Being a responsive bottle-feeder
Responsive parenting is the latest craze doing the rounds, and you can even use this approach when bottle-feeding your baby.
responsive bottle feeding

Why do people think that feeding a baby a bottle as simple as them opening their mouth, you placing the teat in their mouth and voila, they start sucking?

Trying to persuade a reluctant feeder to suck can be extremely challenging, and hard to imagine for those who have never had to feed a disinterested baby.

Now, the latest methodology buzzing around the parenting world is called responsive feeding - following on from responsive settling.

First, let's understand the reason for refusal

There can be many reasons, starting with the very simple to the more complex.

Here are a few of the more common

  • Not hungry
  • Unwell
  • Too tired
  • Milk isn't the right temperature
  • Using a different type or brand of formula
  • A different bottle or teat
  • Different person offering the bottle
  • Separation anxiety
  • Oral thrush or other reason causing a sensitive mouth, such as teething
  • Distraction / being too busy to feed - more common for babies four months and older
  • Not liking the taste of the formula

Less common reasons for bottle refusal

  • Pain when sucking and swallowing – most commonly from reflux or a sore throat
  • Being used to breastfeeding – not associating bottles with feeds
  • Sensory processing problems
  • Fear – perhaps from a previous choking episode
  • Developmental problems

If you are worried about your baby’s reluctance to feed it is important you have them checked by a doctor or healthcare professional.

Forming a connection

Bottle feeding is about more than just transferring kilojoules into a baby’s mouth; feeding is as much about feeding your baby’s brain as providing nutrition.

Feeding takes up many hours of a baby’s life and provides an ideal time for parents to show their love and demonstrate how much they care.

To a baby, eye contact, talking, smiling, kissing and cuddling are very powerful ways of saying “I love you”.

The relationship between a baby and the caregivers is very important and paves the way for future relationships. The first three years are vital for building this emotional connection and attachment.

Although baby cues can be subtle, they need their parents to be sensitive and caring and to pick up on them.

Feeding offers something to parents too

Parents should view bottle feeding time as an investment. Sitting down to feed can be one of the only times during a busy day when parents have time to rest.

Unfortunately, this often means parents use it as a time to think about what still needs to be done in the house. If you start thinking about all the jobs you've got to do, your baby is likely to pick up on your tension and react to it.

Your personal feeding priorities are to

  • focus on being “in the moment”
  • stop your brain from racing
  • feel calm

It may help to set up a couple of feeding zones in the house. A comfortable chair, some cushions, a rug or two and good lighting is important.

Avoid feeding your baby in front of the television or other distractions. Your baby will be seeking your face and eyes when they are feeding them and if you’re looking at a screen all they’ll see is your chin.

How to be a responsive parent

  • The most important thing you can do is to look after yourself
  • If you are depressed or overly anxious, speak with your doctor. There is help and support if you ask for it
  • Don't try to be a super parent. Ask for help around the household
  • Let your partner care for your baby and avoid being controlling about this
  • Make time to just be with your baby
  • Things will wait. Try not to be too task orientated
  • Think about the signals you send your baby
  • Be kind and gentle
  • Try not to rush through care giving
  •  Be silly and talk baby talk. This is incredibly valuable. Play games, sing songs and have fun
  • Practise mindfulness; aim to be in the moment and not t hinking about what has happened before or is yet to come
  • Ask your friends/family for help if you’re struggling. Most reasonable people are happy to help
  • Focus on what is truly important
  • Look at your baby’s eyes and face. This gazing is very valuable for brain development
  • Never underestimate the importance of what you’re doing
  • Look for the subtle cues or signals your baby gives you. Blinking eyes, looking away, facial grimacing, smiling – they all mean something!
  • Don’t look for every day to be glorious. Some days are harder than others.

Tips for responsive bottle feeding

  • Wait until your baby is hungry. Signs of hunger are crying, turning their head towards the teat, active sucking, sucking on their fingers, waving their hands around.
  • Use your baby’s behaviour as a guide for feeding rather than the clock. On average, most bottle fed babies like to feed around three – four hourly but this is a guide not a prescription.
  • Remember like us, a baby’s hunger can vary. Some days they are hungrier than others.
  • The volume amounts for age on formula tins are a guide. Every baby is an individual and how much they need and want to drink will be different.
  • Remember you cannot control whether your baby sucks or how much they drink. Healthy babies know if they are hungry and when they are full. Feeding is not about parents controlling their baby’s milk intake.
  • Sucking can be hard work especially for young babies. It’s fine if they need to have a rest from sucking.
  • Make sure the teat flow is at a comfortable rate. Teat sizes and hole sizes are a guide only. Some babies have a very strong suck and feed quickly, others like to take their time.
  • If your baby is pulling away from the teat, crying, closing their lips together and spitting out milk they are telling you they don’t want to feed anymore.
  • Allow some time and opportunity for burping. Half way through the feed and at the end suits most babies.
  • Bottle feeding is different to breastfeeding. If your baby is changing from breast to bottle feeding then expect some transition time as they develop different sucking and feeding skills.
  • Think about the feeding experience from your baby’s perspective. Do you think they are comfortable, relaxed, happy and content? Putting yourself in your baby’s “skin” is truly empathetic.
  • Try not to feed your baby for too long. If your baby hasn’t finished their bottle within 45 minutes or so then stop and offer another bottle in a few hours.

Signs your baby is feeding well enough

  • Increasing weight gain
  • Increasing head circumference and length
  • Reaching developmental milestones
  • Growing out of their clothing and needing the next size up
  • They are happy and content and seem fine
  • Other people mention how big they’ve grown
  • They look bigger in their cot
  • You need to adjust the straps on their car seat/rocker/bouncer/pram
  • They feel heavier and you need to change the way you hold them

Average weight gain

This is a guide only

Birth-3 months Around 150-200 grams/week
From 3-6 months Around 100-150 grams/week
From 6-12 months Around 70-90 grams/week


This article was written by Jane Barry and adapted for Kidspot, New Zealand's favourite parenting resource for Early Life Nutrition.
Breastfeeding is best for babies and provides many benefits. Combined breast and bottle feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of your own breast milk. Always consult your doctor, midwife or health care professional for advice about feeding your baby. This post is part of the Early Life Nutrition story.
Connect with Kidspot:


what's new on kidspot