Should I wake my baby for feedings?

As commonly passed around pieces of advice go, “never wake a sleeping baby” is about as common as it gets, but is it always true? New parents are also told that newborns need to feed regularly – in the first few weeks of life, some healthcare providers recommend feeding as often as once every 2 to 3 hours. On the other hand, other common advice recommends feeding on-demand. But if your newborn is sleeping too much to start demanding to eat very often, where does that leave you?

When to wake a sleeping baby

It’s true that, like all rules, “never wake a sleeping baby” has exceptions, and the main exception is the first two weeks or so of life. Newborns often lose a little weight soon after they’re born, and in those first few weeks, their bodies are busy trying to gain that lost weight back, so they can start growing at top speed.
  • Early on: Unfortunately, babies’ sleep cycles aren’t always aligned with their growth needs yet. In the early weeks, if babies are sleeping through feeding times, there’s a good chance their healthcare providers will recommend waking them to feed, at least until they’ve gotten back to their birth weight. Some healthcare providers recommend only waking babies to feed during the day, and allowing them to feed on-demand at night, especially after the first few days or weeks of life. Others recommend waking babies to feed on a regular schedule, around the clock, if they’re not waking and demanding food on their own. It really depends on how much the individual baby weighed at birth, how much weight a child has lost, and any specific health concerns that might affect them.
  • If they are losing weight: Babies are generally great self-regulators who know better than any doctor how much food and sleep they need, but there are times when their instincts are off and, even after those first few weeks, they might not be getting all the nutrients they need. If a healthcare provider is concerned that a baby isn’t growing at a healthy rate, he or she might recommend a feeding schedule to bring that weight and growth-rate up, even if it means interrupting sleep to do it.
  • During illness: Another time when it might be important to wake a sleeping baby to feed, even after those first few weeks, is during an illness. Illnesses can increase the need for fluids, and while sleep is extremely important for healing, so is making sure they aren't getting dehydrated, and that they are getting any medication they might have been prescribed on schedule.
  • Sleep scheduling: Parents who are sleep training or feel strongly about having a strict sleep schedule might also choose to wake their children if they start napping at an unusual time of day, or fall asleep too soon before bedtime. In these cases, though, it’s important to note that babies who usually follow strict schedules, but start drifting off early, might be fighting an illness, or might be experiencing a growth spurt.

For many families of babies and toddlers, sleep can be hard enough to come by that cutting any of it short can feel unthinkable, but there are a few instances where a little early-waking can lead to even more healthy sleep later.

  • Neville M. Blampied, Jacqueline M.T. Henderson, Karyn G. France, Joseph L. Owens, “Sleeping Through the Night: The Consolidation of Self-regulated Sleep Across the First Year of Life.” Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics , October 2010. Web.
  • Elizabeth LaFleur. “Should I wake my newborn for feedings?” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, April 28 2015. Web.
  • Delyth Purchase. “Sleepless nights: New research finds babies should wake at night.” Swansea University. Swansea University, July 6 2015. Web.
  • “Do I need to wake my baby for feeds?” Australian Breastfeeding Association. Australian Breastfeeding Association, August 2012. Web.
  • “Newborn-Sleep Patterns.” Stanford Children’s. Stanford Children’s Health, 2016. Web.
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