Just Because Your Baby Is Crying Doesn't Mean You Should Feed Her, Research Says

Some doctors argue that by feeding a crying baby who may not be hungry, parents are teaching them to soothe themselves with food, setting them up for obesity later in life. . goodluz/Shutterstock

One night, several weeks after my second daughter was born, my husband and I were having a particularly hard time soothing her. I was exhausted, as she had been breastfeeding every 45 minutes for the whole day, and she wouldn't stop crying, no matter what we tried. "There's no way she's hungry," I insisted. "She's been eating all day!" But we couldn't stand it any longer. "Just put her on your boob already!" my husband begged. So I did, and she immediately quieted and went to sleep.

Maybe she just had a voracious appetite that day and was genuinely still hungry. Or maybe she got overwhelmed, as babies do, and just needed her favorite method of comfort. Who knows. What I do know is that I have no regrets about using food — in this case, breastmilk — to soothe her. But according to a recent story in the New York Times, I may have set her up for a lifetime of obesity.

Studies have shown that when parents use "responsive parenting" techniques — where they learn to identify hunger in babies and learn alternative ways to soothe them — their children are less likely to be overweight and more likely to sleep better. This compared to parents (like me) who feed a crying baby almost on autopilot, and whose children are more likely to eat for comfort throughout their lives.

"Many people tell mothers to feed on demand, but they never define what 'on demand' is," Dr. Ian Paul, a professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, told the New York Times. If you're always feeding your crying baby, he says, then "their normal ability to regulate their emotions becomes overridden with a food reward to soothe them and that then projects later into life — when they are upset or depressed, food becomes the mechanism to soothe these emotions."

Staging an intervention

newborn baby crying
Is this baby crying because she's hungry or for another reason? It can be hard to tell, but learning responsive parenting techniques can help, researchers say. FamVeld/Shutterstock

Paul is one of the leaders of the Insight Study, an intervention that helps parents learn responsive parenting strategies and read their babies’ signals better. To be clear, during the intervention, parents are encouraged to feed hungry babies, but they're also taught how to recognize a hungry cry versus any other cry. For example, instead of feeding, parents are encouraged during the intervention to try swaddling, listening to white noise, rocking or repositioning, the Times reports. Also, parents are given information about how much crying they should expect at different ages. This is all in hopes of lowering the rate of obesity, which is a laudable goal given that a new study showed 10 percent of the world's population is obese.

But here's the thing: Sometimes soft noises or rocking will calm a fussy baby, but sometimes they won't. (Do they really think we parents haven't tried those things?!) Plus, babies' appetites can change day to day, so sticking to a feeding schedule often isn't practical. But the bigger point to me is that feeding a baby isn't just about putting food in their mouth. It's also about holding them close so they can feel your warmth and breath and creating a bond as a meal is given. And sometimes it's about using a bottle or a nipple as a pacifier (if they won't take an actual pacifier) just to get the baby to stop screaming.

I don't plan to have more babies, but if I did, I wouldn't change my approach to feeding them despite the medical advice about warding off childhood obesity. I'd attempt to counter that with lots of physical activity and healthy eating throughout their early years. Because quieting a baby to preserve my sanity is an equally important goal.