RD, LDN, CBS
Certified in Maternal and Infant Nutrition from Cornell, Angela’s mission is to help people reach their wellness goals. She also helps run a program that teaches pregnant women about how a healthy lifestyle optimizes prenatal and postnatal care.
When thinking about the feeding relationship you have with your baby or toddler, first think about what healthy weight and weight gain looks like for your individual child. Your child’s body shape and size are mostly genetically inherited – for example smaller parents typically have smaller babies. By paying attention to your baby’s hunger and fullness cues and following his lead, your baby’s growth will remain healthy and on track for his body.
Average weight gain and growth
So what is “average growth” for babies? If breastfeeding, infants under 4 months gain an average of 5-7 ounces per week, and then double their birth weight around 3-4 months of age. For example, a baby born at 7 lb will have gained another 7 lbs by 4 months. This rate of weight gain will gradually slow down, as babies between 4-6 months of age will only gain 3.5-5 ounces per week, and babies 6-12 months old will gain 2-3 ounces per week. Note that breastfed babies tend to be chubbier than formula-fed babies during the first 4-6 months of life, and then they usually become leaner than formula-fed babies by 9 months to 1 year.
By your baby’s first birthday, he will likely weigh three times his birthweight. To accurately gauge weight gain over time, your baby should be weighed on the same scale with the same amount of clothing – preferably naked!
In the toddler years, your child will become much more mobile and burn more calories throughout the day. To support this degree of growth and activity, the average toddler will eat anywhere between 960 and 1700 calories a day – a wide range! This is completely normal, and a big reason why staying in tune with your child’s hunger and fullness cues will keep his weight gain on track.
Hunger and fullness cues
Don’t stress if your child’s food intake varies by about 20% each day – this happens for all of us. To remain in sync with this wide disparity, it’s critical 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, he may become more alert, put his hands or fingers on or in his mouth, make sucking motions, stick out his tongue, smack his lips, kick, squirm, or begin rooting(moving his jaw and mouth or head in search of your breast).
While your baby is eating, notice his cues for fullness so that you can stop when he indicates he’s had enough. Your breast or bottle-fed baby is likely satiated when he becomes distracted while drinking, fidgets or turns his head away, or closes his mouth tightly. As your baby gets a little older and his eye-to-hand coordination improves, he may even try to knock the bottle or spoon out of your grip.
In time, your baby should begin to learn his own natural cues for hunger and thirst, with your guidance. While still a baby, you the parent will read his cues for breastmilk or formula to adjust the timing, tempo, frequency and amount of a feeding. 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 he eats (if anything!). Think of this division of responsibility in simple terms – it’s the parent’s job to feed and the child’s job to eat.
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 his body.
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. However, you should pay more attention to hunger and fullness cues to adequately feed your baby. 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 into his mouth.
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. When a baby is being held more reclined and the bottle is vertical or near vertical in their mouth, this causes the flow of milk to speed up, which can lead to over feeding since baby is less likely to be able to regulate the flow.
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 for their natural weight gain curve, and may make them less in-tune with their own hunger and satiety cues.
Model healthy eating habits
At around 6 months, or when your baby is ready to start solids, expose him to a variety of healthy food choices and appropriate mealtime behavior. Babies imitate their loved ones so it’s best to serve everyone the same food as often as possible (with textures and pieces altered to match your baby’s abilities). 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. And try to avoid using food as a reward, as this approach can undermine healthy eating habits.
Trust your child to know how much food he needs every day
Your child’s food intake will vary every day. Some meals will only consist of a few spoonfuls, while during other meals he will eat everything in sight. Be patient and remember that your child knows what his body needs.
When it comes to feeding your child, it is your job to decide what foods to offer, when to offer them and where to offer them. But your child will decide how much he eats (of the foods you’ve offered) or if he eats at all. Just like adults, hunger and appetite in children may change from day to day.
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 his own fullness cues and may lead to mindless over eating.
Allow planned snack times to support mealtimes
Offer your baby (and yourself) sit down snacks between meals but not within 1-1.5 hours of the next mealtime. This planning will help ensure that everyone arrives at the table hungry and ready to eat what you’re serving.
Check in with your pediatrician if you feel like your child is always hungry or, conversely, doesn’t have much of an appetite
Your physician 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 her weight is continuing to increase steadily.
The WHO Child Growth Standards. World Health Organization.
Clinical Growth Chart. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 15 June 2017.
Satter, Ellyn. “Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming.” Madison, WI: Kelcy Press, 2005.
Jain, Sanjeev. “How Often and How Much Should Your Baby Eat?” Healthy Children.org. Date accessed 22 Mar. 2018.
Infant and Newborn Nutrition. US National Library of Medicine.
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