Should You Wake a Sleeping Baby to Eat?

By Kathryn Walsh
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Middle-of-the-night feedings do nothing for your under-eye bags but are crucial to your baby's health and well-being during her first few months. Her tiny stomach can't hold much food at first. After she's past her first few months, your baby can go long stretches without needing to eat, and soon you'll all sleep through the night. Until then, waking your baby to eat may be a two- or three-times-per-night necessity.

Baby's Nighttime Nutritional Needs

A breastfed newborn needs to eat every two to three hours during the day and should go no longer than four hours at night without a feeding, according to the Healthy Children website. These regular feedings are necessary for her growth and help you establish a regular milk supply. A formula-fed newborn needs to eat every three to four hours and should be fed every four to five hours during the night, the site says. After her first month, your baby's needs will likely change. Pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shu tells WebMD that she doesn't advise waking a baby past her first few weeks, unless the baby is sleeping more during the day than during the night.

Setting a Schedule

By the time your baby wakes you with her crying, she's already agitated -- crying is a late-stage sign of hunger. This agitation can make her fussy, which often makes feeding her more challenging than it would be if she were calm. Instead, try setting alarms to wake yourself every three hours or so. If she doesn't show any interest in feeding, advises the Healthy Children website, try again in 30 minutes. You quickly get a sense of how often your baby gets hungry during the night, which allows you to get both you and your baby on an efficient sleep-and-eat schedule.

Wake Up, Sleepyhead

Your baby doesn't understand that daytime is playtime and nighttime is for sleeping. Help her learn those distinctions by keeping nighttime feedings dark and soothing. When you must wake her to eat, look for signs that she's in REM sleep, when she's easiest to rouse. Signs include fluttering eyelids, clenched fists and limbs that aren't limp, advises the Ask Dr. Sears website. You may even spot hunger cues including sucking motions while she's asleep. Try holding the baby to you, skin-to-skin, or tickling her lower lip with your nipple or the nipple of a bottle. Stroking her cheeks, palms and feet may also help wake her.

Letting Sleeping Babies Lie

Every baby's needs are unique, so deciding when to stop waking her for feedings is something to discuss with her pediatrician. He can help you determine whether your baby is growing at a healthy rate or if you need to give her multiple night feedings. Even if you don't wake your baby to eat, she may still wake up on her own looking to eat, or she may not: by 3 months, most babies sleep six to eight hours in a row at night, according to the Kids Health website. Letting her sleep through the night won't impact your milk supply since she's already been nursing for months. Your body will adjust to the new schedule.

Nighttime Needs for Preemies

If you baby was born prematurely or has other medical issues, ask your doctor for specific recommendations for handling nighttime feedings. Premature babies do not always cry, so you may not be able to rely on her to let you know when she's hungry during the night. Your preemie may also require supplementation to her regular breast milk, such as breast milk fortifiers or special preemie formula, according to the Mayo Clinic website.