Mom sleeping next to her baby.

To Wake or Not to Wake? Understanding the Feeding Schedule for a Newborn

There's a lot of confusion surrounding the benefits of keeping your baby on a schedule, but it's important to consider the impact of "stop waking baby" practices as well. Newborns are unpredictable and are still getting the hang of navigating their bodily functions as well as their surroundings, so trying to stick to a schedule can neglect their needs. While routines are essential for toddlers, rigid schedules are not good for babies. They need flexibility to accommodate feedings, sleep, and bonding with their parents. If you want to put your baby on a schedule, at least wait until they’ve mastered feedings and are on par for good sleep habits. Until then, you’ll probably be conflicted on whether to wake or not to wake your newborn for feedings. Here, we’ll help answer this question and examine the typical feeding schedule for a newborn.

Understanding Newborn Sleep Schedules

Newborns sleep a lot—about 16 to 18 hours in a 24-hour period. Unfortunately for new parents, this sleep is segmented into short bursts that only last a few hours. This leaves a lot of mothers facing sleep deprivation and wondering whether or not their newborns are getting everything they need. Regardless of your newborn’s current sleeping schedule, you should expect to wake them every three hours, regardless of the time of day. This is because newborns have a small stomach and milk is easily digested so they’ll need to eat often for healthy physical development.

Babies don’t usually sleep through the night until they are between 3 months and 1 year, but every individual varies. If your newborn is sleeping for longer periods of time, it’s important to wake them up for feedings at least during the first few weeks. Once your baby has gained back their birth weight, which we’ll discuss below, you can spread the nighttime feedings out and start tracking their sleeping patterns. From there, the best way to make sure that your baby is getting an adequate amount of rest is to keep an eye on their sleeping patterns. If there are any noticeable changes, talk to your pediatrician to learn more.

For more information on newborns and sleep, read this Q&A with Doctor Jennifer Shu. Always practice safe sleeping habits to protect newborns and encourage healthy sleep patterns as they develop.

Reasons to Wake Newborns for Feedings

Since most babies will wake up regularly every two to three hours to nurse, you might not need to wake your newborn for feedings. However, sometimes newborns sleep through the hunger and need a little help to ensure they’re getting the nutrients they need. While old advice to “never wake a sleeping baby” may seem helpful, it’s not always the healthiest for your newborn. Here are a few reasons to wake newborns for feedings.

To Regain Birth Weight

Within the first few days, babies tend to lose about 7 – 10% of their birth weight. This is normal and caused by the loss of extra fluid as they acclimate to the world outside of the womb. However, you want to help your baby regain this birth weight, which is why consistent feedings are essential. You should expect to wake your newborns for feedings every three hours at least until they have regained all of their birth weight.

When you go longer than three hours between feedings, your baby won’t be getting the calories they need to grow and develop into a healthy infant. If you’re having trouble with these feedings, talk to your doctor about what you can do to help your baby gain a healthy amount of weight.

To Avoid Missed Feedings

During the first few weeks of your newborn’s life, they may actually sleep through their typical hunger cues. When this happens, you may think that your newborn is sleeping through the night, but you still need to wake him or her up every three hours to ensure that they’re fed, and they can go back to sleep with a full belly. This allows them to gain a healthy amount of weight for their age and avoid malnutrition.

To Strengthen Your Milk Supply

Your milk supply is built and maintained based on physiological cues from your baby and physical emptying of the breast. To make sure that you have a strong milk supply, nursing your baby regularly is important. During the first few weeks of your baby’s life, you’ll need to breastfeed every three hours to strengthen milk production and avoid painful engorgement. If your baby feeds more often than that, don’t worry. Your body will make up for the demand by increasing supply.

If Your Doctor Advises It

If, for whatever reason, your doctor tells you that you need to wake your newborn, listen to him or her. Regardless of what you read online or hear from other parents, your doctor’s advice should be listened to before anything else. If you notice changes to your newborn’s sleeping schedule or a reluctance to eat, contact your pediatrician to learn more about what’s going on and how to fix it. Some of their solutions may be to wake your newborn up more or less often than what’s considered normal.

During those first few months, waking your newborn up every three hours is important to a healthy development. However, there are also a few other reasons that you might want to wake up your baby—especially throughout the day. If you notice that your baby has a dirty diaper, change it immediately. This helps reduce the chance of rashes or infections. If they wake up, that’s okay. Some babies may even sleep through changings.

You may also want to wake your baby if he or she is sleeping too long during the day or it’s getting close to bedtime. You want to help your baby understand the difference between day and night, so shorter naps during the day are recommended.

Understanding the Dream Feed

Dream feeding is the practice of feeding a newborn without actually waking them up. It’s a way to get your baby the calories they need without interrupting their sleep schedule. Some people use the dream feed and find a lot of success, while others don’t find the research too compelling. Learn more about dream feeding here and talk to your doctor if you have any questions or are interested in trying it with your newborn.

When to Let Your Newborn Sleep Through Feedings

Once your baby has regained their birth weight, you may still need to wake them up periodically for feedings. This differs across newborns based on a few factors such as age, weight, and whether you’re using breast milk or formula for feedings.

Consider Age

During the first two weeks of life, all newborns should be woken up at least every three hours for feedings—unless otherwise noted by your doctor. As your baby begins to age, you can gradually spread feedings out and let your baby sleep for longer stretches of time. At about six weeks, you should still be waking your baby up every four to five hours for feedings. If you have any questions about when to wake your newborn for feedings based on their age, talk to your doctor.

Consider Baby’s Weight

After your newborn’s two-week check-up, your doctor will tell you whether or not they’re gaining a healthy amount of weight. At this time, if your baby has regained their birth weight and some, you might be able to go longer stretches of time between feedings. The length of time will depend on your baby’s unique progress, so discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor during your check-ups.

Breast Milk vs. Formula

Breast milk is more readily absorbed by your baby’s digestive system, which means that you’ll need to feed them more frequently. Formula takes longer to digest and be broken down in your newborn’s developing stomach, so you may be able to go longer than the traditional three-hour rule. All formula is different, and babies may process ingredients in various ways, so always discuss this with your doctor. If you plan to feed your baby formula immediately following delivery, you can go over these details at the hospital.

If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, don’t hesitate to reach out to a lactation consultant. Lactation consultants can help you get past whatever difficulties you’re facing to find a solution that will result in your baby getting the nourishment they need to thrive. To help supplement your breastfeeding, don’t forget to claim your insurance covered breast pump from Byram Healthcare today. For more help on all things pregnancy, breastfeeding, breast pumping, and delivery, head over to Byram Healthcare's blog.