Truth: Overfeeding Be Causing Sleepless Nights

Aug 9, 2022

Many (if not most!) new parents have had moments where older parents – we’re talking people who haven’t parented a newborn in 30+ years – give somewhat less-than-helpful parenting advice.

“You know, when I was a baby, my dad rubbed Jack Daniels on my gums to alleviate teething pain.” (Yeah, not gonna do that…)

“Oh no! You forgot her socks!” (It’s 102 degrees outside…)

“We put our babies on their tummies to sleep, and they turned out just fine.” (There’s a strong link between stomach sleeping and SIDS for babies who can’t yet roll over…)

And perhaps the most frequent:

*baby cries* “Oh! It sounds like he’s hungry! You better get on that! He’s too skinny – you must not be feeding him enough!”

Babies cry to communicate things, and those things generally fall into these common categories: hunger, tiredness, a need to poop/be changed, or general discomfort/pain. Sometimes babies cry because they aren’t sure what’s going on with their body, or they might just be overwhelmed and need a snuggle.

There’s a lot of guesswork that goes into figuring out what each cry means, especially for new parents, but luckily, scientists have done a lot of research on what different cries mean. This website has an excellent article on the different cries, complete with sound clips.

When you’re just starting to figure out your baby, you probably follow a troubleshooting routine that looks something like this:

  1. Offer food
  2. Change diaper
  3. Burp
  4. Rock/Shush

Even with all the potential reasons, people generally assume that a crying baby is a hungry baby. But before you whip out the breast or start warming a bottle at the first squawk, check for hunger cues from your baby. Some common hunger cues include:

  • Clenched fists
  • Licking lips or making smacking sounds
  • Sucking on hands or rooting around
  • Moving head around quickly from side to side
  • Breathing quickly or being fussy
  • Trying to scoot down into a nursing position
  • Pointing at food
  • Getting excited when food is present

Looking for hunger cues can help cut out some guesswork and result in a happier baby in less time.

On the flip side, knowing your baby’s full cues is just as important as knowing when they’re hungry. Our society puts a lot of pressure on parents to have a chubby baby. For some reason, people tend to think a plump infant is a well-cared-for/happy infant, but that’s not necessarily the case. Babies – like grown people – come in all different shapes and sizes. If you’re concerned about your baby’s weight, that’s something your pediatrician or a certified lactation consultant can help with. What’s important is to feed your baby until they’re full and not force them to drink more for the sake of drinking more. Some common fullness cues include:

  • Clenched fists relaxing
  • Pushing food away
  • Closing mouth and turning away from bottle, breast, or spoon

It’s particularly easy to overfeed your baby when they wake up in the middle of the night. We get it: you’re tired; the baby is tired; you just want to get everyone back to sleep as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, overfeeding your baby can lead to sleep problems that cause even more crying (from both of you!).

When you offer food at the first peep in the middle of the night, you could inadvertently create a crutch that makes it so your infant won’t sleep through the night. Don’t get us wrong – newborn babies need a nighttime feeding, but between four and six months of age, most babies should sleep through the night. Offering food every time your baby wakes up can lead to indigestion, reflux, general discomfort, or a reliance on food to fall asleep.

The thing is, babies, like adults, naturally wake up throughout the night. As adults, we are so good at rolling over and returning to sleep that we don’t usually remember waking up. Babies, on the other hand, haven’t had enough practice getting themselves back to sleep yet, and they often need help getting settled again.

A few things you can try before or instead of offering food in the middle of the night include:

  • Pausing before picking up: Sometimes babies aren’t even fully awake when they make noise during the night. Waiting a moment before picking up your child gives them a chance to settle down independently.
  • Giving gentle pats without picking up: Patting your baby’s bum without picking them up can provide reassurance while helping them learn to self-soothe.
  • Replacing a pacifier: If your baby uses a pacifier, simply replacing it can help them settle down again to sleep.
  • Offering a stuffie: Once your baby is over a year old, offering a stuffie can ease a lot of nighttime anxiety and help them go back to sleep on their own.
  • Practice during the day: Practicing putting your baby down when they are drowsy but awake can help break the cycle of feeding a baby to sleep.

If you’ve tried everything and still can’t figure out what’s keeping your baby up, a child sleep consultant also has a lot of special tools and training to help your child sleep through the night. There are sleep training methods for every parenting style, and a pediatric sleep coach can help you find what works best for you and your baby. Don’t hesitate to contact one of our knowledgeable team today!