The FFF Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Formula Feeding: How much and how often should you feed your formula-fed baby?

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.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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19 thoughts on “The FFF Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Formula Feeding: How much and how often should you feed your formula-fed baby?

  1. LOL at “sleeping like a baby,” that's always driven me nuts (do people mean “sleeping lightly and howling ever couple of hours to eat?) Thanks for the reference info too. I remember being worried about knowing how much to feed and when to feed and the guidelines for (predominantly) BFing are quite similar re: watching for cues. I was paranoid about introducing a pacifier but friends who had had babies, mainly BFers but some primary parent dads also weighed in to say that if the baby was truly hungry they would shove the pacifier aside indignantly and keep howling. So it looks like you just wait for the squeaky wheel and grease it. Mine wanted to feed all the time though, probably to soothe his reflux/milk protein allergy related discomfort.

  2. When my babies came home from the hospital, we'd been told to feed them every 3hrs, and to wake them up if they were asleep. They were small late-term preemies and tended to prefer sleeping to eating. Anyway, after 2wks, they would wake up on their own approximately every 3hrs…we'd hear fussing, and feed them. They got so regular that we could prepare a bottle before they “asked” for it.

    At any rate, we bottle-fed (formula) on demand, and the amounts of time they went between feedings was normal for their age. They always would stop eating if they were full. They are almost 3 now, and are nowhere near obese. They barely make the 5th percentile.

    I guess we were lucky in that we had easy-going babies, who did not have reflux, were not especially fussy and both were generally in sync for eating and sleeping. But yeah, I'd second the “feed on demand” and if you are unsure give a smaller amount, which you can always increase if the baby still seems hungry.

  3. Thanks for the great info, however, I think the weight ratio thing only applies until they start eating solids. At that point from what I've understood and experienced thus far, they actually start taking less formula per day.

  4. I just have to say that giving my boy a bigger bottle at bedtime to tide him over until morning never helped him sleep better. In fact, it often seemed to make him sleep worse– he's so body-sensitive that he would stir and often wake up every time he peed in the night, or he'd leak and then be up because of that. Either way, he'd be up more often at night if I fed him more at bedtime. As he got older, the idea of getting more to eat close to bedtime seemed to have almost nothing to do with how well he slept. Sleeping and eating were not connected for him at all after a certain point. I just want to point out that with some kids, nothing seems to make poor sleep any better. Sadly, some kids, like mine, are just rotten sleepers no matter what you do.

  5. LOL, I am glad I haven't really followed those charts as my six month old hasn't followed them at all. At a week old, he was eating 4 oz of formula every 3 hours. Before I introduced solids at 4 months, he was eating a full 8 oz bottle 5 times a day. He slept through the night starting at 2 months and has since.

    Now he eats an 8 oz bottle only twice a day and a 6 oz bottle twice a day. Three of his four feedings have solid food. I'm trying to add a little bit more solid food every week or so and to slowly cut back on the formula, although I know that's still supposed to be the main source of nutrition the first year. I am hoping to cut all his bottles back to six ounces and eventually get rid of the bed time bottle but that's a little while off yet.

    No surprise though–little guy isn't so little; I'm guessing he's between 22 and 23 pounds and about 30 inches long at six months (we go to the doc for his wellness checkup on Monday). But it's genetic–his daddy was a much bigger baby; over 20lbs at 3 months old and you wouldn't know it looking at him now.

  6. P.S. Can I request a discussion/guide from those in the know on how to wean toddlers off bottles? Because yes, we still do a bedtime bottle, because I'm a wimp.

  7. Considering my son just gave up his nightime bottle on his third birthday, I will not be the one to lead that discussion. 😉

  8. Dayyum. You know how to make a girl feel better. Mine just turned two and we started the switching-to-cups thing at 16 months but went back because of a few illnesses/long parental separations that had him freaked out, and I was too wimpy to do it while single parenting.

  9. I call what we do “extended bottlefeeding” lol. Basically I let my babies ween themselves from the bottle. I decided that if I were breastfeeding that I would (probably) be letting my babies self ween from that – so why not bottles? My babies have bottles as a cuddle/comfort thing (I know some don't or for many reasons parents decided to get rid of the bottle as soon as they can and, as always, every parent has to do what is right by them and their own families – I support them 100%)
    My 1st weened himself by about 2 years – he just decided he didn't want one anymore. My 2nd is currently 28 months and still has a night bottle and sometimes a bottle before his day nap. My 3rd is 17 months and has a bottle when she wakes, one before nap and one before bed. I am in no rush and neither are they. I wrote an article about “bottle rot” and “extended bottle feeding” which seems to be the main reason that formula feeding parents are warned to ween their babies off the bottle early. Here is a link: https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=188968441181117

    As per every parenting decision my view is do what feels right for you and your family 🙂

  10. We weaned ours off at 16 months. He was waking up every two hours to eat, wouldn't go to sleep without a bedtime bottle, and ultimately was 1) becoming iron deficient from so much milk and 2) having problems with his new little teeth – and it's not like we could brush after every bottle over night! We don't CIO, so we weren't comfortable just letting him holler for it alone. So we did a modified Dr. Greene nightweaning (modified for bottles)…we would do anything to comfort him when he hollered for his bottle, but not give him one – only a sippy of water. The first two nights, we spent most of the night rocking and singing to a VERY PISSED OFF kid. The third night, he slept through the night and never asked for a nighttime bottle again.

  11. I'll add my 2 cents, even though we are not 100% weaned off the bottle, and my data set is pretty small (a single, very easygoing child).

    First of all, he pretty much weaned himself off daytime bottles. Our daycare provider reported that he just wasn't interested in the bottle. They were lucky if they could get him to stop playing long enough to eat have a couple of ounces, and then he would get squirmy and go right back to playing. The only time he would take a bottle was right before his nap, and even then he would go down for his nap without it. This was just before he turned 1, so after a week or so of it, we said to just start giving him cow's milk in a sippy at meals and snacks and offer the bottle if he seemed to need it. They sent home all his bottles a couple of weeks ago because he hadn't had a bottle in about 2 months.

    At home, we still gave him a bottle a couple of times a day (first thing in the morning, before naps, and at bedtime). He would usually drink them for us, but if we swapped it out for a sippy cup of milk or water, he didn't seem to mind, and sometimes he would go down for his nap just fine without anything to drink. So we started actually coordinating things and replaced the morning bottle with a sippy of milk and the naptime bottle with a sippy of milk or water if he seems thirsty. He's now down to one bottle at bedtime, and we have switched that from formula to milk.

    Our plan for ditching the bedtime bottle is actually to do it while we are traveling for Christmas. We are just taking sippy cups with us, so he won't have any choice but to have a sippy cup of milk at bedtime. He has done it once or twice before, so I'm not too worried. Our bedtime issues will be more the product of the excitement of traveling than of the milk delivery container. Then when we come back, we just won't go back to the bottle. I'll let you all know if thing go horribly awry, but he has never cared how he gets his food and drinks, and he seems to like trying new food and drink delivery methods (he's currently very interested in spoons and forks and trying to drink and pour things from regular cups).

    Now, if anyone wants to talk pacifier weaning, I will be all ears. We are starting that process once we get home, and I can almost guarantee it will not go smoothly. He is very, very attached to his “na na.” We want him to do without it more often because he is much more verbal when it's not in his mouth. But I think it will be many, many months before it is gone for good.

    • Hi just thought I may be able to offer some advise for getting your little one off the “nana”! My son was extremely attached to him “binky” and our experience wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. So this is what we did, I choose to use only one “binky” all of the time! And considering that we had several of them around I had to do a clean sweep of all the nooks and cranny’s of the house! LOL Also my son had his baby teeth starting to show slightly, which actually worked in my favor. And the reason why is because if you only have one pacifier to give them and they have teeth (even stubby barely coming in ones) they will soon start to tear the pacifier. My son never happened to swallow any of the pacifier thankfully because he didn’t get that far before he didn’t want it anymore!!! We did go through a few tantrums where he didn’t want it and I could tell he was waiting for a new one but I just stuck to my guns on it and after a couple times of us giving him the same one that he didn’t want; he finally threw it out of his crib!!! And that was that he no longer needed one nor did he want it! “Mission Accomplished”!!!!!

      I hope that my experience might offer some help to you or anyone else on here! I know that every child is different but every experience that I’ve read about helped in someway or another!

  12. Thanks all – mine is still doing the night bottle though he's fine with a sippy in day care and in the day. He goes to nap without a bottle for his teachers but insists on one from mama, sigh. Doctor at two-year appt yesterday recommended diluting and ultimately replacing bottle with water to get him out of the habit of a bedtime bottle, and I think I'll try the milk in sippy as part of quieting down ritual before brushing teeth.

    I guess every baby has a crutch for soothing, ours had no use for a paci after age six months but man, does he go back to needing rocking when he's been sick.

  13. I am so glad to have seen this! I love how you reiterate the fact that babies are INDIVIDUALS and to trust your baby! When I had my first baby, I was obsessive about amounts because every resource I found said that a baby must eat 2.5oz for every pound and my baby never met that guideline. She was a refluxer too but even when that was resolved from her medication, she still never ate the “normal” amounts. We never went higher than 5 oz and she didn’t even hit that mark until 10+ months. But man oh man did she love solids! But I would get so panicked and anxious. I googled everything and it seemed like my baby was not eating enough. Eventually the doctor got it into my head that I have to stop because she was gaining weight and producing good diapers.

    Fast forward to the present, I now have a 1 month old who does 3oz of formula in a sitting. But sometimes she only wants half the bottle and falls asleep. I felt myself getting worried again after she only took 1.5 oz for 2 feedings in a row. I left her with my hubby and took a shower since I was getting stressed. I was falling back into the cycle of worrying. Especially since a friend had acted so shocked that she just hit the 3oz mark, telling me that her baby at this age was already eating over 4oz and only ate 2-3 the first week of life. But of course my baby made up for her two small feedings the next day by eating quite frequently that day.

    This article has totally rested my mind. And I thank you for that. I see so many women on my babycenter birth forum who have babies the same age as mine, freaking out that their kid only eats 2.5 oz at a time and they have “only” eaten 15oz all day. Only? For me and my baby that is a normal intake! I think more women need to be exposed to articles like this that really push the fact that babies are their own people and they don’t always follow guidelines. They know what they need to eat and we need to trust them and stop googling everything. My mom told me that in her day there were never these guidelines. You just fed your baby and let them run the show. She never counted ounces. It is much more stressful this day in age.

    Thank you again for some awesome and accurate information! If any of my mommy friends approach me with worries about how much their baby is eating, I will surely lead them to this site.

  14. Thank you for this post. My son was born 6 weeks early and stayed in the NICU an extra week because nobody could figure out why he was sucking on his bottle for a half-an-hour but not actually drinking anything. Finally one of the nurses noticed that he was blocking the nipple with his tongue, either by pulling his tongue to the back of this mouth or by pulling it up to the roof of his mouth. Then, he started eating better, but they sent him home with the warning: “if he doesn’t eat for you, he’s going to end up back here.” So my husband and I are moderately obsessed with the quantity of his feeding. His feeding varies by day, but now it’s regularly well over the amount they say to stop- in the last 24-hours he’s had 37 oz (Similac Strong Moms App). But on the days where it drops, usually because his gums are hurting him, I freak out about how if he doesn’t start eating more he’s going back to the NICU. But then, I freak out because they say not to let them eat more than 32 oz in a day, and I can’t take him crying after sucking air out of his bottle because he’s still hungry.

    • I think that all that we really need to understand is just like us are babies are INDIVIDUALS and with that no two are exactly the same! Some babies like my son (who is now 5 years old) but when he was just a baby and first came home from the hospital, he slept the whole night without waking for a bottle for the first week that he was home! I was scared at first because they tell you to wake your child up and make them feed. My opinion is this my son tended to be the same kind of eater that I was while I was pregnant when he first came home. He tended to drink several small amounts of formula during the day and slept the whole night through, then he ate about 5oz for his first bottle in the morning. Following several bottles throughout the day which were between 3-4oz feedings. After his first week home, this feeding/sleeping schedule changed and he started to feed “HIS NORMAL” amounts. He would only wake once in the middle of the night to feed and wouldn’t fuss or wake until morning! I know that from my friends and family that I was very lucky to have such a great baby! And being that I am now a God Mother I know for a fact that you’ve got to just learn that each child is different and also to just “TRUST YOURSELF’. We have way to many resources these days, which yes can be extremely helpful but at times can cause us to also be a little “CRAZY” about what is right and wrong! I say believe in yourself and if you have the maternal instinct in you than you will be fine. Take others opinions and advise as it is ment to be an opinion. That does not mean that your child should be exactly as your BF child is. And remember your child knows and can sense when your tired, frustrated and irritated. So trust me on this if nothing else as long as you stay calm, cool and collected your child will not have as many tantrums or fits! I know that this may sound crazy but it is true. If they have a crying fit and they are not hungry or wet, etc and you let their fit get the best of you trust me that it only gets worse. The calmer that you can be the sooner your child will as well! I hope that my opinions will assist any new mothers and seasoned mothers!!! 🙂

  15. Pingback: Infant Feeding Today Pt. 4: Help With Mixed Feedings | Mama's Milk, No Chaser

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