Formula Feeding On Demand v. Schedule: What Parents Need to Know

Should you feed baby formula on demand, or on a schedule? It depends on baby's age, but you should always let baby's needs be your guide. Here's what parents need to know about formula feeding schedules.

Should you feed baby formula on demand, or on a schedule? Should you let your baby's "cues" tell you when to begin and end feeding, or should you leave that all in your own control?

The answer? Whether you should set a schedule depends on baby's age---and any schedule should be closely based on baby's needs.

Consistently overfeeding formula may cause obesity, so it's still key for you to set limits on feeding. But it's even more essential for baby to learn to regulate their eating, so they know when they are hungry and full. They'll also learn to exhibit fullness cues, so you know when it's time to stop a feed.

Formula feeding schedules go hand-in-hand with early on-demand feedings. The schedules should be based on baby's own eating needs and habits, which will emerge within the first few months and solidify more when baby is ready for solids.

Here's what parents need to know about when to set a formula feeding schedule, and when to feed on demand.

The First Few Months: Feed On Demand

At first, you should feed baby formula on demand---whenever they show signs that they are hungry, including at night.

Signs of hunger may include:

  • Crying
  • Moving the head from side to side
  • Opening the mouth
  • Sticking out the tongue
  • Smacking the lips
  • Making sucking motions
  • Bringing the hand to the mouth
  • Rooting (moving the mouth in the direction of something that strokes the cheek)

Most newborns will want formula around every 2-3 hours (8-12 feedings every 24 hours), but every baby is different, and your baby may want to feed more. As they get a little older, this will shift to around every 3-4 hours. On average, newborns will drink 2-3 oz of formula per feeding, and 1-2 month olds will drink 4 oz per feeding. But again, this varies from baby to baby.

During on-demand feedings, it's important to know how much formula a baby needs, but more important to let baby tell you when they are full. As the American Academy of Pediatrics explains, "On average, your baby should take in about 2½ ounces of formula a day for every pound of body weight. But [they] probably will regulate [their] intake from day to day to meet [their] own specific needs. So instead of being focused on fixed amounts, let [them] tell you when [they've] had enough.

How to know when baby is full? Look for these cues:

  • Fidgeting during a feeding
  • Seeming distracted during a feeding
  • Turning the head away from the bottle
  • Closing the mouth to stop drinking
  • Falling asleep during the feed
  • Spitting up formula

Never force baby to finish a bottle of formula if they seem full!

Watching for how much formula baby typically drinks before fullness cues will help you learn how much to prepare and offer, and how much baby needs. But feeding patterns can change, and baby may start wanting more formula, especially if they're going through a growth spurt.

But even if baby doesn't seem satisfied with larger amounts of formula, never feed baby more than 32 ounces total in 24 hours. This is the maximum amount of formula that you should feed baby according to the AAP and CDC---any more, and you're likely overfeeding. Talk to your doctor if baby wants more formula than this per day.

Around 3-4 Months: Start Trying to Create a Schedule Based On Baby's Needs

Around 3-4 months of age, you may start to notice patterns in the timing of baby's feedings. They may start to eat more, and may be satisfied for a bit longer between feedings, so feedings may seem more spaced out. You can try to use this information to start creating (or predicting) a feeding schedule, but baby's needs and demands are still most important.

Remember that baby's feeding "schedule," and the amounts they eat, will likely change from day to day. So, don't assume that any emerging patterns will stick around yet. Just like us, babies have some days where they're hungrier---it's normal for baby's intake to vary by around 20% from day to day. And since baby is always growing, their formula needs for growth will change often.

Still, if baby seems to want to feed extremely frequently, or wants more than 32 ounces of formula per day, talk to your doctor. It's vital not to overfeed baby, so they aren't at risk of obesity.


When Baby Is Ready For Solids: A Consistent Schedule Should Emerge

Around 6 months of age, or the point that baby is ready to start eating solid food (this could be as early as 4 months of age), baby will usually request food on a consistent schedule. So, it will be a lot easier to set and stick to a formula feeding schedule.

But as always, this schedule should be based on baby's needs, not your own preferences. So don't shift feedings based on your personal schedule---instead, schedule feedings based on when baby usually wants to eat.

When baby is ready for solids, formula feeding is still their primary food source, as formula is carefully created to provide all the nutrients your growing baby needs.

The way you combine the food sources (formula and solids) in your schedule is up to you, as long as baby drinks 24-32 oz of formula per day in addition to the solids. At this age, the average baby will usually want to drink 6-8 oz of formula per feeding (across 4-5 feedings).

For example, around every 3 hours, you could offer formula and then solids, or solids and then formula, as a meal.

You could also start replacing one formula meal with solids, then work towards three solids meals per day supplemented by at least two formula "snacks."

Once baby reaches 9 months of age, their formula needs will decrease to as little as 16 oz per day as they eat more solids. And once baby reaches their first birthday, they will probably be ready to transition more to solids.

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  If your infant has severe eczema, check with your infant’s healthcare provider before feeding foods containing ground peanuts.