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Amid formula shortage, here are tips for knowing when babies should eat

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One of the most common questions new parents have is how often their baby should eat.

This is especially true as parents struggle with the formula shortage and wonder if their babies are getting enough to eat.

The best answer is simple: In general, babies should be fed whenever they seem hungry.

What to watch for

For babies born prematurely or with certain medical conditions, scheduled feedings advised by your pediatrician are best.

But for most healthy, full-term infants, parents can look to their baby rather than the clock for hunger cues. This is called feeding on demand, or responsive feeding.

A hungry baby often will cry. But it’s best to watch for hunger cues before the baby starts crying, which is a late sign of hunger and can make it hard for them to settle down and eat.

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Some other typical hunger cues in babies include licking their lips, sticking their tongue out, rooting (moving their jaw and mouth or head in search of a breast), putting their hand to mouth repeatedly, opening their mouth, fussing or sucking on everything around them.

It is important to realize, however, that your baby may cry or suck for other reasons. Babies suck not only for hunger, but also for comfort; it can be hard at first for parents to tell the difference.

Sometimes, your baby is just reacting to needing a cuddle or a diaper change.

As baby grows

Each baby is different — some like to snack more often, and others drink more at one time and go longer between feedings. However, most babies will drink more and go longer between feedings as they get bigger and their tummies can hold more milk.

Here is a general feeding guide:

  • Most newborns eat every 2 to 3 hours, or 8 to 12 times every 24 hours. Babies might take in only a half ounce per feeding for the first day or two of life, but after that will usually drink 1 to 2 ounces at each feeding. This amount increases to 2 to 3 ounces by 2 weeks of age.
  • At about 2 months of age, babies usually take 4 to 5 ounces per feeding every 3 to 4 hours.
  • At 4 months, babies usually take 4 to 6 ounces per feeding.
  • At 6 months, babies may be taking up to 8 ounces every 4 to 5 hours.

Most babies will increase the amount of formula they drink by an average of 1 ounce each month before leveling off at about 7 to 8 ounces per feeding. Solid foods should be started at about 6 months old.

Overfeeding

Babies are usually pretty good at eating the right amount, but they can sometimes take in more than they need. Infants who are bottle feeding may be more likely to overfeed, because drinking from a bottle may take less effort than breastfeeding.

Overfed babies can have stomach pains, gas, spit up or vomit and be at higher risk for obesity later in life. It’s better to offer less, because you can always give more if your baby wants it. This also gives babies time to realize when they’re full.

If you are concerned your baby wants to eat all the time — even when full — talk with your pediatrician. Pacifiers may be used after feeding to help soothe healthy-weight babies who like to suck for comfort, rather than nutrition. For babies who are breastfed, it’s best to wait to offer pacifiers until around 3 to 4 weeks of age, when breastfeeding is well established.

Most babies will double their birth weight by 5 months of age and triple their birth weight by their first birthday. If your baby is having trouble gaining weight, don’t wait too long between feedings, even if it means waking your baby.

Other indications

A newborn’s diaper is a good indicator of whether they are getting enough to eat. In the first few days after birth, a baby should have two or three wet diapers each day. After the first four or five days, a baby should have at least five or six wet diapers a day. Stool frequency is more variable and depends whether your baby is breastfed or formula-fed.

During regular health check-ups, your pediatrician will check your baby’s weight and plot it on a growth chart. Your baby’s progress on the growth chart is one way to tell whether your baby is getting enough food. Babies who stay in healthy growth percentile ranges are probably getting a healthy amount of food during feedings. If you have concerns or questions, check with your pediatrician.

Dr. Sanjeev Jain is a clinical associate professor of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

He also is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on international child health. For more information, go to healthychildren.org, the website for parents from the AAP.

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