Feeding On-Demand vs. By the Clock

There are 2 ends of the spectrum when it comes to feeding your baby.  Soley following the hunger cues of your baby (feeding on-demand) is on one end and solely feeding based on what the clock says (every 2 hours, every 3 hours, etc) is on the other. 

The more ‘old school way’ of feeding your baby by the clock clearly has its issues- what if you have a hungry baby and it’s not time to eat? The shift solely towards on-demand feeding has been a breath of fresh air in the parenting world, one where we take into account the actual needs and desires of the child.

But, is it possible to take on-demand feeding too far? To have too much of a good thing? YES! What I see over and over again is when breast or bottle feeding turns into a 24-hour open buffet line…and this is well beyond the newborn stage.  

The relationship between eating and sleeping

Why is this important? What do I care so much about feedings when I am a sleep coach? Because feedings (and your feeding schedule) directly impact sleep.  They go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated. A baby that eats well is a baby that sleeps well and a baby that sleeps well is a baby that eats well.  Many times when clients come to me with sleep issues (like their baby eating at all hours of the night) the problem is actually (in part) solved by focusing on the feeding schedule during the day.  Fascinating, isn’t it?

Months ago I was working with a client (who we will call Mary) and her 7-month-old little boy (who we will call James).  Mary reported on her questionnaire that she was feeding James up to 10-12 times per day and 4-6 times overnight…which is a total of 14-18 times in a 24-hour period. To be clear, James was a healthy boy with a healthy weight…. But he was obviously just SO TIRED. Mom’s on-demand feeding routine had simply gotten out of control.  He was snacking all day long (instead of taking full feeds) and in turn, was catnapping all day (and night) long too.  He was in a snack and sleep routine…where you eat a little and sleep a little at a time.  

The heart behind feeding on-demand is being able to read your baby’s cues (not the clock), but for some families, this can spiral out of control.

Every whimper, feed.  Every cry, feed.  Every fuss, feed. Suddenly every emotion your baby is feeling is met with a feed because WHAT IF THEY ARE HUNGRY!?  We now have a baby that is only taking small amounts of milk at a time, never experiencing true hunger or fullness.  Naps follow suit- turning into short cat naps all throughout the day because they are never full enough to sleep for a long time and wake every 30 minutes for a feed (because that’s what they are used to).

The solution

So what is the remedy? Is there a middle ground between feeding on demand and strictly following the clock? YES! Of course!

Enter: The Eat/Play/Sleep Routine. The eat/play/sleep routine looks something like this:


Breast or Bottle Feed


Take a nap


Breast or Bottle Feed


Take a Nap


The reason this routine is helpful is because it gives order to your day and helps you (and your baby) know what’s next. This routine encourages full feeds after a period of sleep (so they are not sleepy and have the energy for that feed). It’s hard to get a full feed when they keep falling asleep during it, after all.  

But what happens if your baby is showing hunger cues, but it’s not ‘time’ in the routine for a feed? If you notice your baby getting fussy, rooting, turning their heads towards you, etc., I want you to first look at the clock.  Is it actually time for a nap? Hunger and sleepy cues can present themselves similarly.  If it’s around nap time, try for sleep first! 

If your baby is still fussy but it is not time for a nap, could your baby be bored? Uncomfortable? Need a change of scenery? Or just upset? Remember, babies don’t know how to express themselves any other way than crying 🙂 It’s important that they develop other mechanisms for soothing other than a feed (such as rocking, cuddling, singing, etc). 

If the fussiness is continuing and you are confident it’s actual hunger, then of course offer another feed! I’m not a monster in the business of starving babies. We always want to feed a hungry baby…we just need to be sure they are actually hungry first 🙂

The results

Circling back to our friend Mary and her baby….we got them onto an Eat/Play/Sleep routine and things improved SO MUCH. James now was eating about 5-7 times per day and once per night.  Mom was better able to recognize true hunger signs, which resulted in full feeds and full naps. Sleep improved, eating improved and all was well again 🙂

The moral of the story: watch your baby AND the clock. 

BUT SUSAN! My baby can’t go to sleep without eating! Well, my friend, it’s time you contact me so we can fix that!


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