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How to Wake a Sleepy Baby to Feed

Monday, February 15, 2021

It can be frustrating to wake a sleepy baby to feed. You know your baby needs to eat but you are tired and wish there was a quicker way.

Do you need to wake your baby for feeds?

“Wake your baby every 2 to 3 hours to feed”.

“Never wake a sleeping baby!”

New parents get tons of conflicting advice. Who is right? Do you really need to wake your baby to feed? The research-based answer is yes AND no!

In the first few days of your baby’s life, there are special circumstances that make waking for feeds a good idea. But this will not always be necessary. In fact, it won’t be long before you are spending your energy trying to get your baby back to sleep!

Immediately after birth, most babies have a quiet alert stage. They will be awake and show interest in feeding. After an hour or two, they enter a drowsy state that lasts for most of the next 24 hours. Parents often interpret this behavior as a sign they have a happy and content baby.

In the next 24 hours, everything changes! Most newborns will wake on their own and want to feed very often. Ten, twelve, fourteen or more feeds a day is not unusual. Unfortunately, this stage can also be busy with visitors and hospital routines. It is easy to miss baby’s feeding cues. Some babies will wake and cry for feeds while other babies are more laid back and need reminders to eat, especially if they are being held by family members.

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend that you feed your baby at least every 2 or 3 hours during the day and every 3-4 hours at night until your baby is 2 weeks old and back to birth weight. This will help to ensure a plentiful milk supply, as your baby gets older. (Note: Some parents have misunderstood this advice, thinking they need to wait 2 to 3 hours between feeds. This is not the case. We would never want a hungry baby to wait to feed).

Reasons babies are too sleepy to feed:

  • Prematurity:   Premature babies may tire quickly and fall asleep before they have had a full feed.
  • Jaundice:   Jaundice,  a condition in which baby’s skin and eyes appear yellow, can make babies more sleepy than usual.
  • Difficult delivery:  Use of vacuum, forceps and/or drugs during delivery can result in baby being more sleepy in the first few days.
  • Medical problems: Babies with medical problems such as an infection or a heart problem may not feed well.
  • Overstimulation: Some babies will tune out and go to sleep in reaction to excessive handling by strangers, constant loud noises, and/or bright lights.
  • Not taking in enough calories:  Babies who don’t take in enough milk may lack the energy needed to feed well.
It can be challenging to wake a sleepy baby to feed.

Tips for waking a sleepy baby:

It is difficult to wake a baby in deep sleep. Watch for “soft signs” that your baby is waking such as small body movements, sucking on a fist, or eye movements, then try some of the following.

  • Hold your baby skin-to-skin with baby in a diaper only. Being close to mom helps to remind your baby to feed.
  • Use diaper changes to wake your newborn. If your baby is already alert, save the diaper change until after the first breast. This may help to your baby to be awake enough to take the second breast.
  • Express a drop of milk onto your nipple and bring it near your baby’s lips.
  • Burp baby between breasts to reawaken him.
  • Change your breastfeeding position. If you find your baby is sleepy when tucked against your body, try feeding in the football position.
  • Some sleepy babies benefit from switch nursing. (Leave baby on the first breast as long as he is actively sucking. When baby is no longer actively sucking, even with breast compressions, wake your baby and switch to the second breast. Repeat as often as needed. Some moms feed 2 or 3 times on each breast.)
  • Talk to your baby as he nurses. Babies love the sound of their mother’s voice.
  • Walk your fingers up baby’s spine.
  • Rub the soles of baby’s feet.
  • Massage your baby’s scalp.
  • Hold your baby up in front of you, talk and make eye contact.
  • Try the “doll’s eye technique”, gently lifting your baby from lying to sitting, hinging at the hips.
  • Gently clap your baby’s hands together or bicycle your baby’s legs.
  • With your thumb on baby’s palm and a finger on the back of baby’s hand, rhythmically apply pressure.
  • Rub baby’s back with small circular motions, starting from the small of the back and working upwards.
  • Use your finger to trace a circle around your baby’s mouth.
  • Some people have used a cool washcloth. This seems a bit harsh so try this only if nothing else is working.

Please note: This list is long; try one or two per feed and see what work best for your baby.

Feeding a sleepy baby can be frustrating and time consuming. Keep your baby close so that you are able to respond as soon as baby shows interest.

Once your baby is 2 weeks old and weighs more than when she was born, you will no longer need to worry about waking for feeds. You can then relax and feed in response to your baby’s cues.

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As Registered Nurses and International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, we’ve helped over 30,000 new families settle in with their newborn.

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References

  1. “Do I Need to Wake My Baby for Feeds?” Australian Breastfeeding Association, 1 June 2017, www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/do-i-need-wake-my-baby-feeds.
  2. “How Often To Breastfeed.” HealthyChildren.org, 2015, healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/breastfeeding/Pages/How-Often-to-Breastfeed.aspx.

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