A healthy baby is a well-fed baby, right? Most parents would agree that there’s nothing sweeter than those chubby infant thighs.

But with childhood obesity on the rise, it makes sense to consider nutrition from the earliest age.

Is it possible to overfeed a baby, and should you be concerned about how much your baby eats? Here’s what you need to know.

Formula vs. Breast-Feeding

When it comes to preventing overfeeding in babies, breast-feeding seems to have an advantage over bottle-feeding. The AAP says that breast-fed babies are better able to regulate their own feedings by eating to demand.

Parents can't see how much a baby is eating from a breast, while parents who are bottle-feeding may try to push their baby to finish a bottle. Breast-fed babies also digest breast milk more fully. This affects how a baby's body will use those calories. As a result, breast-fed babies are rarely at risk for overfeeding.

With a bottle, parents may be tempted to add supplements to a baby's formula, like rice cereal or juice. Your baby shouldn’t drink anything except breast milk or formula for the first year of life. Any extras like sweetened drinks aren’t necessary. Fresh fruit (when age-appropriate) is preferable to juice. Heavily sweetened food pouches should also be eaten in moderation.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns against adding cereal to your baby's bottle. It has been linked to excess weight gain. You may have heard that adding rice cereal to a baby's formula bottle will help the baby sleep longer, but it's not true.

Adding rice cereal to a bottle doesn't add nutritional value to your baby's diet. You should never add rice cereal to a bottle without talking to your doctor first.

How Can I Tell if My Baby Is Being Overfed?

If you have a chubby baby, don't panic! Those chubby baby thighs could be a good thing. They likely don’t mean that your baby’s obese or will have a problem with obesity later in life.

To avoid overfeeding, parents should:

  • breast-feed if possible
  • let baby stop eating when they want
  • avoid giving baby juice or sweetened drinks
  • introduce fresh, healthy foods around 6 months of age

For the first two years of life, the AAP encourages parents to track a child’s growth. Your pediatrician should check a baby’s weight and growth at each appointment. But problems with obesity will not be apparent until after 2 years of age. In the meantime, it’s important to practice healthy habits.

What Causes a Baby to Overeat? 

A few factors have been linked to overfeeding in babies. They include:

Postpartum depression. Mothers with postpartum depression are more likely to overfeed their babies. This may be because they’re unable to cope with baby's cries in ways other than feeding. Mothers with postpartum depression also may be more forgetful, or have a harder time concentrating.

If you’re struggling with depression, talk to your doctor about ways to get help.

Economic hardship. Single mothers and mothers who are struggling financially are also more likely to practice overfeeding habits like adding rice cereal to their baby's bottles. They might do this in an effort to stretch baby's formula out more, or to try to keep the baby full longer.

If you’re struggling to afford to feed your baby, you may qualify for government assistance. Find more information here.

When to See Your Doctor 

It's important to remember that babies have their own individual growth curves. As long as your baby is gaining weight appropriately within their own personal growth chart, there’s no reason to worry.

But if you’re having trouble with a baby that doesn’t seem content with their feedings (such as a baby who doesn't sleep well or cries after a feeding), speak to your pediatrician.

Babies go through growth spurts at regular intervals during their first year of life. They’ll need extra nutrition during those times. But talk to your doctor if you have a baby who spits up all of their formula or breast milk after a feeding, doesn’t seem to ever be full, or has sudden weight gain that doesn't match their growth curve.

The Takeaway

Starting healthy eating habits as soon as possible is an important first step as a parent. Whether you’re breast-feeding or bottle-feeding your baby, work with your pediatrician to track their growth and get the help and support you need.