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Written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
16 February 2021

Is your baby waking from hunger?

When a baby wakes in the night crying, it is not always easy to know why. Often parents think that the culprit is hunger. Baby roots fervently for the bottle or breast in the night time, or refuses to go back to sleep until he is fed, which can on the face of it, indicates that hunger was the cause of the wake up.

However even though it may look like it, the truth is that it may not be hunger that causes the waking and crying for your attention in the night time.

A clear illustration of this is the fact that when your baby is a newborn, you expect that she will be up multiple times in the night to feed because her stomach capacity is still small and frequent smaller feeds is the way to go. You're expecting that as she gets older, that stomach capacity will increase, and your baby will be doing longer stretches of sleep and eventually sleeping through the night. But in fact, the opposite happens. Your baby, now older and bigger, is waking up even MORE times in the night. Each time strangely... apparently hungry as she will not go back to sleep until you actually feed her. You are puzzled because, two hours later, she is up again crying for feed.

You start to wonder- is hunger really the cause for these frequent night wakings? What is really going on here?

To solve this riddle, here are the key considerations.

Is the baby younger than 6 months?

Babies might need one nighttime feed until they are about 6 months old, or until their weight reaches about 7 kg. Young babies are prone to nighttime hunger because their stomachs are still developing.

Until around 6 months of age, you can expect to be called for a nighttime feed, though many infants learn to self-soothe and sleep through the night without a feed from as early as about 3 months of age and then pig out during the day.

Is baby being fed well and regularly in the daytime?

The good news is that once a baby stops eating at night, their daytime appetite typically increases within a day or two. And they begin eating more during the day to make up for the lost calories.

An extremely urgent reminder... Talk to your paediatrician before you try to alter your baby's feeding schedule. Sleeping at night is great, but eating enough calories is crucial. Again, consult your child's physician before discontinuing nighttime feedings if he or she is underweight or not developing normally.

Does the baby go to sleep quickly after she is fed?

It's a situation you're familiar with, I'm sure. 40 minutes after you put the baby down, she starts crying, you go in to feed her, and she drinks about 20ml  before she passes out.

If this occurs frequently, it's a good sign that your baby is eating more out of comfort than necessity. When a baby is truly hungry, they will have a good feed, but when they are just looking for comfort, they will usually fall asleep as soon as they have had a nibble.

Will baby go back to sleep if he isn't fed?

If your infant truly is hungry, it will likely not fall back to sleep until you feed it. After five or ten minutes of crying, if the baby falls back to sleep (eg by being carried/rocked to sleep/with a pacifier) without being fed, it's a good sign that they were just looking for some assistance falling back to sleep.

This, however, isn't always a reliable indicator. Because the babies whose favourite sleep prop is being nursed/bottle fed to sleep, may hold out and protest until you give them a feed. This is particularly so with Mum, if breastfeeding is the sleep prop. Babies are clever, and if she knows that you've got her favourite goods, then she may protest even if you are rocking her to sleep, because she knows you have something "better" to offer her.  She might be more prepared to accept being rocked to sleep by Dad, because she knows that's the best option on offer with Dad.

Does baby have independent sleep skills?

This is the most important point. Is your child capable of going to sleep without you?

If she isn't then, any waking could be due to her needing your help (her sleep prop_ to go back to sleep. Rather than actually needing the milk.

If she is a independent sleeper, since she already knows how to go back to sleep on her own, then a waking could be due to genuine hunger.  Teaching your baby to put themselves to sleep independently would be very helpful .

And as always, I've got you covered if you need assistance teaching your child the fundamentals of sleeping well.

Article written by Lavinia
Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant
Based in Singapore
Trained in the Sleep Sense Program

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