by Melissa Clark Vickers
September 13, 2011
First of all, it’s important to remember that babies have needs around the clock—sometimes at inconvenient times. Your baby may be waking at night because he’s hungry, thirsty, lonely, cold, sick, needing a diaper change, or just missing you. Offering a bottle will only directly satisfy the first two needs. It’s important to learn your baby’s hunger cues—and then watch your baby, not the clock, for signs of hunger day and night.
Unlike the breastfeeding baby, who can control how much he gets at the breast by changing the way he nurses, a baby who drinks from the bottle will often drink for as long as the bottle nipple is in his mouth. A bottle-fed baby doesn’t learn self-regulation as easily as the breastfed infant. A breastfed baby actively removes milk from the breast, while a bottle-fed baby takes on a more passive role. A recent study in Pediatrics found that the more frequently a baby was fed by bottle in the first six months, the more likely he would empty a bottle or cup in the second half of the first year. The tendency for bottle-feeding parents to define a feeding by whether the bottle is emptied, combined with bottle-feeding babies’ inability to regulate their intake, may explain why bottle-feeding is associated with a higher risk for childhood obesity.
When a baby awakes at night and cries, it is true that he may be hungry. In fact, crying is a late sign of hunger (although babies cry for other reasons too). Babies will first smack their lips or suck on their fists as a sign of hunger. Before offering the bottle, you may want to check his diaper, offer comfort in the form of rocking or a back rub. If your baby’s skin feels warm, check his temperature to see if he has a fever. If your baby appears hungry, try offering just an ounce or two of breast milk or formula (whatever is normally in the bottle). Hold your baby close and watch for signs that he has had enough (turning away from the nipple, falling asleep, spitting up milk, and generally acting fussy).
The younger your baby is, the more likely it is that he’s hungry and needs to be fed. A 2-month-old, for example, still needs to feed 6–8 times in 24 hours, and it is likely that at least one of those feedings will fall in the middle of the night.
It is important to remember that as babies grow, their needs change often—even daily. Just because your baby requested a midnight snack last night doesn’t mean he needs one tonight or every night. Your baby will let you know when he needs to be fed—or if something else is needed.
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