Could your baby’s sleeping and feeding habits lead to obesity?

Research shows that infants who get into a good bedtime routine are half as likely to be overweight at the age of one as other youngsters

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

Before becoming parents we have the best intentions…

Our babies will be dressed in the finest attire, fed at set times and bathed and in bed by 7 p.m.

But in many cases, it all changes just months after the new human enters the world.

You forget about your aspirations for sparkling white baby grows – it may be more grey than gleaming but if it’s clean and you’ve managed to change him successfully, it’s a win.

The routine you’d planned often goes out of the window too and you accept that if an iPad or an extra feed allows you to get them to sleep quicker, that’s what you’ll do.

And while dressing them in stained pyjamas won’t affect their health in later years, you should think twice about not establishing bedtime routines at an early age.

That’s what researchers from the Penn State College of Medicine in the US are warning.

They say that getting your baby to bed early could boost their health for decades to come.

Research shows that infants who get into a good bedtime routine are half as likely to be overweight at the age of one as other youngsters.

The importance of routine

It’s something baby sleep expert Rachel Waddilove can totally appreciate.

A former maternity nurse and mum-of-three, Rachel runs a consultancy business – rachelsbabies.com – and has written three books all stressing the importance of routine.

She says: “I have no idea about this latest research but, from a practical point of view, if a baby has no sleep routine, mums will feed them back to sleep and obviously they’ll put more weight on.

“There’s a number of things that can affect it. Even as they get older, babies and toddlers that are having milk in the night, their appetite isn’t as good in the daytime so they tend to snack more rather than having full feeds or meals.”

The research done in America shows that infants that pile on pounds in the first year of life are more likely to be obese later in life, putting them at risk of heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

And Rachel, who is based in the UK but has done plenty of work with mums in the Middle East - often conducting workshops in Dubai - says it’s easy to stop babies using feeding as a method of comfort if you establish a routine.

She adds: “It’s really important for babies to get to sleep themselves and if they wake before their next feed is due, to resettle themselves.

“It’s so important for a baby to go down and be happy in their cot. If you have a new baby and you’re breastfeeding it for example, it may fall asleep on the breast very quickly so you lay them down but they wake up ten minutes later. What you should do is wake them up before you put them down to make sure they have had enough milk. Do one side for 15 minutes or so and if they’ve fallen asleep, wake them right up and change their nappy or something, feed until it’s tanked up, burp them, and then lie them in their cot, swaddled, and comfortable to go to sleep themselves.”

Rachel, who has worked with celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, says babies as young as two weeks should be put down awake. She stresses that babies chattering in their cot is normal.

Feeding not always the answer

Indeed, the team who carried out the recent research, studying over 250 first time mums and their babies, acknowledged that feeding is an easy and fast way to quiet an upset baby but warned against it. Tips they offered included letting children cry themselves to sleep if they woke up rather than being fed.

Researcher Jennifer Savage said: ‘We don’t want parents to use feeding to soothe their baby if the baby isn’t hungry – crying is one of the last things a baby is likely to do if they are hungry.’

It’s easier said than done when it’s 3 a.m. and you just want to sleep, says British teacher and mum Gemma Kirkpatrick.

She advises mums to "do whatever it takes within reason to make your life a bit easier," adding: “If that means feeding to sleep, which is an instinctive way of providing calm and comfort, then do it. Nobody ever has to use controlled crying. If I had to sleep train my baby by letting them cry, at the risk that they may not fall into a routine quickly, then I'll take that risk 1000 times over.

"Routine is important but can be introduced gently and led by baby. We started a calm bedtime routine when my daughter was around three months old which involved bath, massage or bedtime stories, feed, all with the lights low before rocking and cuddling her until she settled. It's not easy and I'll soon have two under two but regardless of how exhausted I'll be, if my babies want feeding to sleep and a cuddle when they cry, that's what they'll get. You can't spoil a baby and these early and precious years fly by ridiculously fast.”

Babies’ sleeping habits in the first year will be just one factor that determines their health in later life suggests Abu Dhabi-based mum of one Helen Pletts.

She says: “There are so many other things to consider, mainly what you’re feeding them – I’d say this is more important that how you got them to sleep as a baby. In my opinion research that comes out is just another thing for new parents to worry about, as if they don’t have enough!”

And UK-based grandmother and mum-of-three Yvonne Zaman is quick to disregard the research saying: “I had no routine with any of my children and one is very slim and the other two are a little chubby so how can you explain that?”