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June 7, 2022 • read
Loss of appetite in babies
Feeding your baby is such a huge part of parenting — you give them a bottle to stop their crying, nurse them when they’re sick, and have a great time exploring different foods when they get big enough. It’s up there on the list of life’s great pleasures and it can be an incredible bonding opportunity. So when your baby loses their appetite, it’s distressing, no matter what stage of life they’re at. Here’s how to navigate loss of appetite in your baby.
What to do if your newborn baby or infant isn’t eating
There are a few reasons that a newborn baby may not be eating enough — a tongue tie, illness, or being born prematurely. But regardless of the reason, if your newborn isn’t feeding normally, you should call their healthcare provider, especially if your baby’s sleepy and has a loss of appetite.
This can be a sign of illness, infection, or low blood sugar. Infants dehydrate easily and not eating can quickly turn into a medical issue. Generally, they shouldn’t go without feeding for longer than five hours for their first 12 weeks.
How to increase a newborn or infant’s appetite
Newborns have tiny stomachs. They can only take in a little bit of food at each feed and need to eat every two to three hours, or a minimum of eight times a day. For the first few weeks of their life, it might seem like your newborn is constantly at your breast or wanting their bottle. It’s a lot of work but as they grow, their stomachs will too, and the amount of food they take at each feeding increases.
As much as you may want to boost your newborn’s appetite, the only safe way to do it is to wait. There are no vitamins for babies to increase their appetite, for example. And you should never force-feed them or add cereal to their bottle.
An infant’s digestive system isn’t ready for anything other than breastmilk or formula until around four to six months. Introducing it sooner in place of breastmilk or formula can put them at risk for nutritional deficiencies.
What causes loss of appetite in babies?
There’s a lot that can cause loss of appetite in a baby’s first year. Your baby will likely double their birth weight in the first four months. By the time they hit one, they’ll probably have tripled it. You’ve no doubt heard about growth spurts — periods of time where babies grow more rapidly and noticeably than other times.
To facilitate all that growth, they’ve got to drink a lot of milk or take in a lot of formula. But when that growth spurt ends, their appetite often falls off for a little while. We often see this temporary loss of appetite in three to four-month-old babies because they’ve just come off of a growth spurt.
Loss of appetite in your baby at two months might also be because of a lull in growth, but it’s more likely due to a change in the composition of your breastmilk. Until about six weeks, your breast milk contains colostrum, which has a laxative effect on the baby. As the amount of colostrum diminishes, your baby’s food goes through them less rapidly, which can trigger a decrease in appetite — as well as the number of poopy diapers you deal with.
Other causes for loss of appetite in babies include:
- Teething – a baby’s appetite may be affected by this when their teeth start to come in at about six months and the last of their baby teeth, the molars, appear around age two. Unfortunately, teething can affect a baby’s appetite — and a toddler’s too — which can strike pretty much any time within their first two years. Luckily, teething symptoms like loss of appetite, sore gums, irritability, and drooling don’t typically last longer than a few days per tooth.
- Feeling overheated – Overheating can cause your baby to sweat and become cranky, which can make them not want to eat. Try cooling them down with a wet cloth, dressing them in cotton clothing, and staying under shaded locations.
- Certain types of food – Since some foods take longer to digest — like whole grains — they may make your baby not want to eat. If your baby is starting on solid foods, it may also make them want to eat less since digestion takes longer than the milk they’ve had for the last six months. Try introducing solid foods in smaller quantities to avoid sudden loss of appetite in your baby.
- Vaccinations– a loss of appetite after vaccination in babies is also common. This is because babies can get a fever from the vaccination or feel pain around the injected area. However, if your baby isn’t eating for more than 24 hours after being vaccinated, you should speak to a doctor.
- Too many fluids – Giving your baby too many fluids before or with a meal can make them feel full pretty easily. With a tiny stomach full of liquid, your baby may not want to eat. If they’ve recently had breastmilk or formula, there’s no need for excess water and juice.
- Infections – Viral and bacterial infections in babies could also bring on loss of appetite symptoms — anything from the flu to an ear infection. This discomfort can make it hard for your baby to eat. On top of that, certain antibiotics can cause a lack of appetite in babies. It’s important to speak with a doctor if you notice your baby’s symptoms from the infection are getting worse.
- Growth – your baby’s growth cycle can affect their appetite too. Since babies grow the quickest during their first six months, they’ll take in a lot of breastmilk or formula. From there, your baby’s growth cycle slows down between six and 12 months and again from 12 to 19 months. This means they don’t need as much food as they did when they were first born.
Symptoms of loss of appetite in babies
It’s important to monitor if your baby has a sudden loss of appetite since it could mean they’re sick. Symptoms that often accompany a loss of appetite in babies include:
- Drooling – this could be because of your baby’s teething affecting their appetite, a cold, or even allergies.
- Coughing, vomiting, or both – this might occur in a sick baby with no appetite because of a viral illness like a cold or the flu
- Irritability – this can occur whether the cause is teething or an infection
- Not eating their usual favourite foods – this can be caused by an upset stomach, teething, a cold, the flu, and more.
Tips for how to increase my baby’s appetite
There are many things you can do to increase your baby’s appetite — not only to gain weight but to improve your baby’s nutritional intake as well, such as:
- Giving them a variety of textures and flavours like bananas, sweet potatoes, eggs, meat (introduced after six months), and cheese (introduced after eight months).
- Encouraging tummy time, rolling on the floor, and any other physical activity your baby is able to do.
- Offering new food along with foods you know your baby likes — don’t be afraid to try giving the new food more than once either.
- Preparing the same food in different ways. Maybe your baby isn’t a fan of whole bananas but will drink them in a smoothie with other fruit, for example.
- Limiting mealtime to 20 minutes max and making sure there are no distractions, such as a TV or iPad.
Does a baby get more full with baby food or formula?
Formula is filled with a protein that keeps your baby fuller longer. However, introducing baby food — a form of solid food — at six months of age isn’t meant as a way to fill your baby up more than formula. A goal to starting them on solid foods is to introduce them to different flavours and textures.
When you start introducing solid food to your baby at this age, it’ll only be in little amounts. This means they’ll need the formula for nutrition and to help fill up their tummy. This combination should continue until they reach about 12 months of age when they no longer need formula and can just rely on solid foods.
When should I worry about my baby not eating?
Worrying yourself sick if your baby doesn’t finish every meal isn’t always necessary since they may simply be going through a growth spurt. But, if you notice a big change in your baby’s eating habits, it’s important to keep a close watch over the next few days. However, weight loss, excessive tiredness, appearing dehydrated, vomiting (more than just typical spit-up), and diarrhea can be a medical emergency in a young baby, so you should seek medical attention right away.
Loss of appetite in toddlers
Your three-year-old might eat as much as a full-grown adult sometimes, but a cookie is still big enough to take the edge off their hunger. While the end of a growth spurt could be the culprit, if your toddler is suddenly eating less at mealtimes, find out if they’re snacking throughout the day.
A granola bar or a handful of veggie chips likely won’t fill you up, but your toddler’s stomach is much smaller. Keep food to mealtime as much as possible or get used to trotting out dinner again just before bedtime.
While loss of appetite is usually nothing to worry about, it can sometimes mean your toddler is sick — especially if they have other symptoms. If your toddler has both diarrhea and loss of appetite, for example, it’s possible that they’ve come down with stomach flu — whether they have a fever or not. And a vomiting toddler with loss of appetite and diarrhea likely has gastroenteritis or the stomach flu. You can usually treat these conditions at home provided you monitor your child for signs of dehydration.
As upsetting as it can be, loss of appetite in babies is common and you can usually trust that your baby’s body knows what it needs. It’s important to note though that newborns and infants can become dehydrated if they don’t have breastmilk or formula every four to six hours.
If your newborn or infant appears to be lethargic, has weak muscles, or is crying inconsolably, this should be treated as a medical emergency. If your baby isn’t eating or showing any signs of being sick, however, it’s a good time to check in with a doctor.
With Maple, you can speak to a doctor about your baby not eating without having to leave home. Simply connect from your phone, tablet, or computer 24/7 for an online visit — you can even choose free prescription delivery to your home. Feel at ease about your baby’s health knowing that care from a Canadian-licensed doctor is just a few taps away.