During bottle feeding and breastfeeding, it’s relatively easy to tell when a baby is full and content. They’ll turn their heads away from the breast or bottle, spit the extra food out, or fall asleep. But there are a few circumstances where parents can miss the mark and leave their babies overfed or still hungry.
“Sometimes parents will make the [bottle’s] nipple hole wider, so they can feed the baby faster, which can overwhelm them and make them briefly full,” Dr. Linda Palmer, author of the book Baby Poop, told Fatherly. This temporary fullness leaves babies hungry shortly thereafter. As a rule, Palmer says, parents should feed their babies regular amounts of milk or formula once every two hours. Less could leave them hungry, while more could lead to overfeeding. But she says most babies self-regulate quite efficiently.
“Feed ‘on demand’ normally works best,” Palmer says. “Typically, babies will let you know if they are hungry.”
How to Keep from Overfeeding a Baby
- Stop feeding when they seem full. Look for obvious signs such as falling asleep, turning their head away, or starting to spit the food out.
- Follow the kid’s lead. Feed on demand, and make sure that very young babies are eating at least once every couple of hours—but only when they need to.
- Measure fullness with satiety, not completed bottles or jars. While using a single vessel to define the right quantity of food is convenient, a baby’s reaction to the food is much more telling.
- Avoid sugary foods that can lead to overfeeding. Babies don’t need extra sugar in their food, and the deliciousness of it can encourage them to eat more food than they need to be comfortably full.
When babies graduate to solid foods, it is important to apply the same principles and not treat the amount of food in the jar as a measure of how much a kid needs to be full. Parents might be tempted to insist their kid finishes the entire helping of Baby Bean Feast, Palmer says, because the contents of the jar seem like a convenient metric. “Sometimes they don’t need that much, and sometimes they need more.”
Parents often think that their children need to eat more or less than they actually do, which can stem either from dated science that equated plumpness with healthiness or dated ideas about how on-demand feedings teach manipulative behavior. None of this true. “Decades ago, the advice was ‘don’t let the baby rule you’…but today the understanding is that a baby knows when they are hungry and how much they need,” Palmer says.
Not all foods encourage babies to regulate their own feeding, however. As notable physicist Peter Venkman once quipped, “There’s always room for Jell-O.” Sweetened foods can indeed override a full belly, Palmer says, and they are probably best avoided until mealtime routines are properly established. “Babies don’t need additional sugar in their foods,” Palmer says. “But some parents might be concerned that their baby needs more food, so they’ll give them some pudding or something like that.” Unless a physician has said the baby is underweight and they require more food and calories as part of a prescribed diet to get them to maintain a healthy weight, treats and sweetened food can be avoided altogether, Palmer says.
When your baby is feeding on-demand, it’s still important to observe how much your kid is eating. If they are spitting, getting gassy, or showing other signs that they are full but still going back for seconds or thirds at the breast, bottle, or jar, then that signifies that they might need help taking a break. “That is a sign to slow things down, or distract them, do something else, and come back to feeding later,” Palmer says.