Feeding Tips for Healthy Weight Gain in Babies and Toddlers
Read time: 8 minutes
What should I know about my baby’s healthy weight gain?
- Read about the average growth patterns for babies and toddlers
- Understand your little one’s hunger and fullness cues
- Learn the division of responsibility when it comes to meal times
We can help give our little ones a healthy start in life by responding to their needs. This is especially true when it comes to feedings. By following your baby and toddler’s lead and responding to their hunger and fullness cues, you can help pave the way to a healthy relationship with food as well as help keep their growth healthy and on track.1
How much weight should my baby be gaining?
What is “average growth” for babies? Typically, babies double their birth weight by 4 to 6 months and triple it by the one-year mark.2 On average, infants gain between 4-7 ounces during the first 4 to 6 months and 3-5 ounces per week from 6 to 18 months.2
Exclusively breastfed babies follow a slightly different growth curve than formula-fed babies. Breastfed infants grow more rapidly during the first 6 months of life but less rapidly during the remainder of the first year.2 While many babies follow these average growth patterns, remember that every baby is different. Your baby may forge a growth path of their own.
If you are concerned, reach out to your baby’s doctor or chat now with our Happy Baby Experts for more personalized advice.
Read more: How much Formula does my Baby Need?
Read more: Should I Breastfeed On Demand or On a Schedule?
How much weight should my toddler be gaining?
In the toddler years, your child’s growth rate slows a bit. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, average weight gain is 4.5 to 6.5 pounds.2 Eating during this age may become unpredictable. And while what and how much your little one eats at each meal may seem erratic; evidence suggests that the amount they eat on an average every day is fairly well regulated.3
Having a child that is picky and seems to have an inconsistent eating pattern is totally normal. Your toddler is very good at knowing how much their body needs. Keeping a regular eating schedule while honoring your child’s appetite can help keep your little one’s weight gain on track.3
What hunger and fullness cues should I look for?
Don’t stress if your child’s food intake varies each day; this happens for all of us. It’s important to look for your baby’s hunger and fullness cues to avoid over- or under-feeding. When your baby is hungry and ready to eat, they may become more alert, put their hands or fingers on or in their mouth, make sucking motions, stick out their tongue, smack their lips, kick, squirm, or begin rooting (moving their jaw and mouth or head in search of your breast or a bottle).1
While your baby is eating, notice the cues for fullness so that you can stop when they’ve had enough. Your breast or bottle-fed baby is likely satiated when they become distracted while drinking, fidgets or turns their head away, or closes their mouth tightly.1
When your little one begins to eat solid foods, hunger cues include leaning toward the food and opening their mouth, getting excited at seeing food, and focusing on food with their eyes.1 Fullness cues include spitting food out or pushing it away, becoming distracted, closing their mouth and refusing food, turning their head away, or playing and throwing food.1
Your baby understands and follows their own natural cues for hunger and thirst. Your job is to read the cues while breastfeeding, formula feeding, or solid food feeding to help support their healthy growth and development.
Read more: Understanding your Baby's Hunger and Fullness Cues
Division of Responsibility
For older babies and toddlers, parents can control what, when, and where food is offered, but it is the responsibility of the child to control how much they eat (if anything!).6 ,7 Think of this Division of Responsibility in simple terms: it’s the parent’s job to provide and the child’s job to decide.
By following these roles and responsibilities and releasing control over how much your child is actually taking in, you will allow your child to eat and grow in a way that makes sense for their own body.
Read more: The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating
What can I do to encourage healthy weight gain in my baby or toddler?
Follow your child’s lead for nursing and bottle-feeding, not the clock
Newborn babies typically eat every 2 hours if nursing and every 3-4 hours if bottle feeding.5 As baby ages, they will likely go longer between feedings and may eat more at each session.8, 9
However, pay close attention to hunger and fullness cues to know just how much formula or breastmilk your baby needs. Sometimes cues for fullness are subtle, so stay engaged while feeding to learn when your child is all done, instead of continuing to force the bottle or breast into their mouth.
Try paced bottle feeding: Feeding a bottle in a more upright position so that baby is slightly sitting and the bottle is almost horizontal, will allow baby to regulate the flow of milk much better.10 When a baby is being held more reclined and the bottle is near vertical in their mouth, this causes the flow of milk to speed up which can lead to over feeding.11
Allow for baby to pause and breath several times during a feeding by tipping the nipple of the bottle up and breaking their suction on the bottle. Using a slow-flow nipple may also help.
Learn more: What is Paced Bottle Feeding
If your baby eats a lot with someone who is caring for them while you are out of the house, you may want to ask them how they position your child when feeding them. Continual overfeeding may lead to baby gaining weight more rapidly than what is healthy and may make them less in-tune with their own hunger and fullness cues.
Practice Responsive Feeding
Your little one is very good at knowing how hungry or full they are. This self-regulation happens without them even thinking about it. Our job is to honor their feeding cues to help them build healthy eating habits for life and promote healthy weight gain. This practice is called Responsive Feeding.1
It can be easy to override your baby’s own feeding signals by making them finish their bottle or food, and this may lead to difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. Additionally, using food as a reward or offering it when your little one is emotional (even if they are not hungry), can lead to poor eating habits over time.1
Model healthy eating habits
At around 6 months, or when your baby is ready to start solids, expose them to a variety of healthy food choices and appropriate mealtime behavior.15 Babies imitate their loved ones, so try to have family meals often and serve everyone the same foods (with textures and pieces altered to match your baby’s abilities).12
Remember that kids also see the less healthy foods you eat, so try to be mindful of the types of foods you put on the table and into your own mouth.12 Try to avoid using food as a reward, as this approach can undermine healthy eating habits.
Read more: Family Meals: Developing Healthy Eating Habits.
Follow the Division of Responsibility
Your child’s food intake will vary every day. Some meals will only consist of a few spoonful’s while other meals your little one will eat everything in sight. Be patient and remember that your child knows how much their body needs.
When it comes to feeding your child, it’s your job to decide what foods to offer, when to offer them, and where to offer them.6 ,8 But your child will decide how much they eat (of the foods you’ve offered) or if they eat at all. 6 ,8 Just like adults, hunger and appetite in children may change from day to day.
Offer disliked and new foods over and over
Babies and toddlers are hard-wired to prefer sweet, salty, and fatty foods while rejecting sour and bitter tastes.4 This is why some vegetables may get a negative reaction at first. The good news is that these innate taste preferences can be changed with time. Continual introduction and repeated exposure to the food, sometimes more than 10 times(!), can help your baby and toddler begin to accept and even like these foods.3
Read more: Helping your Child Learn to Love Healthy Foods
Turn off screens and distractions during mealtimes
Turn off the TV, put away phones, tablets and any other distractions, and allow everyone to focus on the food and each other. Distractions will only make it more challenging for your child to follow their own fullness cues and may lead to mindless overeating.13
Allow planned snack times to support mealtimes
Your little one’s tummy is still pretty small and offering healthy snacks can help them meet their needs each day. Provide your baby (and yourself) a sit-down snack between meals, but not within 1-1.5 hours of the next mealtime.15 This planning will help ensure that everyone arrives at the table hungry and ready to eat.
Check in with your pediatrician if you feel like your child is always hungry or doesn’t have much of an appetite
Your baby’s health care provider will be able to answer specific questions or respond to your concerns about whether your baby is growing normally and getting enough nourishment. During each office visit, the pediatrician is already keeping track of your baby’s weight gain and monitoring whether their weight is continuing to increase at a healthy pace.
We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.
Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday through Friday, from 8am–6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!
Read more about the experts that help write our content!
For more on this topic, check out the following articles:
Transitioning to Cups for Babies and Toddlers
Healthy Snacks for Babies and Toddlers
Does my Baby Need a Vitamin or Supplement?
What supplements or vitamins should I be giving my toddler?
Does my Child have a Food Allergy or a Food Intolerance?
Food Safety for Babies and Toddlers