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Babies: When Should You Feed Your Baby?

Updated on July 13, 2011

There are several things to consider when determining when to feed your baby.  Probably the most important consideration is whether you intend to breastfeed, formula-feed, or offer a combination.  Which option you choose will alter the conditions for when you feed your baby and how often.

When do you feed your baby?  Obviously you feed your baby when your baby is hungry.  The first sign of hunger from a newborn can be observed through your baby’s “root reflex”.  This is a baby’s reflex to open his (or her) mouth whenever an object contacts his (or her) cheek.  Sometimes the reflex is unmistakable – for instance, when a newborn makes frantic attempts to latch onto your breast even with your shirt in place.  Other times, the reflex is quite vague and requires some parental interpretation.  Even if the reflex is vague, you will find that your baby will eagerly suckle from the bottle or breast when it is offered.

Failure to respond to the root reflex may drive a baby towards a more vocal method of communicating hunger.  Patricia Dunstan, author of “The Secret Language of Babies”, believes that all babies, within their first three months, make the specific sounds that communicate to their carers when they require something – food, diaper change, need to burp, etc.  The sound for hunger is “neh”.  Dunstan has conducted studies on hundreds of babies from all cultural backgrounds and claims that the sounds are the same for every baby.

Even if you do not recognise the “neh” sound for hunger, you may find that with time and experience, you will begin to understand your baby’s own personal signs and signals which are unique to him (or her).  Mothers eventually develop a sense for what their babies require through the close interaction and bonding between mother and baby.  Even if you find yourself unable to interpret your baby’s cues, there’s always good old fashion “trial and error”. 

Crying is a baby’s ultimate method for communicating a need.  Following a simple check list can help you determine what it is that your baby requires.  If your baby is crying, pick him (or her) up.  If your baby is still crying, check the diaper and change if necessary.  If your baby is still crying, offer to feed, and so on.  Through the process of elimination, you will eventually discover what your baby has been crying for.

Formula-fed babies are usually fed according to a schedule.  Because it can be determined how much has been consumed, it is easier to schedule feedings for bottle-fed babies.  For instance, these babies may be fed every four hours.  Breastfed babies, on the other hand, need to be fed on demand because milk production follows a “supply and demand” production.  For breastfed babies, therefore, it is even more important to be able to recognise the signs when your baby wants to feed.

There are several methods you can use to help you determine when to feed your baby.  You can use one method or you can take a combination approach.  If you are new to the parenting role, experiment and you will eventually find the method that suits you and your baby best.

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