Hunger or Habit?
Before we begin this article, I think it’s important to talk about some key terms here. Most moms I talk to mistakenly use the term “sleep training” and “night weaning” synonymously. You see, sleep training by definition, is the process of helping a baby learn to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Night weaning is the process parents have to take to gradually allow their babies to eat more during the day and sleep more at night. It IS possible to sleep train your baby without night weaning, especially for younger babies. Besides the most commonly asked question of “are we just going to leave my child to cry?” (safe to say that I would never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do to my own little Nico and Eva), the next common question is “what if my baby is waking up because she’s hungry in the middle of the night?” (also safe to say that if your child is hungry, we definitely don’t want to leave her hungry).
As parents, when baby wakes up at night, our instinct is to go in and feed them, rock them, and replace that pacifier and do what we need to, to get them sleeping again. Sometimes, what’s really happening is that we are unintentionally creating the habit of feeding to sleep. Just to show you just how true this can be, I want to share a little story with you. I promise you, this isn’t a judgement. It is simply a story of a desperate mother, just trying to get her baby to sleep.
I chat with lots of different moms with similar stories like mine. They were all exhausted from waking 4-5 times a night, just to give their little babe milk, so that she can fall back asleep. One mom, walked up to me, stated she needed help, and proceeded to tell me that her toddler wakes up every single night, eats a cucumber at 2 a.m. and goes back to sleep. This story shows us that, sometimes its truly the habits we create for ourselves and not because our baby is waking out of hunger, but just for a little something to go back to sleep. Sometimes that little something is cuddles with mom, replacement of a pacifier, 1 oz of milk, or even a midnight cucumber snack.
So, how do we determine whether it’s a hunger wake up, or just simply out of habit?
Let’s chat about it. Here are a few things to consider when you’re trying to make this determination.
• IS BABY UNDER SIX MONTHS OLD?
Up until about the six month mark, babies typically wake up for one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, some haven’t started solid food yet, and 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, obviously. Some infants sleep through the night without a feed from a very early age and then eat a lot during the day, but generally speaking, you can expect to be up for a nighttime feed up until baby’s hit about six months.
• IS BABY EATING ENOUGH DURING THE DAY?
Once baby 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 add in an extra feed during the day, or by adding an ounce or two to each bottle throughout the day. This is also a great time to think about introducing solid foods. The good news here is that baby’s body will typically adjust over a night or two to start taking in those additional calories during the daytime once they’re no longer getting them at night.
Just a quick but SUPER IMPORTANT reminder… Before you attempt to make any changes to your baby’s feeding schedule, talk to your pediatrician. Nighttime sleep is amazing 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 out night feedings, so again, have a talk with your doctor.
• IS BABY FALLING ASLEEP QUICKLY WHEN YOU FEED THEM?
I’m sure you know this scenario. Baby starts crying 45 minutes after you put her down, you go in and offer a feed which she eagerly accepts, she takes about three quarters of an ounce, then promptly passes out in the middle of things.
If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your little one’s 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 what they’re looking for.
• DOES BABY SLEEP FOR A GOOD STRETCH AFTER FEEDING?
If baby does take a full feed at night, she should be able to sleep for around 3-4 hours afterwards. An average sleep cycle for babies around the 6 month mark is somewhere in the 45minute – 1 hour range, so if they’re waking up around that long after they eat, it’s likely that they’re dependent on the sucking and soothing actions of your feeding routine to get to sleep.
• DOES BABY FALL ASLEEP INDEPENDENTLY?
Here is the biggest question of all. The most important point of my conversation with most of the moms I work with, this right here. 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 baby fall asleep without any help from you, without a pacifier, or any other kind of outside assistance, then those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that she genuinely needs help with something when she wakes up crying at night.
Determining whether your baby’s hungry at night can be tough. Calories are vital but so is sleep, so we typically end up going back and forth about the importance of the two. 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.
And, as always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, I’ve got you covered.