You're able to sleep through the night without eating, so why can't your baby? This is a common question among new parents. We want to be able to fill them up on breast milk or formula through the day so everyone can get some sleep, but unfortunately it doesn't work that way with young babies. So, why do babies wake up hungry at night?
Babies' tummies are tiny and they can only hold so much breastmilk or formula. Because of this, they need to be fed every few hours in young infancy and that causes them to wake up hungry in the middle of the night (often multiple times). A baby who is hungry will rarely go back to sleep until they've been fed.
Here we'll explore why babies wake from hunger during the night as well as other reasons why they might be waking. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if your baby is waking out of hunger, habit, or simply for comfort.
Why Your Baby Wakes Up Hungry
When your baby is brand new, you expect that they will wake up to feed in the middle of the night. The nurses even tell you that you should wake your baby up to feed them every 3 hours if they don't wake up on their own. Not only that, but everyone warned you ahead of time about the lack of sleep you'd be getting.
But what about older babies? Often parents assume that after a couple of months a baby should be capable of sleeping through the night, but that's actually really rare. Here's why.
Babies are small and so are their tummies. In fact, a one-week-old baby can only hold about 1.5 - 2 ounces of milk in their stomach. Even at one month of age they still can only hold around a maximum of 2.5 ounces of milk (about the size of a large egg).
Yet, according to betterdoctor.com, a one-month-old needs 17-24 ounces of milk. So if you do the math, that means your baby needs to be fed around 9 times per day, give or take. Unfortunately, you can't just squish all 9 feedings into 16 hours so that they can sleep a full 8 hours for the rest of the 24-hour block. It doesn't work that way like it does for adults (since our stomach can hold so much more). Waking to eat 3-4 times per night at the age of 1 month is very common.
As your baby gets closer to 2 months of age, they'll be able to take in around 3-4 ounces of milk per feeding, but they'll still need to feed around every 3 hours. Longer stretches between feeds at night may be possible, with night feedings going down to 2 or 3.
As your baby's first year continues, they'll be able to take more milk in at a time as they grow. However, it's important to remember that they are still very small and can't take in near the amount of food at a time that you could. Considering this will hopefully help you understand why ta baby waking up in the middle of the night out of hunger is very normal (even sometimes through their first birthday.)
Though hunger is the number one reason why your baby would wake up in the middle of the night, it isn't the only reason.
Other Reasons Your Baby Might Wake Besides Hunger
It's true that your baby needs to eat in order to get enough calories and get the nutrition they need. When hunger strikes, a message is sent to your baby's brain, and this causes them to cry out for you until this need is met.
But Kelly Mom makes a good point that there is more to the feeding experience for a baby beyond hunger or thirst. Babies also associate this time with being held in your arms, which for them is where they find security and comfort. And of course, you want to be with your baby and cuddle them, but this time in your life is also very exhausting and you want sleep.
So here are some other reasons why your baby might wake beyond hunger:
- They are between sleep cycles. Whereas you and I will wake between cycles and go right back to sleep without even remembering waking, babies have a much harder time going back to sleep independently. This is especially true if they're hungry.
- They want to be with you. You are your baby's favorite person. So even if they aren't hungry, they may cry out until you come and get them.
- They're teething. Cutting teeth can cause discomfort to a baby's gums which can affect their sleep. When babies are uncomfortable, they cry. And being tucked up close with mom or dad (or nursing) can ease the discomfort.
- They're going through the 4-month sleep regression. In this article, we discuss how the 4-month sleep regression is actually a good thing in that your baby's sleep is maturing. They are essentially going from having two sleep cycles and moving to the 4-5 that they will continue to have into adulthood. This means that they are suddenly waking up more often than usual and having a hard time going back to sleep on their own.
- They're practicing milestones. A baby's brain and body is on overdrive - they're learning so much everyday. Sometimes this causes your baby to practice her newfound skills in the middle of the night (not ideal!)
- They're having separation anxiety. Once your baby develops object permanence around 8 months of age, they realize they really miss you! Babies want to be close to their parents and it can be scary being all alone and wondering where you are.
With so many reasons why a baby might wake up, it can be difficult to determine what they need when they can't tell you. Let's talk next about how you can determine if your baby is waking out of hunger or if it's something else.
Signs Your Baby Really IS Hungry at Night
New babies sometimes cry a lot, and it can be hard to know why. But the truth is that most of the time their cries are coming from a place of hunger. Yes, even if you just fed them an hour ago. That's normal!
With such small stomachs, babies can digest their milk very quickly. Early on it will probably feel like you're feeding your baby practically all day long. During the first 6 weeks, don't worry about getting your baby on any sort of schedule - just feed them on demand. If they cry, feed them! Chances are this is exactly what they need.
But what about when they get a little older - say around 8 weeks? By then your baby has likely fallen into a feeding routine, and you know how long she can go between feeds. If we consult our article, "Newborn Sleep Patterns and Schedules for the First Year," we see that this is about the time you also want to make nightly bedtime routines a focus as well. Creating a comforting routine that prepares your baby to sleep, such as using a calming music and putting them in a weighted wearable blanket, will really set the stage for your baby to learn how to become an independent sleeper when they wake during the night.
With that said, even the best sleeper won't go back to sleep if they are hungry. And at 2 months of age, waking up to eat is still necessary. Many babies will continue to need to eat in the middle of the night through 9 months of age or longer. So how do you know if your baby is actually hungry?
If you answer "yes" to even one of these questions, it's very likely that your baby is waking out of hunger. Go ahead and look them over and then we'll discuss:
1.) Is your baby younger than 9 months old?
2.) Is your baby taking a full feed when you offer breast or bottle during the night?
3.) Does your baby go back down easily and sleep for another solid 3-4 hour stretch before waking again?
4.) Does your baby continue to cry and fuss even after you pick them up and hold them during the night but don't feed them immediately...and maybe even get worse?
5.) Does your baby show the typical hungers signs of lip smacking, turning toward your breast, or sucking on their fists?
First of all, sleeping through the night for babies under age 1 is a lot less common then you would think, and at 9 months or younger especially, it's not realistic to think you wouldn't need to feed your little one at least once. We discuss more about when you can expect your baby to sleep through the night in this article. But what if they're waking more than once? Then we recommend looking closely over the other questions and seeing if you're answering them with a resounding "yes!" If so, your baby is hungry and you need to feed them.
Signs Your Baby Is Waking From Something Besides Hunger
Here's the easiest way to pinpoint a baby waking out of habit. Your baby wakes up and cries and cries until you come and get him or her. Once you get them, you offer your breast or a bottle and they either refuse it or fall asleep mid-feed. You put them down again, and they wake again a short time later. And the cycle repeats. This is the point that parents may find themselves waking up multiple times a night for a baby that isn't truly hungry.
If in doubt, you should ALWAYS feed your baby. But after a few nights, you'll probably be able to determine if it's really hunger that's causing your baby to eat.
This chart shows the typical amount of feeds a baby might need during the night depending on their age:
2-3 months old: 2 - 4 feedings per night
4-6 months old: 1 - 3 feedings per night
6-9 months old: 0 - 3 feedings per night
9 - 12 months old: 0 -2 feedings per night
If your baby is breastfed, it's likely that your little one will require the number of feedings at the upper end of the range. And note that between 6 and 12 months of age, zero feeds may be typical for some babies, but needing to eat is also just as normal. It's important not to compare your baby to anyone else's, as every baby will require a different amount of feedings at night.
If you answered "yes" to one or several of our questions above, and your baby's number of feeds falls within the normal range from our chart, you can be confident that your baby is waking out of hunger.
However, if your baby is requiring feeds beyond what's listed as typical (not just once or twice, but night after night) it's time to figure out your next best steps.
So should you go to your baby if they aren't hungry?
First off, we want to make it clear that if you don't have a problem going to your baby every time they wake up to hold and snuggle them, then that is completely your prerogative. You will not spoil your baby by holding them too much, and if that's how you and baby function best then you should continue to do what's best for your family.
If you want to go to your baby every time they cry, you certainly can!
However, most parents can only put up with this for so long before they become thoroughly exhausted. And sleep is important for everyone. It's one thing to be waking up hour after hour in those first couple of months (it's par for the course after all), but once you know that your baby is capable of sleeping longer stretches, perhaps close to through the night, most parents are ready to help their baby learn to become an independent sleeper.
So, if you want your baby to start being able to fall asleep on their own, you need to start weaning them off of their nightly visits with you. This is done through sleep training, and it can be done through a gentle approach.
In our article, "A Helpful Guide for Sleep Training Your Baby," we discuss the best time to begin sleep training, which is the point your baby is capable of sleeping about a 7-8 hour stretch without waking. And by capable, we mean without waking from hunger.
If you follow this suggestion, then the perfect time to sleep train will probably fall in the 4 - 6 month time frame (but perhaps a tad earlier or later depending on the baby).
Why sleep train?
Sleep training will give your baby the tools to help them learn to fall asleep on their own. And this doesn't just mean when you lay them down at bedtime, but also that they can put themselves back to sleep between sleep cycles. The nice thing about having a sleep-trained baby is that you know if they DO wake up, something is probably off. Perhaps they're sick, teething, or need an extra feed or two due to a growth spurt.
If you have a baby who is waking beyond the times that they are just hungry, we recommend you check out sleep training article stat so you can all start getting the sleep you need. Babies who wake up hungry need to be fed; babies who wake up because they want to see you can benefit from learning to become an independent sleeper.