Is your baby waking because he’s hungry? (Spoiler: nope.)

One of the first things I often ask my clients before working together is: what do you know about sleep?

Sometimes they’ve read up and have some foundational information, but more often than not the answer is “um… my baby and I need it and we’re not getting it?”

So if you find yourself shocked by what I’m about to share, know that you’re in good company — most of my most successful clients felt the same way.

Ready?

The first thing to know when understanding sleep is that sleep is controlled by the brain.

One sec — let me make that a little bit more obvious.

Sleep is controlled by the brain.

And that means that we fall asleep because our brains make us fall asleep, and wake up because our brains make us wake up.

…which means that we (and our babies) don’t wake up because they’re hungry.

And if that makes you scratch your head or want to yell at me – put your hand down for a sec and take a deep breath.

And allow me to explain.

The Journey to Sleep

Though most of us tend to feel like we flip a switch and fall asleep (especially those of us who are chronically sleep deprived!), anyone who notices themselves falling asleep will see that it takes time. (About 10-15 minutes for a tired, but not overtired, person who knows how to fall asleep independently.)

During that time, as we give our bodies and brains the space to relax and fall asleep, our brains release melatonin, our brain waves change, and we move from conscious thinking into the subconscious.

Falling asleep is a journey, one that takes time, and one that is – as you may have noticed from all my little ‘brain’ references above – controlled by the brain

Your Perfect Little Newborn

Your perfect little newborn can’t do much.

Eat.

Poop.

And sleep.

Yes, your perfect little newborn can sleep. (In fact, your perfect little newborn can actually fall asleep all on his own without being rocked, nursed, swaddled or anything. But that’s for another time.)

But your little newborn has a little brain, and, in some ways, is more fetal than infant. During the “fourth trimester”, as the 3 months of the newborn stage is often called, your newborn’s brain is not yet mature enough to have any consistency with sleep.

During the first half of the newborn stage, she won’t even know the difference between day and night, and sleep will be all over the map.

But even once the circadian cycle begins to kick in around 6 weeks, your baby will still wake up at night. Not because she’s hungry (though she’ll probably need nighttime feeds in order for her to eat enough times during a 24 hour period), but because her brain can’t keep her asleep.

Yep, you read that right: your newborn is waking up at night because her brain can’t keep her asleep.

The Brain Controls it All

When Sir G was 4.5 months old, he spontaneously slept 12 hours at night. We were at the pediatrician the next day for his 4 month well visit, and, inevitably, the doctor asked how he’s been sleeping

“Well,” I replied, “I’ve been trying to fit his nighttime feeds back into the day so he can drop night feeds, and I’ve been aiming for 7-8 feeds during the day — but yesterday he only ate 6 times, and it was actually the first time that he slept 12 hours without waking!”

“Great!” he replied.

“But he only ate 6 times!” I protested.

“Mrs. Sadoff,” the pediatrician said slowly, “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that sleep is controlled by the brain.”

And, of course, he was right — on both counts! The brain controls our sleep – regardless of how much we did or didn’t eat – and it is completely possible for a baby to sleep through the night even if he is hungry.

It is also completely possible for a baby to wake up at night, ostensibly “to eat”, even if he doesn’t actually need to eat.

But sleep isn’t the only thing that the brain controls; the brain also controls the regulation of blood sugars.

What that means, in regular people talk, is this: We have a caloric need that we must meet over a 24-hour period in order for our cells to all stay alive. But, of course, we don’t eat every hour during the day; we (ideally) should be having appropriate quantities of fats, proteins and carbs that release their energy in different time frames, and our brains regulate those blood sugars over the hours that we’re not eating (i.e. asleep).

But the great thing about babies is that they are getting that perfect balance of fat, protein and carbs (and hydration) – which means that their brains can regulate those nutrients to a steady level over an extended period of time.

It’s not about the food

So if your baby’s not waking up because of food, then why is she waking?

  • Habit. If she’s used to waking at a certain time (such as for a dreamfeed, or if she’s been waking for that 3 am feed for months already), then, sometimes inertia will mean that she continues to wake for it.
  • Eating patterns. If he’s getting most of his calories at night, then he’s not going to be hungry during the day. Which’ll mean he needs most of his calories at night. You can transition those feeds over to the day, or choose to to make a clean break (depending on how old your child is, etc.)
  • Eat-sleep association or prop dependency.
  • Other brain or hormonal things (such as overtiredness, inadequate bedtime routine, etc.)

And – remember: just because your baby is sleeping through the night, that may not necessarily be a sign that he’s getting the food he needs (such as Sir G who was what some LCs call a “happily starving” baby).

The bottom line is this: if your baby’s waking up at night, please – PLEASE! – don’t give him rice cereal before bed to “keep him from being hungry.”

Instead, it can be helpful to take a look at what’s going on and ask yourself: what might be causing him to wake up during the night? And how can we prevent that from happening?

Not sure how to troubleshoot? Download my free guide on the 5 Habits You Didn’t Know Your Baby Needs to help you ALL sleep well!

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