Baby Whisperer: Feeding a Sleepy Newborn

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The trick to feeding a sleepy newborn. How to get your newborn to wake up so you can feed her.

The trick to feeding a sleepy newborn. How to get your newborn to wake up so you can feed her.
Kaitlyn was my hardest baby to wake up to feed

A sleepy baby is really an exhausting thing for a mom who is trying to get a full feeding in her baby. When Brayden was a baby, I wasn’t doing Babywise yet and I would let him be done if he fell asleep eating. With Kaitlyn, however, I worked and worked to get her to eat. She was a really sleepy newborn. Tracy Hogg lists some ideas for keeping a baby up for a feeding in the book Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. Here they are (found on page 99):

  • Use your thumb to rub a circular motion on the palm of his hand.
  • Rub his back or underarm.
  • “Walk” your fingers up and down his spine.
  • If none of these work, leave baby for 30 minutes and try again (as also suggested in Babywise).

Hogg says to not to use a wet washcloth or tickling feet. I have to say though that those techniques would often work for Kaitlyn.

In The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems (affiliate), Hogg states that baby is less likley to fall asleep during feeds after 6 weeks of age (page 30). That doesn’t mean it never happens; some do and some don’t (some really never did). But it might give you something to look forward to. With Katilyn, I remember a significant improvement after 4 weeks, then steady progress from there. [added February 7, 2009].

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Reader Advice:

  • bradysmom said…
    My baby was a very sleepy newborn as well. I always found the wet wash cloth did the trick. I would always have to feed him in only his diaper as well. Usually, between being naked and the wet washcloth, I could keep him awake!
    August 19, 2008 5:58 AM
    Plowmanators said…
    Thanks Bradysmom–ugh, that was so much work! I don’t miss that šŸ™‚
    August 19, 2008 9:11 PM

Reader Questions:

  • jencwu said…
    One thing I have struggled with is how do I know when my baby is done eating? He is 4 weeks old and still quite sleepy when he’s eating, so I will try to make him go 10-15 mins on each side, sometimes longer if he is really sleepy. Usually after that amount of time I am really fighting to keep him awake and I usually just figure he’s had enough so I break his suction and take him off. Is that the right thing to do or should I wait for him to do that on his own? If I wait it might take forever since he is always going in and out of sleep. Also, my husband feeds him 1 bottle of breastmilk for his DF and he usually eats about 5 ounces, which from what I’ve read is a lot more than typical at this age. He is growing a lot faster than typical too. So I know he has a big need for food, but I just really don’t want to spend my entire day nursing a sleepy baby.
    August 22, 2008 1:10 PM

    The trick to feeding a sleepy newborn. How to get your newborn to wake up so you can feed her.

    Plowmanators said…
    jencwu, This is a hard one, especially for the first time mom. My son took an hour to eat (at least) at that age. Looking back, a lot of that was me not really knowing what was going on. Just work to keep him awake (I know it is draining, but it should improve soon). At 3 months, my son went down to 30 minutes and was really easy to see when he was done eating. It will get easier with time and experience.
    August 28, 2008 7:48 AM

  • jencwu said…
    I looked around and wasn’t sure where else to put this question, so I’m including it here. I know BW says not to nurse your baby to sleep, but what about at nighttime feedings? What I have been doing is when he wakes up at night, I feed him on one side, change his diaper, then feed him on the other side. I try to keep him awake to get a full feeding but then after a certain amount of time he is just so sleepy he won’t wake up for anything. I really press the issue if I feel he hasn’t eaten enough, but usually he gets that sleepy after I feel he’s eaten enough. So I just burp him (he usually even sleeps through that at those times!) and put him down. Do you think this is okay or could it be messing up the daytime routine (as in maybe it is making him feel like he needs to feed in order to go to sleep for naps?)? If I shouldn’t be doing this, what would you suggest for nighttime feedings?
    August 22, 2008 1:19 PM
    Krystal said…
    Jen,In BW it says that during the nightime feeding you are suppossed to feed him and then immedietly put him back down. I don’t think there is any problem w/ nursing and then putting him back to bed. This is what I did w/ both of my kids, and it didn’t cause a problem w/ naps during the day. Just be sure and keep the eat/awake/sleep cycle (makeing sure you don’t nurse to sleep)during the day and you are set. šŸ™‚
    August 24, 2008 9:55 PM
    Plowmanators said…
    jencwu, I think that is fine for that feeding. Just do your best to be sure he gets a full feeding so he can get some good sleep.
    August 28, 2008 7:50 AM
    Plowmanators said…
    Thanks Krystal–good tips!
    August 28, 2008 7:50 AM
  • juls1974 said…
    I can totally relate to Jen. My 5 week-old does the same thing when I’m nursing, whether it’s day or night. He falls asleep within 10 minutes of nursing and then wakes up briefly to suck every minute or so (especially if I try to take away the breast). I usually change his diaper and that will wake him up for a few more minutes of nursing, but then it’s back to sleep again. I realize now after reading many posts/comments that I need to work a little harder to get in that full feeding. My question now is what can I do to keep him awake during “waketime?”Many times I end up burping him after nursing and then putting him to bed right away because there’s NOTHING I can do to wake him up. If he does wake up a little he’s so drowsy that I can’t tell when I should put him down to bed (overabundance of sleepy cues). Does that make sense? So, he sleeps so much during the day that he sleeps poorly during the night which makes him extra sleepy the next day, and the viscious cycle continues… Any suggestions?
    September 11, 2008 2:12 PM
    Plowmanators said…
    The fact that he isn’t sleeping well at night tells you that he needs more waketime in the day. I would think through his day and figure out when he is most awake. For one week, focus on keeping him awake for that waketime. At the same time, figure out his optimal waketime length. At that age, my guess would be 30-45 minutes, while some could do 60 minutes. After a week, choose another waketime so you have two waketimes in the day that he is awake, and so forth. If he responds well, you can move faster than one week at a time.To keep him awake, sit him up, talk to him, keep things interesting (but remember for a newborn it doesn’t take much to be interesting).
    September 17, 2008 8:11 AM

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Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book,Ā The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on theĀ AboutĀ page. Follow her onĀ Facebook,Ā Pinterest, andĀ InstagramĀ for more tips and helps.

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  1. scs
    April 7, 2009 / 3:03 AM

    My daughter is 4 weeks old and falls asleep nursing all the time still (after a full feeding- about 10-15 on each side.) But here’s the problem, after she falls asleep and I try everything to wake her up to no avail, I put her down in her crib, then she wakes up again 20-30 minutes later. Start CIO at that point? I’m still trying and trying to keep her up, and some feeds it works, though she has yet to just go down and sleep from an awake state without a serious protest. We’ve been using BW since day 1, but as soon as we started trying to keep her up it all seemed to fall apart. Note- she does fine at night generally. Thanks for this great site!

  2. Joel, Laurie, and Caleb
    April 20, 2009 / 5:16 PM

    Thanks for all the time and effort you put into this site! And congratulations on your new baby! I am a first-time mom to a 6-week-old boy. Since birth, he has fallen asleep at the breast at almost every feeding. It takes between 45 min to an hour for each feeding. We have been having problems with naps for the last few weeks (waking 20-30 minutes into almost every nap and not going back to sleep), so I want to try cutting back his waketime to see if that will help. But when I do that, his entire waketime consists of feeding! Is that okay? I’m concerned about cutting out his waketime activities such as tummy time, but I really want him to learn to nap. Any advice you have would be much appreciated!

  3. Plowmanators
    April 21, 2009 / 8:53 PM

    SCS,I would experiment with things. You might go in and tell her that it is time to sleep and do a sleep routine with her then put her down. If she does worse with that, then you might just CIO from that point. Hopefully she is easier to keep up by now! Does she stay asleep even through a diaper change? Even if you have to change her diaper mid-feeding, you could wipe her or something to wake her up.

  4. Plowmanators
    April 21, 2009 / 8:56 PM

    Laurie, that might help, but only if his waketime is too long right now. My best guess would be that he is just getting some sleep during the feeding portion and isn’t tired enough to sleep. That happened with Kaitlyn. Do your best to keep him awake during the feeding so he doesn’t get a mini nap in there. If he is awake the entire feeding, then you likely do need to just put him down right away. 60 minutes is about all a newborn can handle–many need 30-45 minutes.

  5. Stephanie
    December 12, 2010 / 1:38 PM

    I could not find any information on this anywhere else so I hope it applies. HELP!!! I'm a second time mom and my first son was a perfect BW CASE my second son is causing us lots of problems. He HAS TO be held all the time or HE WILL NOT SLEEP. He is only 1 week old at this point but if he isn't being held all day and all night he is crying. Am I suppose to let him cry it out?? Is this an insecurity or a bad habit already? Also he is extremely tired during nursing, at best I can get him to eat 10-15 minutes total and that is doing everything from diaper change, undressing, wet rag, talking, using lights, ect. What else can I do?Thanks for all your help!!

  6. Plowmanators
    December 21, 2010 / 8:45 PM

    Stephanie, there are a couple of posts on keeping a newborn awake during feedings. See the newborn index to find it. I would look into some sort of possible medical issue like reflux or gas pain. Also, if you aren't, you should try swadding. I would also suggest this product to you that I sell:

  7. Gwyn
    June 26, 2011 / 1:17 PM

    After reading several of your posts, I'm starting to wonder if my 7 week old is having problems falling asleep at naptime b/c she is taking small cat naps during feeding time. I'm always trying to stimulate her while she is eating, and she continues to suck (her eyes are almost always closed), but it sounds like she could be sleeping? i tried this morning and it is so hard to keep her awake and swallowing – it takes me about an hour to feed her! it's frustrating because at the end of the feeding once she is off the breast and not as snuggly, she is wide awake! i wouldn't call her a sleepy newborn, just a sleepy eater. what do i do?! the frustration is making me want to exclusively bottle feed – because sometimes we do bottle feed and she stays awake for that generally.

  8. Plowmanators
    July 14, 2011 / 4:48 AM

    Gwyn, if she is sleeping during feedings, that will interfere with naps. But hang in there. It will get better if you keep working on it.

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