There are a ton of charts and calculators online claiming to help you figure out how much you should be feeding your baby. Unfortunately, they are all missing one fundamental message: your baby is an individual. He probably doesn’t adhere to static feeding rules any more than you do. For instance, I tend to eat barely anything during the day, but I chow down like a Sumo wrestler at night. Although this runs contrary to all advice given by nutritionists (I think the breakfast like a king, lunch like a pauper, dinner like a peasant concept is pretty well-accepted across the board), this seems to work for my body and my metabolism. Likewise, there are some kids who eat more, some who eat less, some who eat a ton and then throw it all up because they have god-awful reflux, and some who comfort eat due to stomach distress. The latter two might need some medical help (or a formula switch) to remedy their issues, but my point is that not all babies play by the Baby Rulebook.
I hesitate to give a formal “guide” on how much you should feed your baby, because I believe that for the most part, parental instinct is superior to over-generalized prescriptives. But I know there’s a need for non-judgmental practical advice, so here goes.
Before talking amounts, let’s just go over some basics:
1. You cannot overfeed a newborn. You cannot make a newborn fat. Yes, I know there have been recent studies linking rapid weight gain in infants to later obesity, but come on, people… how many scrawny people do you know who were chubbilicious babies, and vice versa? Newborns do not have the brain power to binge eat. They eat when they are hungry (there is one exception to this, which I will talk about in a second, so bear with me), and when they are full, they will pull away from the bottle or, when they are teeny tiny, they may just unlatch. I’ve heard the warnings about formula feeding parents forcing their kids to finish the last few ounces while the poor babies flail and choke helplessly, but the fact is, any baby who is strong enough to to do the “breast crawl” or handle breastfeeding can make it pretty clear when they are done with a bottle. Just watch your baby – if she pulls away or suddenly doesn’t seem interested in eating, that means she’s done. Doesn’t matter that the feeding guide that came with your formula says she should be eating 3 oz in a sitting; if she acts finished after 1.7 oz, that’s all she needs at the moment. On the other hand, if she downs the 3oz you prepared and is still screaming at you or sucking desperately at the nipple, offer her another few ounces (this is where a formula pitcher or even just a salad-dressing mixer comes in handy – if you make like 10 oz at a time, you can offer smaller amounts off the bat and give only an ounce or tow more at a time, so as to avoid wasting formula.
2. As for knowing when to feed your baby, that’s a matter of learning his hunger cues. All babies have them; the most common ones are “rooting” (moving his head from side to side or opening his mouth wide like a guppy, especially when you touch his cheek or chin); shoving his hands in his mouth; sucking on whatever is in reach; crying (this is what many baby sites deem as a “too-late” hunger cue, implying that if it gets this far you must have been negligent in some way); fussing; or my favorite, sticking out his tongue.
3. As your baby gets older, hunger cues aren’t always so easy to read – babies lose the rooting reflex at a point, and sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s hunger-related fussiness versus plain old fussiness. This is where it’s easy to fall into the trap of giving a bottle for comfort and not hunger. It’s unfair, because one wonderful perk of breastfeeding is that you can pop a baby on the breast at the first cry and no one thinks anything of it; do the same with a bottle and you’ll be warned against obesity and blamed for your child’s emotional eating problem in 20 years. Fun times. Professionally, I know the right thing to say is that giving a bottle to calm a baby is probably not the best idea – in fact, I kind of think giving the breast to calm a baby would have many of the same negatives. But personally, as an ardent supporter of Path of Least Resistance Parenting, let’s just say I would never fault someone for giving a comfort bottle when their baby is screaming bloody murder in the car or whatever. Sometimes, you just need to calm the kid down, and if other things aren’t working… well, do what you need to do. As long as it isn’t a daily habit, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
4. Okay, remember I mentioned there was an exception to the stuff I’ve been saying? That exception is if the baby has an underlying GI or health issue which may make eating challenging in any number of ways. For example, if your baby has an allergy or intolerance to formula, or severe reflux, the “classic” presentation is that she will refuse the bottle altogether, and show signs of failure to thrive. But sometimes this can manifest in what’s known as comfort feeding. Imagine that you’re a baby, and your stomach is constantly hurting or your esophagus feels like fire. And then imagine that when cool, smooth liquid is running down your throat, and you have that lovely sucking motion going on…. not all babies are going to make the association that it’s eating which is causing all the pain to begin with.
Reflux is tricky too, because some kids may eat a ton and throw up the majority of it; it might appear that they are over-eating, but really they’re keeping down the bare minimum of daily calories. Confusing matters further, kids who do eat too much for their little bellies will simply spit up the extraneous amounts; some might assume this is reflux – and a vicious cycle can begin. But I’ll tell you a little story: my Fearlette was consuming about 32 oz of thickened formula (fed in frequent, small amounts) a day. About 15 oz of that was getting regurgitated on a daily basis. She was the scrawniest baby you’ve ever seen, sometimes scarily so. But to read the “how much should they be eating” charts, you’d think I was doing everything wrong.
Bottom line? There are exceptions to every rule. I’ll say it again – every child is an individual. It’s far more helpful to focus on getting to know your kid- her quirks, her cues, her special needs – rather than knowing what the experts say you “should” be doing.
I know you’ve probably skimmed to the end of this novella and are probably wishing I’d get to the point – FFF, just shut up and tell me how much and how often should I feed my baby, dammit – so here you go. The basic rule of thumb for formula feeding:
For every pound your baby weighs, s/he should be eating approximately 2.5 oz of formula. So if she is 10 lbs, that’s 25oz per day. Most kids top off at 32 oz; the general consensus is that anything between 16-32 oz per day is in the realm of “normal” (god, I hate that word). In terms of how often, most sites/experts advise every 2-4 hours in the beginning, with longer stretches at night as the baby grows. Again using our 10-pounder as an example, this might mean five 5-oz bottles per day. But some kids are snackers, so this could also mean feeding a baby every 2-3 hours with 2-oz bottles. Just depends on the kid.
Let’s assume you have the most textbook child on the planet, though; in this case, your best bet would probably be to distribute those 25 oz primarily in daytime hours, assuming the 10- pounder is at least 8 weeks old and can go longer stretches at night. You might do a 5oz bottle at 9am; 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, and then top him off with 3 oz around 9pm to help him go through the night, with probably another 2oz around 5am. Figure out the schedule that works best for your baby; my point is just that many kids will only be able to handle a specific amount at a time, and at certain times they may want more than others. Many breastfed babies do what is called “cluster feeding”, meaning they have numerous short nursing sessions all clumped together in a short time period. Formula fed babies can do this too (obviously), by drinking smaller amounts every hour or so. (If she usually takes a 4oz bottle every 3 hours, you can do a 3-oz bottle an hour before bedtime and then another 2 right before she goes down.) Some claim that this allows babies to sleep longer stretches at night; kind of the equivalent of carbo-loading before a marathon. I did find with both my kids that if they did some cluster feeding around bedtime, they slept better. Could have been a fluke though.
During growth spurts, you may find that your typical amount isn’t enough. I think that as long as you have spent time getting to know your baby’s hunger cues, you can feel pretty safe just feeding on demand. But also keep in mind that kids can get might ornery during these growth spurts, so it is possible that they will cry a lot and it won’t necessarily mean they are hungry. Do whatever it is you do to comfort them, and if it doesn’t work, let them eat. Babies don’t play mind-games: if something else is wrong, your baby will probably keep freaking out despite your sacrificial offering of Enfamil. If she’s hungry, she’ll eat and hopefully sleep… well, you know.
Like a baby.
Whatever the hell that means.