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Is Your Baby Waking Up Hungry or Out of Habit? How to Tell and What to Do?

Updated: May 30, 2023

We’re all willing to do whatever it takes to ensure our babies are properly nourished.

But as anyone who’s been through this glorious journey of motherhood will tell you, kids are shrewd. They’re unimaginably clever. They will find ways to get what they want and repeat them relentlessly.

Which is not their fault. They’re just working off of instinct. They know what they like, and at a young age, they like Mum. A lot. I’m talking all, Mum, all the time! You are to your baby what Pinterest is to middle age homeowners. Too much is never enough. And given that they only have one method of communicating, if Mum’s not around and they don’t think that’s cool, they fire up their lungs and cry.

However, they don’t only cry because they want Mum. They cry because they’re uncomfortable, or because they’ve got a dirty nappy, or because they’re too hot or too cold, and they cry because they’re hungry.

Is my baby waking due to hunger or habit?

So when they wake up in the middle of the night and start crying, it’s tough to determine whether it’s because they need to eat or want to see Mum back in the room. I’m not trying to tell you you shouldn’t respond to your baby’s crying. You know your baby better than anyone, and I imagine you can tell when something needs to be addressed based on the decibel level, intensity, pitch, and duration.

But having said that, if your baby is waking up seven or eight times a night and insisting that you come in and rock them back to sleep, that can seriously impact everybody’s sleep, including theirs.

A lot of babies have developed a dependency on nursing, rocking, sucking, and so on, in order to get to sleep, and it’s not something they can overcome in 15 or 20 minutes. Solving that issue takes you some real work and a firm commitment, but we can talk about sleep training in a minute.

First things first, here are a few things to consider when you’re trying to determine this oh-so-prevalent parental riddle.

Understanding your baby's sleep habits

Babies 6 months old and under

Up until about the six-month mark, babies typically need at least one nighttime feed. Their tummies are small, most 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 compensate during the day, but generally speaking, you can expect to be summoned for a nighttime feed up until baby is about six months.

Transitioning Baby's Feeding Schedule: Adding Daytime Feeds and Introducing Solids

Once babies can sleep through the night without a feed, you need to ensure they’re getting the calories they need during their daytime hours. The best way I’ve found to make this switch is to throw in an extra feed during the day or add a few extra 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, you must ensure your baby is meeting their weight/length gain requirements. Nighttime sleep is awesome, 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, chat with your doctor.

Understanding Your Baby's Feeding Behavior: Comfort Feeding vs Hunger Feeding

I’m sure you know this scenario. Baby starts crying 45 minutes after you put her down; you offer a feed which she eagerly accepts, has a few sucks at the breast or bottle, and then promptly passes out in the middle of things.

If this is happening frequently, it’s a good sign that your little one is feeding for comfort instead of hunger. Genuinely hungry babies will usually eat until they’re full, whereas those feeding for comfort tend to drift off quickly once they’ve had their feed.

Nighttime feeding habits

If your 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 45-minute - 1-hour range, so if they wake 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.

Hunger VS Sleep Associations

Falling asleep while you’re hungry is tough, regardless of your age. Your brain recognises hunger as a priority and will stay alert until the need is met or until you’re exhausted enough that the need to sleep overrides the need to eat. So if your baby is hungry, they usually won’t go back to sleep very easily until they’ve been fed. If they nod off after five or ten minutes of crying, that’s a pretty reliable sign that they were looking for some help getting back to sleep and not needing a feed.

Baby independent sleep

Here lies the linchpin. The cornerstone of the whole equation, this right here. Can your baby fall asleep on their own?

Suppose you can put your baby down in their cot while still awake, leave the room, and have the baby fall asleep without help from you, a dummy, or any other kind of outside assistance. In that case, those nighttime cries are far more likely to mean that she genuinely needs a hand with something when she wakes up crying at night.

Determining whether your baby is hungry at night is a complicated situation. Calories are vital, but so is sleep, so we typically end up paralysed trying to balance the importance of the two. This tightrope is immeasurably easier to walk once you’ve taught your baby the necessary skills to fall asleep independently.

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 Mum.

And, as always, if you’re looking for some help teaching your little one those essential sleep skills, all you need to do is call me.

Richelle Franklin, Parents You've Got This Sleep Expert and Melbourne's top Sleep Consultant from Sleep Right Tonight, wrote this article. Richelle presents at our Starting Solids and Infant Masterclass.

Exhausted mother comforting baby who wakes during the night out of habit or hunger


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