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Can you overfeed a breastfed baby?

My first baby fed frequently. I mean every 40 minutes or so and every time he cried, I offered him the boob. It worked brilliantly, he settled quickly. In hindsight he was using my boob as a dummy!

He was a big bouncing baby boy and I couldn’t help wonder whether I was overfeeding him.

If you’re anything like me, you may worry that you are feeding your baby too much because they feed often, or are gaining weight fast, or are posseting milk (spitting up) frequently or are coming off the breast, mid-feed regularly.

But its very hard to overfeed a breastfed baby, they’re great at self regulating.

In this blog, I talk you through the complex mechanisms involved in breastfeeding and reassure you that you’re unlikely to be overfeeding your breastfed baby.

Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist
Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

How babies breastfeed – the mechanics

So first, the technical part.

When your baby latches on, the nipple is stretched and your baby’s tongue creates a ‘rigid plate’ which moves with the jaw. This allows the action of suction which allows milk to flow into your baby’s mouth (1).

Your baby will control how long they feed for, showing signs of drowsiness and content when they are finished. If you note your baby’s ‘full’ signals, you won’t overfeed your breastfed baby.

How often does my baby need to feed?

As a newborn, your baby will not require a lot of milk to feel full with each feed. To begin with, they may want to feed every 1 to 3 hours. The amount of milk taken at each feed will gradually increase as your baby grows and the time between feeds may begin to get longer (2).

Is it normal for babies to want to breastfeed all the time?

First of all, every baby is different, so while some may want to feed more regularly, others may not.

The term used to describe when your baby wants to feed all the time is ‘cluster feeding’. This is a normal behaviour which could indicate ‘growth spurts or teething’ and may be linked to a ‘developmental leap’ which will eventually pass (3).

Cluster feeding is unlikely to cause overfeeding a breastfed baby.

Should I put my baby on a feeding schedule?

It is recommended that to begin with, babies feed on demand, meaning that they dictate feeding times. However, as they grow, your baby will naturally begin to fall into a feeding pattern (5). By 7 months or so, a routine for food and milk feeds becomes important so that weaning progresses and nutritional needs are met.

Babies have a built in ability to let you know when they are hungry. They’ll usually let you know by using cues such as being more active or sucking their fingers. Some babies cry when they get too hungry but there are many other hunger cues. 

Each baby is different and over time you will learn the hunger signs exhibited by your own baby (4).

Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist
Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

Formula vs. breast milk

While breastfeeding is considered the optimal first food for your baby, formula is manufactured to be as nutritionally close to breast milk as possible.

The composition of breast milk changes as the needs of your baby change. It also contains a huge volume of antibodies which assist in strengthening your baby’s immune system as well as probiotics for healthy digestion and further immunity.

Formula is also packed with nutrients, but does not deliver the same level of immunity against illness as breast milk does (6), even with the addition of probiotics.

Bottle fed babies are more likely to be overfed as bottles are made up to a certain volume with the intention of baby drinking it. Often well meaning parents will encourage their baby to take a bit more or finish the bottle when their baby has stopped suckling.

I recommend mimicking breastfeeding when feeding from a bottle (expressed breast milk or formula) by ‘pace feeding’. This involves giving baby control over how much they feed rather than you being in charge.

If you follow the signs that your baby is finished (drowsy and content) whilst bottle feeding using the paced feeding method, you should find that overfeeding doesn’t happen.

Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist
Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

So can you overfeed a breastfed baby?

Overfeeding your breastfed or formula fed baby is very rare (7). In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s not possible to overfeed a breastfed baby via the breast but if you need to bottle feed either expressed breast milk or formula, there is a possibility of overfeeding. 

Possetting or spitting up after a feed (8), is a natural reflux and is not a sign of overfeeding. If you are unsure, it’s always best to check with a health professional.

Check your expectations for your baby

Check your expectations when bottle feeding. Babies don’t need a set number of ounces at each feed. That’s a myth and they certainly don’t need a target to get them sleeping through the night. Often these myths are what make parents feed past the point of fullness (9).

Tips to soothe your baby without overfeeding

If your baby is crying or fussy but you know that they are not hungry, you can try the following options to soothe them instead (10):

  • Be gentle and patient – use soft noises, sing songs and use a gentle rocking motion or sway to help calm them.

  • Move to a quiet room – loud environments may be overstimulating and a source of distress for your baby.

  • Try introducing a dummy (pacifier) as babies self soothe through sucking. A dummy can make a great alternative to the soothing suckling at the breast.

Signs that your baby may be full

Your baby may be full if they show any of the following signs:

  • Push away from your breast or bottle (if breast milk is expressed)

  • Move their head away from your breast or bottle

  • Fuss at your breast or bottle when you offer it

  • Show a lack of interest when being fed

  • Start falling asleep

  • Stop sucking

  • Extend and relax their arms, fingers and legs (9).

Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist
Are you curious? Can you overfeed a breastfed baby? by Sarah Almond Bushell - The Children's Nutritionist

What are the consequences if you overfeed your baby?

So, what happens if you do overfeed your baby?

In the short term, your baby may show signs of discomfort from a build up of milk and wind and will cry frequently and intensely. They may also posset (spit up) more than usual (11).

In the long run, your baby’s relationship with food may be affected (10). They may not recognise or understand feelings of hunger and fullness so can’t learn appetite regulation. 

Sometimes I see children who are extreme fussy eaters who graze rather than eat meals and often it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to truly understand their appetite and hunger/fullness cues.

What is the takeaway message?

Although overfeeding your breastfed baby is rare, it can still happen if you feed expressed milk via a bottle. Overfeeding is more common in formula fed and combination fed babies for this reason. 

Always pay attention to ‘finished’ cues and signals that your baby is giving you during feeding.

If you do think you have overfed your baby, don’t panic, just recognise what happened and know what to do next time.

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA - Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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