One of the most common questions I receive is whether or not breastfed babies can overeat. Can they? How can you prevent a breastfed baby from overeating? The answer isn’t a straight YES or NO. It’s a little more grey than black or white. A baby overeating is as problematic as you or I overeating, so it’s helpful to have the information about how to keep this from happening.
The Difference Between Breast And Bottle Feeding
There is a big difference between feeding at the breast and bottle feeding, regardless of what is in the bottle. When babies breastfeed, they are in control of their feeds, which is important for regulating hunger and intake. When babies are bottle feeding, whoever is holding the bottle is in control of how much the baby takes and how quickly they take it. Babies don’t learn how to regulate their feeds when someone else is in control.
How Bottle Feeding Can Lead To Overfeeding
Bottle feeding is a very different process for babies than breastfeeding. It is a common misconception that bottle feeding is much easier for babies, but that is not the case. Babies are wired to breastfeed, so bottle feeding is actually trickier for them. It’s true that a baby uses many muscles to breastfeed. These muscles are gravely important to the natural evolution of the face, mouth, teeth, and overall orofacial development. The masseter muscle, which is what supports the up and down movement of the jaw, is important to facilitating jaw growth and positioning. Bottle-feeding actually reduces the activity of the masseter muscle, reduces jaw movement, and may cause the tongue to retract. The science behind all of this is so interesting, and you can read more about it in this blog.
A baby is born with several instinctive reflexes, and this goes with the feeding process as well. Rooting, or searching for the breast, and sucking is actually newborn reflexes that stay with your baby for several months. There is some great information available on infant reflexes. Once you have a little more background on infant reflexes, you will feel more confident reading your baby’s cues. Since sucking is a newborn reflex, babies will suck down a bottle at record speed once it is in their mouth. This is deceiving, making parents think the baby is starving when that was not the case at all. This is where overfeeding by bottle comes into the picture. It takes work and diligence to keep a baby from overfeeding by bottle, and paced bottle feeding is the best way to go. Check out this paced feeding video for more information about this.
Breastfeeding For Comfort, Not Overeating
Babies breastfeed for reasons other than food. Your baby will love to be close, feel secure and safe. The best way to accomplish this is by breastfeeding. Especially in the early days, babies spend a lot of time at the breast. They are not always feeding, sometimes this time is spent suckling, napping, and overall bonding. This is encouraged, and it doesn’t usually cause a problem with overeating.
Overfeeding With Unnecessary Bottles
It is important for new parents to access breastfeeding support early on in the breastfeeding relationship, so they learn the difference between comfort nursing and breastfeeding. What I see happening often is parents unaware of the baby’s need to comfort nurse, and offering bottles after a breastfeeding session, thinking baby has not had enough milk or didn’t get enough milk at the breast. Cue the unnecessary bottle, and infant suck reflex and you have a baby who has been fed twice when once was more than enough.
Signs Your Baby Is Overeating
It can be easy to recognize the signs of your breastfed baby overeating. Here are a few to watch for.
- Spitting up – if your baby is spitting up, it could be a sign your breastfed baby is overeating. Babies can become too full if they feed too quickly or too much, the same way adults can. If it seems like your baby is feeding quickly, gulping milk, take them off the breast (or remove the bottle). Take a minute to burp and take a little break.
- Excessive fussiness – Babies who are overeating tend to be much fussier. You might see increased irritability, disturbed sleep, increased gas, and just overall miserable. Think about how you feel if you overeat!
- Excessive weight gain – Breastfed babies are expected to gain half an ounce to one ounce a day (on average). Some weeks can be more, some weeks can be less. If parents call me for guidance with a fussy baby who is “not getting enough”, one of the first questions I ask is about weight gain. If weight gain is more than the average amount, overeating is likely the cause.
Breastfed babies take the amount of milk they want for their feeding.
How Much Breastmilk Does A Baby Need To Prevent Overeating?
Babies do not need as much milk as we think they need. In addition, when babies feed at the breast, they take the amount of milk they want at that moment for that feeding. The amount of milk they take per feeding can vary from feeding to feeding; depending on the time of day, on how they are feeling, on growth, etc. When we let babies feed on demand, we are teaching them how to regulate their intake. This is a valuable skill which follows them into childhood and beyond. Of course, if parents are concerned about how much milk a baby should have, the answer is variable, and this is why. Expect your baby to consume anywhere from 14-30oz of milk a day starting when your milk comes in through the first 6 months. Trust that your breastfed baby will not overeat if you are following their cues.
Chart showing milk volumes for a baby.
Reading Infant Cues To Help Prevent Overeating
Learning to understand what your baby is trying to tell you is similar to learning a foreign language. Somehow, every move or noise a baby makes leads us back to feeding. Babies are not hungry 24 hours a day and feeding them more is not always better. Babies also like to suck for comfort, and the signs for sucking and for feeding look an awful lot alike. Babies also can become overstimulated easily, and sucking can help to calm them. One of the best ways to prevent your breastfed baby from overeating is to become more familiar with their cues.
My baby latches and feeds at the breast but usually falls asleep once they are done. If I try to move them to the bassinet, or to change a diaper, they start to suck frantically on hands again, so I think they aren’t getting enough with just breastfeeding. I offer a bottle and they take it down right away so they must still be hungry.
What is actually happening here is as follows. Your baby most likely did get what they needed at the breast. However, once you disturbed them by moving or waking them, your baby needs to calm down all over again. This will probably happen through sucking. If you put the baby back to the breast, this will calm them. In most cases, parents assume the milk supply isn’t enough for the baby, and they offer a bottle on top of the feeding they already had. This leads to an endless cycle of overfeeding and fussy babies. The easy answer is to put the baby back to the breast before offering a bottle. Your baby will eat if they want to eat or fall back to sleep. You can’t go wrong.
Call A Lactation Consultant
All of this can be tricky territory to navigate when you are a new parent. If you ever have concerns about how efficiently your baby is breastfeeding or how to prevent your breastfed baby from overeating, call a lactation consultant. A lactation consultant can help you learn your way through all of this and feel much more confident in breastfeeding your baby.