If you've never bottle fed a baby before, you might find the idea of it a little daunting. Don’t worry, after the first few feeds, you’ll wonder what you were so nervous about, and giving your baby their bottle is a great oppourtunity to build a strong bond!
We've created a handy step-by-step bottle feeding guide to help you get started.
Step one: Buying the right gear and keeping it clean
First things first, when you're getting ready to bottle feed, you'll need several bottles, nipples, a bottle brush, some sterilizing equipment and perhaps a breast pump.
How many bottles and teats you'll need depends on how often you plan to use bottles to feed your baby. If you’re going to be using bottles once a day or just occasionally, it's best to have at least two so that if lost, damaged or unclean you have a backup.
But, if you’re solely bottle feeding a newborn, then it’s a good idea to opt for four to six bottles and teats to get started with, because newborns can feed anywhere between up to 12 times over a 24-hour period!
Sterilising your baby’s bottles and feeding equipment thoroughly before each use is a must. It protects your baby from infections (especially while their immune system is still developing). Failure to sterilise can lead to stomach upsets like diarrhoea.
Before sterilising your baby’s bottles, be sure to give them a scrub with hot soapy water. And remember, it's recommended that you sterilise all bottles, teats and other feeding equipment until your baby is at least 12 months old.
Step two: Making a bottle for your baby
If you're bottle feeding, you'll either be giving your baby expressed breastmilk, formula milk or feeding using both (but not at the same time in the same bottle), this is sometimes called mixed or combination feeding.
WIC Breastfeeding Support has lots of information about mixed feeding.
If you're going to give your baby expressed breastmilk in a bottle, you'll need a breast pump, and some pouches to store your expressed milk in the fridge or freezer.
If you're using infant formula, follow the instructions on the packaging carefully and always use sterile water that's been boiled and left to cool. It's worth noting that too much water can dilute the formula, meaning your baby won’t get the optimal amount of nutrition from their feed, and on the flip side, too much formula can lead to constipation and dehydration.
Only make up a formula feed when needed, and make one feed at a time, never in bulk.
Step three: Introducing your baby to a bottle and feeding them
When it's time to give your baby their bottle, follow these tips for feeding success…
Look out for baby's feeding cues
Your baby will let you know that they're hungry by using early signals such as…
- Trying to find something to suck – usually their hands or fingers
- Moving their eyes around
- Rooting around or looking for the teat of the bottle
- Wriggling and getting restless
- Opening and closing their mouth
Keep in mind that crying is the last sign of wanting to feed, so try and feed your baby before they cry.
Check the temperature of the milk
If your baby likes a warm bottle, use the inside of your wrist to test a few drops, and if it’s a comfortable temperature, you’re good to go!
Make sure you're both sitting comfortably
Sit with your baby close to you and hold them in a semi-upright position. Support their head so they can breathe and swallow comfortably.
La Leche League advises that "babies who are bottle-fed lying on their backs can end up taking too much milk, too quickly. Very young babies (under about six weeks) can be fed lying on their side, on a pillow on your lap, with their feet towards you. Some younger babies, and most older babies feed best sitting up fairly straight, supported behind their neck and shoulders by your arm or hand."
Remember, never leave your baby alone to feed with a propped-up bottle as they may choke on the milk.
Eye and skin-to-skin contact
Bottle time might be the calmest part of your day with your little one, so soak it up. Make sure that you can see your baby's face and reassure them by looking into their eyes.
Maintaining eye and skin-to-skin contact releases the love hormone oxytocin, and is a great way to bond with your baby while improving their non-verbal communication skills. Plus, dads, co-parents and other key adults who spend lots of time holding and feeding baby can also experience a surge of feel-good nurturing hormones.
UNICEF states that skin-to-skin contact also…
- Calms and relaxes baby
- Regulates the baby’s heart rate and breathing, helping them to adapt to life outside the womb
- Stimulates digestion and an interest in feeding
- Regulates temperature
- Enables colonisation of the baby’s skin with the mother’s friendly bacteria, thus providing protection against infection
Talk and sing to your baby
Talking and singing to your little one while bottle feeding creates a really powerful emotional bond with them, even from a really young age.
Gently introduce the bottle
Brush the teat against your baby's lips to stimulate their gaping (mouth-opening) reflex, and when they open their mouth wide let them draw in the teat.
If you've previously been breastfeeding your baby and want to introduce a bottle into your feeding routine, it can help to let them get used to the feel of the bottle teat on their first few tries before they try to swallow milk. You may want to go faster but pushing it, or hoping that hunger will coax them, but this can end up with your baby refusing the bottle altogether.
Most babies of all ages will accept a bottle – some with a little coaxing! It can help to think about it from your baby’s view. It is very unlikely that you are missing the perfect teat or bottle. If your baby becomes upset, stop for a few days of you can, and then try again.
Keep the bottle horizontal
Once the teat is in baby’s mouth, keep the bottle in a horizontal position (just slightly tipped) to allow the milk to flow steadily and help prevent your baby from taking in air. This also means that baby needs to suck actively to get the milk like they would when breastfeeding.
Always tilt the bottle so the teat is full of milk. You’ll need to tip it higher as the bottle slowly drains. If the teat goes flat while you're feeding, pull gently on the corner of your baby's mouth to release the suction, and if it gets blocked, replace it with another sterile teat.
Let your baby guide you
Your baby will know how much milk they need. Some want to feed more often than others. Just follow your baby's lead. Feed your baby when they seem hungry and don’t worry if they don’t finish their full bottle. This is often called 'paced bottle feeding'.
Feeding can be tiring for babies, so watch them carefully and look out for cues that signal that they need a break. These signs will be different from one baby to the next, but can include splaying their fingers and toes, wrinkling their forehead, spilling milk out of their mouth, turning their head away or pushing the bottle away.
If they do need a break, just gently remove the teat and bring the bottle down to cut off the flow of milk until they ask for more milk. If they don’t ask for more, they've probably had enough for now.
Sometimes, babies prefer a feed that comes in two parts. Young babies may want a short nap (often about 10-20 minutes) before taking the second part of their feed. Most adults prefer always to give a bottle using the same hand, but you could even try turning baby around to have some more on the 'other side', like you would with breastfeeding.
Overfeeding can cause distress and trying to bottle feed a crying baby means they could potentially choke. So, try not to make the mistake of assuming that your baby is hungry every time they cry. Other reasons your baby might be crying can include…
- Needing to be burped
- Needing their nappy changed
- Being tired or generally irritable
- Needing comfort and cuddles
Wind your baby
During feeds, your baby takes in little air bubbles which can get trapped in their little tummy. This can cause them discomfort and sometimes lead to colic.
If your baby seems uncomfortable during or after a feed, spending a few moments burping them can really help to relive discomfort caused by trapped wind.
You can burp your baby…
- Over your shoulder: With your baby's chin resting on your shoulder, support their head and shoulder area with one hand, and gently rub and pat their back. It can help to walk around while doing this.
- Sitting on your lap: Sit your baby on your lap facing away from you. Place the palm of your hand flat against their chest and support their chin and jaw (don't put any pressure on the throat area). Lean your baby forwards slightly and with your free hand, gently rub or pat their back.
- Lying across your lap: Lie your baby across your lap face down. Supporting their chin (don't put any pressure on the throat area), use your free hand to gently rub or pat their back.
If these methods don't work and your baby still shows signs of trapped wind (crying, arched back, drawing legs into tummy, clenched fists), try lying them on their back and gently massaging their tummy and moving their legs back and forth.
Get rid of any unused milk
You should throw away any unused formula or breast milk after you've finished bottle feeding your baby. It may seem wasteful, but it's safer for your baby because bacteria can get into the milk while they feed and damage their delicate immune system.
Step four: Check the condition and flow rate of your teats
Your beautiful newborn's soft gums won’t stay that way forever! Soon teeth will arrive, and you'll need to check your teats for signs of biting. We recommend changing your bottle teats every two months. And you should change them immediately if they're damaged, weak or have been bitten by tiny teeth.
A teat's flow rate refers to the size or number of holes in the teat, affecting how quickly milk flows into your baby’s mouth.
Most bottle teats come in a range of flow rates that're designed for different age ranges (usually slow flow for newborns, medium flow for three months, and fast flow for six months and up), meaning you can roughly judge which flow is best based on your baby’s age. There are also vari-flow teats that allow your little one to control the pace of their own feed.
Your baby will usually let you know when it’s time to change flow rate, or even if you’ve moved up too quickly.
Signs that it’s time to move up a teat size include your baby…
- Becoming impatient or aggravated when eating
- Taking longer than 20 minutes to finish a feed
- Falling asleep while feeding
- Sucking hard and/or the teat collapsing in on itself
Signs that the teat you’re using is too big include your baby…
- Gulping or hard swallowing
- Coughing or choking
- Excess milk dripping out of the mouth
- Refusing to eat
Step five: Ask for help if you need it
Whether you've chosen to bottle feed with formula or expressed breast milk (or a combination of both), we know that it can feel quite overwhelming.
It can really help to talk to your midwife, health visitor or other parents who have bottle fed if you need additional support.
Here are some organisations that can help…
- PEPS (Program for Early Parent Support) provides resources to help support you as you learn about feeding your baby.