Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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How to Differentiate Hunger from Fatigue in Babies

I am super passionate about talking about the signs of hunger versus fatigue because it's a mistake that I made when just wanting to be the very best parent to my child that I could be.  By mistaking the signs of fatigue for hunger, I continually fed him to sleep.  Over the course of weeks of doing this I taught him to associate feeding and sleeping.  So when he was tired, woke up in the night, or was even bored, he wanted to feed.  There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s working for you.  It just wasn’t working for me since he woke up every few hours in the night at 4 months of age and it was unsustainable.  

If you are struggling with a little person who falls asleep at the breast or the bottle, who seems to be kind of a distracted eater at the breast or the bottle,  is over four months of age, and is waking up to eat more than two times in the night. If so then you need to keep reading because you might be mistaking fatigue for hunger. 

Why is Feeding On Demand Important?

Feeding on demand is super, super, important especially in the beginning when they're growing so quickly.  It is very important for breastfeeding parents as it helps increase supply in the early weeks.  However, if you are struggling with sleep, and a lot of night waking, and a lot of night feeds, it's time to take a look at how your feeding and your sleeping might be connected. 

It's also time to figure out if you're being a really great detective. Could you be potentially misreading the cues of being tired for signs of hunger, and then feeding them? And then they fall asleep, and maybe they have a little nap, and this can be a really vicious cycle that you get stuck into.

What Misinterpreting Fatigue For Hunger Can Look Like

Your little one is fussy and you think "oh, I think they're hungry." You bring them to the breast or the bottle, they don't eat very much, and then they fall asleep.   True hunger would want to fill up on food and drain one breast and consume half the other side.  Babies will eat when they are hungry.  In this scenario your little one used food to soothe.

Is there anything wrong with this? No, there is not. Not unless you want to be someone who has great sleep.  Someone who has a baby who has long naps and long stretches of nighttime sleep.   This person has regular feeding intervals during the day where their baby fills up.  They are intentional feeders, the 3rd Pillar of the Helping Babies Sleep Method.  The scenario described above tends to keep you in the “Snacking Cycle.”  This involves short, frequent feeds all day… and all night. 

What this might look like for later kids is that toddler -- I work with lots of them -- that need a bottle to even not necessarily be asleep at bed time, but to help relax them. Then they wake up in the night, maybe once, maybe twice, maybe three times, or four times, and then want that bottle to go back to sleep because they associate it with falling asleep

Sleep is a learned habit

We don't think about it this way, but sleep really is a learned habit. We think sleep should be this beautiful, natural, instinctual thing, but let me give you a scenario to reframe it for you.  Think about yourself.  If I said to you "tonight you can't sleep in your favorite position and  I'm gonna take away your pillow."  That would be uncomfortable for you. You will toss and turn and be frustrated, but eventually you will learn a new way to fall asleep.

For our babies and toddlers, that scenario is essentially what sleep training or sleep teaching as I like to call it, is.  Your child has developed some sort of association with sleep that's hard to sustain. Maybe it's feeding, co-sleeping, rocking, bouncing on a yoga ball, going for a drive in the car, or the stroller, something that becomes hard to maintain. So you need to change the way they fall asleep if you want them to be more independent. 

An Independent Sleeper 

An independent sleeper has self-soothing skills. This might be sucking a thumb, or a finger, it might be taking a little piece of fabric or rubbing it on their face, rubbing their head into the back of the mattress.  It is something they can do on their own to help relax them into sleep so when they wake up in the night, which all humans do, they have their own internal skills that they can put themselves back to sleep and not call out for being fed, or rocked, or having that pacifier reinserted. 

This circles back to why it’s important for you to be a good detective and figure out is this really hunger or is this fatigue.  We want to be a good detective, identify the root need and meet that root need rather than bandaiding it by muting tears with food.   Repeatedly feeding them back to sleep will develop a very strong feeding to sleep association which can be hard to maintain long term.  

a baby sleeping on the bed while with her right thumb in the mouth.

So How Do You Differentiate Hunger from Fatigue? 

In the moment, it can be hard to tell especially if you’ve unknowingly trained your little one that food leads to sleep.  You need to set yourself up for success by proactively taking hunger out of the equation and put your little person on more of a feeding flow or windows.  You want to break the snacking cycle and be an “intentional feeder,” pillar 3 of the Helping Babies Sleep Method. 

You want a kiddo who comes to the breast of the bottle, drains one side, takes half the other side, or all of those four plus ounces. So then now you can be an even better detective when your child is fussy in that next window.  Newborns need to eat ~ every 3 hours in the daytime and babies 5 months and older can go 4 hours.  You will find they will eat more at fewer sittings and their overall intake will remain the same.  You are not losing calories, just consolidating them and being an intentional feeder. 

Then when your baby is fussy you can rule hunger out.  "Well, I know it's not hunger because I gave them a really good feed just an hour and a half or two hours ago, or whatever it is, so what else could it be?" 

Being an intentional feeder helps you rule out a variable in your day, and helps you be that much more in tune with your your little one's needs.

In the Helping Babies Sleep Method is we teach you how to anticipate your little ones needs, meet those needs, have a less fussy little one, and know what the need is going to be next.

Can Sleepy Signs Help? 

There is a subtle set of cues that come before the ones that we're all familiar with, which is the rubbing the eyes, yawning, starting to get fussy... the subtle set of cues especially in the newborn stage, are:

  • not making eye contact any longer
  • seeming disinterested where they were seeming to connect with you
  • also starting to get a little bit red under the eyes
  • also their limb activity may decrease

So at that point you might be saying: "oh, I can se my child's getting tired. It's time to start thinking about nap."   When you see the yawning and the eye rubbing, definitely getting there. The next stage is being overtired which looks like lots of crying, fussing and arching the back. 

There are some kids that signs are really, really hard to read. They might not show you anything. This is why I love to marry signs with the clock, and you can download our summary of sleep timing to figure out what is the ideal awake times for your little one. 

Sleep Summary by Age Chart, Click on the image to go the the download page

Timing is So Important

Putting babies and toddlers down too soon or too late can make it harder to get them to fall asleep and stay asleep.  


If you want to have great sleep long term most people need to have regular full feeds during the day away from sleeping so their little ones tank up on calories and can fall asleep with the lull of a breast or bottle to do the work of relaxing them into sleep. 

Now, if you like this philosophy, we elaborate so much more inside of the Helping Babies Sleep Method and help you with step by step sleep training approaches.  You can start as early as 4 weeks with gentle no tear newborn sleep shaping or after 4 months of age work on independent sleep. 

You can be loving, attached, and well-rested, and you don't have to figure it out all on your own. 

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