Is My Baby Waking From Hunger?

by | Feb 6, 2019

When babies wake up crying in the middle of the night, it’s tough to determine whether it’s because they need to eat or because they just want to see a parent back in the room. You know your baby better than anyone and I imagine you can tell when something needs to be addressed based on the decibel level, intensity, pitch, and duration of your little one’s cries. But having said that, if your baby is waking up seven or eight times a night and insisting that you come in and help her back to sleep, that can have a serious impact on everybody’s sleep, including hers.

Many babies develop a dependency on nursing, rocking, sucking, and holding in order to fall asleep at bedtime which they then need again in order to connect their sleep cycles throughout the night. If your baby is waking up several times throughout the night, how can you know whether they are waking up out of true hunger or whether they just need a little help falling back to sleep?

Here are some things to consider when trying to solve this prevalent parenting riddle.

Is your child under 6-months old?

Up until about the six-month mark, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, they haven’t started solid food yet, and both formula and breast milk digest fairly quickly, so there’s a good chance they’re going to get a case of the munchies during the night. 

This isn’t the case for all babies, of course. Some infants sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age and then pig out during the day. But generally speaking, you can expect to be summoned for a nighttime feed up until your child is around six months.


Is your child eating enough during the day?

Once your child is capable of sleeping through the night without a feed, you need to make sure they’re getting the calories they need during their daytime hours. The best way I’ve found to make this switch is to throw in an extra feed during the day, or add an ounce or two to each daytime bottle. Six months and above is also a great time to start introducing solid foods. The good news is, your child’s body will typically adjust over a night or two and begin taking those additional calories during the daytime once they’re no longer getting them at night.

A quick but super important reminder: Before attempting to make any changes to your child’s feeding schedule, talk to your pediatrician. Nighttime sleep is awesome, but calories are essential. If your little one is underweight or not growing as fast as they should be, it might not be a good time to wean off of night feedings.

Is your child falling asleep quickly when you begin feeding them overnight?

I’m sure you’re familiar with this scenario: Baby starts crying 45 minutes after you put her down so you go in and offer a feed which she, of course, eagerly accepts. She takes less than an ounce before passing out and leaves you sitting there wondering whether or not she is satiated enough.

If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your little one is feeding for comfort instead of hunger. Babies who are genuinely hungry will usually eat until they’re full, whereas those who are feeding for comfort tend to drift off pretty quickly once they’ve gotten a dose of what they’re looking for.


Does your child sleep for a nice long stretch after feeding?

If your baby does take a full feed at night, she should be able to sleep for at least 3-4 hours afterward. An average sleep cycle for babies around 6-months old is somewhere around 45-60 minutes. If she’s waking up within this time frame after she has eaten, it’s likely that she’s dependent on the sucking and soothing actions of your feeding routine to get back to sleep.


Will your child go back to sleep without a feed?

Falling asleep when you’re hungry is tough, regardless of your age. Your brain recognizes hunger as a priority and will stay alert until the need is met or until you’re exhausted enough that the need to sleep overrides the need to eat. If your baby is really hungry, they usually won’t fall back to sleep very easily until they’ve been fed. If they nod off after ten or fifteen minutes of crying, that’s a pretty reliable sign that they were just looking for some help getting back to sleep and not actually in need of a feed.


Does your child fall asleep independently?

Here’s the key question. The cornerstone of the whole equation. Can your baby fall asleep on their own?

If you can put your baby down in her crib while she’s still awake, leave the room, and have her fall asleep without any help from you, a pacifier, or any other type of outside assistance, then those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that she genuinely needs something more from you when she wakes up at night. Parents I’ve worked with tell me all the time what peace of mind they have knowing that when their babe cries out in the middle of the night, something is actually wrong.

Determining whether your baby is hungry at night is obviously a complicated situation. Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we often end up paralyzed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is immeasurably easier to walk once you’ve taught your baby the skills they need to fall asleep on their own. Once the habit of feeding to sleep is broken, you can feel much more confident that their requests for a nighttime feed are out of necessity and not just a way of grabbing a few extra minutes with mom.

As always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, I’ve got you covered.

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If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!

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