What's normal?

(This feature is aimed at early years workers or other childminders that work with babies under 6 months.)

All babies are different. What we do know, is that feeding a baby does more than just provide the child with nutrition. This is because the process of feeding can also help caregivers and babies get to know one another and build their relationship in a few important ways. The close physical contact involved in feeding is also a large source of comfort to the baby.

But babies do feed a lot, and it will often feel as though they do little else! Because of this, feeding can be a little fraught at times, whether this is with one of their parents, carer, or childcare worker.

To add to this, some parents may struggle with complicated emotions and issues surrounding feeding, and they may need some emotional support with these feelings.

Here we offer guidance for childcare workers who will be feeding babies under 6 months as part of their work, and also to those who may be in a position to support parents or carers who may be struggling in their feeding journey.

Feeding a baby in your care

When a feeding a baby in your care, it is helpful to try and stay in tune to the baby’s reactions and expressions, so that you can pick up when they might be hungry and will then be able to respond to their ‘cues’ for a feed. This is different to the scheduled snack and meal times of older children. When you feed on cue, this is known as feeding ‘responsively’, and is what is recommended for our youngest babies before they start to wean. Feeding in this way can help strengthen your relationship with the baby. This is because it will make the baby feel that you are in touch with what they are thinking and feeling - ie. that they are being ‘held in mind’ by you - and that you are there to help meet their needs.

How can you tell if a baby is hungry?

Babies’ hunger cues include:

  • turning their head towards the chest;
  • opening their mouth;
  • making sucking or “numm numm” noises;
  • poking out their tongue;
  • trying to get into a feeding position;
  • putting hands in their mouth.
How about crying?

Babies don’t have many tools with which to express themselves, and of course crying is one of them. Sometimes when they cry they are actually signalling to us that they need food, although other times it could mean something else, for instance they could want a cuddle or to just know that you are close by.

What to do if you think a baby in your care is hungry

When you think the baby you are looking after is hungry, your first step is going to be thinking about the place where you are going to be feeding them. In a busy childcare settings, this can feel like a tall order but, where possible, it can be so helpful to try and find a comfortable place where you can hold the baby close, and where the baby and you can have a quiet time together, and be able to concentrate on each other.

Exploring the baby’s signals during feeding

During feeding time, you may find your relationship with the baby you are looking after develops in certain ways. For instance, feeding can be an opportunity for ‘sensory’ connection ie. connection involving yours and the baby’s senses. For instance, they may connect with you by looking (for example some babies might enjoy making eye contact with you), or connecting with you by touching you (for example, playing with your fingers).

It’s also a great time to learn more about one another. During the feeding process, you may start to notice and recognise the different ways that the baby you are feeding expresses themselves, or signals its needs.

But sometimes signals can be confusing. For instance, after a while the baby might turn away for a moment. This can be taken as a sign that they are satisfied. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve had enough, and that they don’t want to feed anymore; they may just be taking a break and want to come back to the bottle after a few seconds or minutes. Sometimes turning away and coming back to the bottle could be just a way for them to manage their feelings, whatever they may be at the time. It’s best to let the baby choose when they want to stop drinking and take a break, before returning to the bottle.

Some babies take in air with their feed. This can become uncomfortable in their tummies.  If they start to look uncomfortable you could take a pause and help them bring up the trapped air or wind by sitting them up and gently tapping their back.

Also remember that there can be a risk of accidentally overfeeding with bottles, so if you feel the baby you are feeding is showing signs that they don’t want anymore, there is no need to encourage them then to finish the bottle.

Supporting parents and carers who are struggling with feeding their babies

Feeding a baby can bring up all sorts of strong emotions in a parent or carer. Babies are so dependent on their parents and carers, and for some, it can feel like an overwhelming amount of responsibility to bear. Some mothers prefer not to breastfeed, and others, would really like to be able to breastfeed but discover that, for certain reasons they are unable to. Others may be pushing on through with breastfeeding but find the experience painful or difficult.

Because of this, infant feeding can bring up feelings of guilt, shame, inadequacy and judgement for some mothers and parents. It’s important to notice and think about how parents might be feeling and why, and to listen without any judgement. This is a good way to offer support.

Notice too how you are feeling - you may find that issues around infant feeding brings up strong feelings in you for certain reasons. It may be that you yourself found breastfeeding relatively straight forward – so feel inpatient with the parents you are talking to about their struggles. Conversely you might have struggled to breastfeed or chosen not to, and may find a parent you are working with indirectly judgemental about those decisions. If things like this are coming up for you, try talking to colleagues, friends or family about how you are feeling.

If you think a mother, parent or carer is really struggling, it might be helpful to suggest they talk to a health visitor, GP or other professional in the field to help to understand these feelings better. Lots of areas across the country have access to infant feeding peer support workers – and often receiving support from another parent can feel like a safe way to get help.

Tips to share with parents and carers

Whether you are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, here are some tips:

  1. Get to know what your baby is telling you with their sounds and body language. Are they hungry? Bored? Need a cuddle? Babies’ hunger cues include:
    • turning their head towards the chest;
    • opening their mouth;
    • making sucking noises;
    • poking out their tongue;
    • trying to get into a feeding position;
    • putting hands in their mouth.
  1. Find a comfortable place where you and baby can have a quiet time together and be able to concentrate on each other.
  1. Babies love being held close when they feed. They also often like making eye contact with you. But don’t worry if they are too sleepy
  1. You can have the same loving and close relationship with your baby through breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. What’s important is getting to know your baby, what they need and when, and lots of cuddles, kisses and eye contact.
  1. Babies that are being breastfed can consume as much milk as feels right to them. But if you’re bottle-feeding, there is a risk of accidentally giving the baby too much milk, so don’t encourage them to finish feeds if they don’t want to. If you don’t think your baby is hungry, try other ways to soothe them instead.
  1. Your baby might turn away for a moment during a feed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve had enough and don’t want to feed anymore; they may want to come back to the breast or the bottle after a few seconds or minutes. Turning away and coming back to the breast or bottle is just a way for them to manage their feelings. Let them choose the pace.
  1. Sometimes breastfeeding can be very painful. It is important to ask for help from a health professional as soon as possible, rather than feeling that you have to keep going. There could be many different reasons for this difficulty, some are very simple to address and treat!
  1. During the first few weeks, babies tend to suckle with great intensity and focus in on their mother. As they get older, they can become more distracted by what is going on around them. This is completely normal and a sign of healthy development – they are interested in the world around them. However, feeding might take longer!
  1. Feeding a baby can bring up difficult emotions. You might have wanted to breastfeed but find it difficult. You might be bottle-feeding your baby and feel like you’re being judged, or vice versa. If you’re struggling, try and talk to someone about how you feel, like a friend or family member, or your GP or health visitor.
Additional resources

Additional resources:

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