eat until they’re full, which typically looks similar to their feeds during the day. Whereas babies who use feeding as their strategy to get to sleep tend to drift off pretty quickly once the situation that they know helps them easily fall asleep is recreated.

Does baby fall asleep independently?

As I mentioned above, looking at how baby is falling asleep, especially at bedtime can be one of the biggest clues to the hungry versus habit questions. So, ask yourself – Can baby fall asleep on their own?

If you put your baby down in her crib while she’s still awake, leave the room, and baby falls asleep without any help from you (depending on age), without a pacifier, or any other kind of outside assistance, then those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that she genuinely has a necessary need that needs to be met when she wakes up at night and is crying or calling out for you.

is baby waking up hungry or due to habit

It is a complicated question

Determining whether your baby is waking up hungry at night is obviously a complicated situation. Calories are vital but so is sleep. Experts often consider healthy sleep just as important as a healthy diet, especially for children. It can be common to feel a bit paralyzed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is immeasurably easier to walk once you’ve helped your baby learn the skills they need to fall asleep on their own. 

Once baby has learned how they can get themselves through the journey to sleep on their own, they are able to more reliably tell you when they are waking up because they are hungry or have a need that needs to be met. This is opposed to baby telling you that they woke up briefly, became understandably alarmed when they realized things are not the same as when they went to sleep and they need help to have that situation they know so well recreated in order to get back to sleep. 

This common parenting puzzle of ‘is baby waking up hungry’ can be a confusing question to answer. Getting some guidance to help you feel confident in baby’s sleep skills so you can feel confident knowing you are meeting their needs (feeding and otherwise) during the night can be a game-changer for you and your family, just like the many families I have worked with previously.

Are you unsure about the ‘hows’ to teach essential sleep skills and what is best for your family? Then, I’ve got some good news! You can schedule your free evaluation call and we’ll get those questions answered for you so you and baby can sleep well. 

Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!


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