Hunger, Feedings, and Sleep

baby eat sleep associationAs a new parent, I am sure that at some point you were told to feed your child right before they go to sleep in order to help them sleep longer. I find it unbelievable how commonly this myth is presented on a daily basis.  I too was given this information when I became a mother, and remember trying to time my son’s daily intake of rice cereal right before we put him to bed. It never worked like everyone said it was going to, and now I realize how silly it was for me to even have expected it to.  This is one of the reasons I became a Child Sleep Consultant, to help teach other parents about the facts, so they can avoid the common sleep myths.

Sleep is driven by our brains, not our stomachs. During a full night’s sleep, babies as well as adults, shift from light sleep to deep sleep causing slight awakenings during this short transition. This shift in sleep phases is not related to the amount of food in our stomachs, instead it is a natural occurrence that is part of the sleep process. The brain, not the stomach, makes arousals. Please don’t confuse arousals from sleep with hunger. In fact, a feeding given at night time will act in opposition to your body’s ability to stay asleep.

Extra nutrients ingested at night will stimulate your child’s digestive system, which should ordinarily be relatively inactive during the night.  The overall result is that many important biological rhythms that are closely tied to the ability to sleep are disrupted.

Eat/Sleep Association
Many parents that I work with have unintentionally created an eat/sleep association for their little one. This means their baby only falls asleep while nursing or drinking a bottle, as a result when the baby awakens in the middle of the night they think that they need to eat in order to fall back to sleep. The process of breaking this habit is grueling, which is the reason I motivate expectant parents to prepare themselves beforehand so that they do not have to go back and correct this sort of behavior.

If your child is used to being fed often during the night, she is likely to wake up hungry. She will eagerly nurse or take her bottle, but she has simply learned to eat on this schedule and does not actually need food at these times. This learned hunger then becomes a trigger for extra waking’s. Her sleep at night won’t consolidate into long periods, but like the sleep that occurs in the daytime, it will remain as mere naps between waking’s and feedings.

The Biological “Eating” Wave
This is not a scientific term, however it helps my clients think of eating in a similar way to understanding their child’s sleep. By now you have heard me refer to children’s biological sleep waves in many of my posts. The same way there is a window for sleeping; there is a window for eating.

Most toddlers tend to “graze” throughout the day, going from snack to snack. Even as infants, some babies do this with their bottle if they are not on an eating schedule. Although grazing is common, it is not ideal. A child’s window for eating occurs after his sleep period has ended. For example, an infant waking from a nap should be fed a bottle immediately after they wake and are brought out of their room, not before they go to sleep. If old enough, after the bottle, go straight to the high chair for solids.

In toddlers, the same idea applies. Sit them down for breakfast after they wake in the morning, no need to go straight from the crib to the high chair, but make an effort to begin feeding them within 15 minutes of their waking. Depending on you toddlers napping schedule and where they are in the transition process, it is sometimes hard to figure out their ideal eating window.

If you child has a full lunch and then goes down for their afternoon nap, that is great. If still transitioning from two naps to one, sit them down for a meal/snack when they wake from each nap. This is when they will do their best eating. Although most parents have their baby sit at the dinner table to eat with the rest of the family, they are most likely to snack during this time, don’t get frustrated if they are not eating a big dinner before going to bed. Concentrate on getting their nutrients in them after they wake up in the morning and after their nap. The rest of the day, make sure they are given plenty of fluids and are often being offered snacks.

Suckling vs. Hunger
This is a tough one to decipher for the new parent. The goal is to feed your baby when they are hungry and soothe them when they are sleepy. Learning the difference is often half the battle.

It is essential to remember that the point of feeding is to take away the hunger, not to put your child to sleep. Most nighttime feedings should be in the range of four to eight ounces. Giving more than eight ounces is unnecessary, if the goal of the feeding is only to satisfy hunger, and feedings of less than four ounces usually reflect a habit of sucking more than they do true sensations of hunger.

In a two parent household, it is a good idea for Dad to take over the soothing process once the feeding is finished. This idea, referred to as “fathering to sleep,” is what I refer to as the “secret weapon” brought in to get the job done. Getting baby to sleep without giving in and nursing is not an option for Dad, whereas for a nursing mother, it is more difficult to resist. A nursing Mom who is exhausted in the moment will be tempted to give in and nurse just to be able to get themselves and their baby back to sleep as quickly as possible; and as a result, has just rewarded their child’s long process of protest with a feeding. Babies can also smell Mom’s milk which causes them to put up more of a fight than they would if Dad was handling the soothing at this point.

My New Parent Tutorials are a great way to prepare expectant parents for these types of situations, and especially poignant for the father to learn how, and when to take over and remain consistently involved in soothing their child.

Ferber, Richard. Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. London: Vermilion, 2013. Print.

Weissbluth, Marc. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A Step-by-step Program for a Good Night’s Sleep. New York: Ballantine, 2005. Print.