Ask Dr. Marla: Should we ‘demand feed’ our baby?

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We are feeding our baby “on demand”. Sometimes she just doesn’t seem that hungry. Is there a certain amount that babies HAVE to eat to be healthy and stay hydrated?


The term ‘demand feeding’ simply means that you feed babies when they cue you that they are hungry. Typical cues are crying or sucking. This replaces a set schedule of feeding a baby every three or four hours. Demand feeding will change as the baby changes. Often a newborn may have you feeling that you are feeding constantly. The volume of a feed is determined by the size of the baby’s stomach – smaller babies have smaller tummies and therefore are more likely to need to feed more often. In addition, just like us, some days babies are hungrier than other days.

Also, some babies may be sleepier and not cue as often as they should. If a baby is premature, they may not wake up and cry to feed. It is reasonable to make sure that in these instances you wake your baby at the three- to four-hour mark and encourage them to nurse.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that newborns should be nursed whenever they show signs of hunger such as increased alertness or activity, mouthing or rooting. Crying is considered a late indicator of hunger. We consider the time between feeding from the start of one feed – not the end of the feed – to the start of another feed. You will be best equipped to assess your baby’s cues, which could be movements such as squirming or clenching a fist. Demand feeding encourages unrestricted breastfeeding based on these cues. As a general rule, most newborns will nurse anywhere between eight to 12 times in a 24-hour period. This will decrease as they grow.

A recent study found that babies who were fed on demand had higher IQs than those who were fed on a schedule determined by parents. Researchers found demand-fed babies scored five points higher and that was thought to be statistically significant. While a scheduled feed might make you feel more confident that your baby is getting enough, learning your baby’s cues will boost your confidence. When your doctor tracks their growth and development through their weight, head circumference and length, that will reassure you that your baby is getting enough.

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Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2012.

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