How Long Do Babies Need to Eat? Every 3 Hours?

Reviewed on 6/16/2021
how long do babies need to eat
How long do babies need to eat? Learn how much and how often your baby should be eating

In general, full-term, healthy newborn babies should be fed whenever they are hungry and ask for food. This is called feeding on demand or responsive feeding.

It’s important to remember that every baby is different. Some may eat or breastfeed more at a time and may not feel hungry for many hours. Others may eat less at a time and need frequent feeds. As a general rule, however, a newborn baby must not go hungry for more than 4 hours at a time. This is true for nighttime as well.

You will need to understand your baby’s needs and observe their weight progression to know whether you need to feed your baby every 2-3 hours during the first 6 months. Avoid giving juices or sips of water to the baby in the first 6 months, since exclusive breastfeeding is recommended. If breast milk is not enough, you may give formula after consulting your doctor.

Most babies usually feel hungry every 3 hours until about 2 months of age and need 4-5 ounces per feeding. As the capacity of their abdomen increases, they go longer between feedings. At 4 months, babies may take up to 6 ounces per feeding and at 6 months, babies might need 8 ounces every 4-5 hours. Solid foods should be introduced starting at 6 months.

Should you feed your baby every 3 hours if they’re not hungry?

In some cases, you may need to feed your baby after every 3 hours even when they don’t demand it:

  • When your baby is having trouble gaining weight.
  • If your baby was born prematurely.
  • If your baby has been diagnosed with medical conditions, such as jaundice.

Most babies will double their birth weight by 5 months of age. By the time they have turned 1 year old, they should have reached 3 times their birth weight. 

If your baby is not gaining weight normally, don’t wait for your baby to wake up and signal for food. Wake them up and make them breastfeed or give them a bottle. Ask your pediatrician if you have concerns.

How do you know if your baby is hungry?

If your baby is hungry, crying will usually be a telltale sign. But since it’s harder to settle down a crying baby to make them eat, it’s best to pay attention to other hunger cues from your baby. These may include:

  • Licking their lips
  • Sticking their tongue out
  • Frequently opening their mouth
  • Rooting (making head and jaw movements as if searching for breast)
  • Sucking on whatever they come into contact with
  • Crankiness

How do you know if your baby is overeating or undereating?

Overeating

If your baby has eaten too much, they may cry or vomit due to stomach pain or burping. A pattern of overeating over several months may increase their risk for developing obesity in later life.

To figure out how much it takes to satisfy your baby’s hunger, offer them less initially. If they are still hungry, they will demand more.

Also, keep in mind that a baby sucking on something other than the breast is not always a sign of being hungry. Sucking can be a sign that they are looking for comfort. You can try cuddling them or giving them a pacifier (at around 3-4 months of age) to soothe them.

Undereating

There are two ways to know whether your baby is not eating enough:

  • Check their diapers. In the first 4-5 days of birth, your baby should have 2-3 wet diapers each day. Later, it should increase to 4-5 diapers a day. 
  • As your pediatrician. Your pediatrician can prepare a chart according to your baby’s growth, which can help you see whether your baby is gaining weight normally.

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References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Much and How Often to Breastfeed. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/breastfeeding/how-much-and-how-often.html

Jain S. How Often and How Much Should Your Baby Eat? American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/How-Often-and-How-Much-Should-Your-Baby-Eat.aspx#

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