You’re sitting admiring your sleeping baby, taking in her tiny nose, her adorable little breathing, the way she still smells so delicious, feeling like your heart could explode with love for her, when it hits you —
She’s been sleeping a really long time. Like, a really long time. Actually, now that you’re thinking about it, how long has she been sleeping? It’s probably been well over three hours hasn’t it?
Now, you’re in the predicament that many new mothers face, the exact one that they’ve heard caution against so many times: should you wake a sleeping baby if that baby needs to eat?
Newborn babies and sleep
Before we get into the answer, let’s talk about the importance of sleep for newborns. As you probably already know, newborns sleep a lot. In fact, for the first 12 weeks of their lives, newborns sleep an average of 16 to 17 hours out of every 24 hours. Unfortunately, as you probably also know, there are no guarantees that any of those 17 hours will align with the same hours that you are sleeping, nor will they necessarily be consecutive hours in a row…
Regardless of their duration, however, during those 18 hours of sleep, some very important work is going down on newborn-land. More specifically, the majority of their growth and development is happening while they sleep, so it is important to let newborns get as much sleep as they need.
On the flip side, it’s also important for your baby to get the nutrients that he or she needs to continue that growth and development. And for some babies, especially those who may be premature, have special needs, or be struggling to gain weight, sticking to a pretty strict feeding schedule may be especially important.
So…should you wake a sleeping baby to sleep?
Now that we’ve successfully established that both newborn sleeping and newborn feedings are of equal importance, we come to the million-dollar question: should you wake your sleeping baby to eat?
The answer is, it depends. Whether or not you should wake up a sleeping baby to eat depends on a variety of factors, such as if you are breastfeeding or formula feeding, if your baby has any special medical needs, and how your baby is developing.
Type of feeding: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that if your newborn is exclusively formula-fed and is sleeping longer that four to five hours at a time regularly, you should wake your baby up and offer him or her a bottle. Breastfed babies tend to eat more frequently than exclusively formula-fed babies, so a breastfed newborn will need to eat every two to three hours. However, the AAP does recommend that mothers do not feed breastfed babies on a strict feeding schedule, but instead follow an “on-demand” feeding schedule, which simply means following the baby’s cues and signals and feeding the baby when he or she is hungry.
Following the baby’s signals can be difficult if that baby is sleeping, however, so you will need to consider the whole picture: is it an occasional longer nap or is your baby consistently sleeping through feedings? Are your breasts never fully emptying? Does your baby seem to be struggling to gain weight? A missed feeding here and there is no big deal, but if there is a pattern of missed feedings, you may have to encourage your baby to wake up more frequently to eat.
- Special needs: The one exception to an on-demand breastfeeding schedule is for newborns who have any special medical needs. Babies with any medical conditions, such as heart defects, will need to stick to a more strict feeding schedule to ensure that they are getting the calories their bodies need.
Tips for waking a sleeping baby
If you have a sleeping baby that you need to wake up for a feeding, here are a few tips you can try:
- Remove your baby’s socks and try tickling their feet. Nobody likes cold toes, even babies!
- Unwrap your baby if he/she is swaddled—the goal is to make sure your little one isn’t too comfy.
- Activate the rooting reflex. Newborns have a rooting reflex to help facilitate feedings, which means that if you touch their cheek near their mouth, they will automatically turn their mouth to try to eat. Try gently activating the rooting reflex by placing your nipple or a bottle’s nipple near the baby’s mouth.
- Take your baby’s shirt or onesie off—I know it sounds terrible, especially if your baby is all warm and cozy, but if you really need to wake them up, this one usually works. Take their shirt off and gently rub their chest to wake them up.
Overall, for a baby without any special medical needs who is developing appropriately, there is no need to panic about one or two missed feedings here and there. Babies, like adults, may have some extra sleepy days (I mean, who couldn’t use a nap right now, right?) and the occasional missed feeding is no big deal.
If your baby starts to miss feedings regularly, however, or is difficult to wake, or has any issues with growth or development, you will want to speak with your doctor to ensure that your baby is on a proper sleeping and feeding schedule.