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Bottle feeding your baby

9-minute read

Key facts

  • It’s important to sterilise bottles and feeding equipment if using formula, but for expressed breastmilk cleaning with warm soapy water is usually enough.
  • Replace bottles, teats and feeding equipment as they show signs of wear.
  • Aim to stop all your baby’s bottles when they turn 12 months of age.
  • Follow your baby’s hunger cues as a sign that they’re hungry, rather than according to times.

Why might I use a bottle to feed my baby?

Research has shown that breastfeeding is best for babies. However, sometimes breastfeeding doesn’t work out. Another safe feeding alternative is for babies to have expressed breast milk (EBM) or infant formula from a bottle.

Some mothers are unable to breastfeed or choose not to. Breastfeeding may also not be recommended for women who are taking medication that could be transferred to the baby and cause harm. These can include cytotoxic, some antipsychotic and immunosuppressive medications. Women who have had breast cancer, breast surgery or who have certain health conditions may also be advised not to breastfeed.

An alternative to fully formula feeding can be mixed feeding — offering breastfeeds followed by a bottle with EBM and/or formula to meet the baby’s nutritional needs.

How do I feed my baby with a bottle?

You have choices about what type of bottle you use to feed your baby. Although many manufacturers claim their bottles and feeding equipment are superior to others, the fact is that all bottles sold in Australia need to meet stringent safety and manufacturing requirements. Some babies may prefer a particular style and shape of bottle and teat.

Remember — it’s important to enjoy your baby’s feeding times. Follow their cues, which will let you know when they’re hungry and when they’re satisfied.

How to bottle feed your baby

Feeding your baby should be an enjoyable experience for you and your baby. Here are some tips:

  • Unwrap them so they can move around, touch and explore when they’re feeding.
  • Sit comfortably and make sure your back is well supported.
  • Talk gently to your baby and hold them close so they can see you.
  • Check the temperature and flow of milk is right for your baby.
  • Hold the bottle at an angle, making sure the teat and neck of bottle contain milk. This will help to reduce the amount of air your baby swallows.
  • Gently place the teat into your baby’s mouth and let them start sucking when they’re ready. Place the teat on top of their tongue and far enough back in their mouth so they can suck effectively.

If your baby starts to fuss or turns their head away, they may need a break. They might also be showing you they’re full or need to burp. Follow their lead to offer the bottle again, or to stop feeding. Never force your baby to finish a bottle.

If you have more than one baby, try to feed them one at a time. Doing this will give them important individual time.

What’s the best way to warm my baby’s bottles?

Formula and expressed breast milk can be warmed in the same way. Here are some bottle-warming tips:

  • Stand the bottle in a container of hot water for a few minutes. You can use a bottle warmer if you want to.
  • Check the temperature of the milk by putting a few drops onto the inside of your wrist — it should feel just warm.

Don’t use a microwave to warm bottles of milk. Microwaves can cause milk to heat unevenly, causing burning.

What is paced feeding?

Paced feeding supports bottle-fed babies to control the flow of milk they take at each feed. Breastfed babies are used to doing this; however, when babies feed from a bottle they have less control. This means they’re more likely to swallow the milk quickly. Paced feeding helps to prevent choking and for babies to be given too much milk.

To pace feed your baby:

  • Wait until they show signs that they’re hungry, rather than feed to a timed schedule.
  • Hold them so they’re more upright, rather than lying down. Support their head and neck with your hand, not your arm.
  • Use a slow-flow teat.
  • Gently brush the teat down the middle of your baby’s lips, this will encourage them to open their mouth. Let them draw the teat into their mouth themself.
  • Tip the bottom of the bottle up just enough for the milk to fill the teat. As your baby feeds, let them lean backwards so the teat stays filled with milk.
  • Keep their head and neck aligned. At the start of your baby’s feed the bottle will be more horizontal and towards the end, the bottle will be almost vertical.
  • Let your baby pause and have a break every few minutes. Follow their lead to let you know they’ve had enough.

What if my baby doesn't finish the bottle?

Babies are very good at judging how much milk they need, but it’s important to make sure that they’re growing well, gaining weight and reaching their developmental milestones. In the same way that an adult’s appetite varies, babies may be hungrier on some days than others. If your baby goes to sleep when they’re feeding, try burping and changing them.

Check to see they are having regular wet, clear, nappies, 5 or more each day. Their poos should be soft, pasty and not hard or dry.

Throw away any formula or expressed breast milk that is left at the end of the feed, or after one hour.

How do I clean bottles?

If you are bottle feeding with infant formula, you will need to sterilise the bottle and teat before each use. There are different ways to sterilise bottles.

If your baby is full term and healthy, and you are giving expressed breast milk, you don't need to sterilise your expressing equipment or bottles. Cleaning in warm soapy water is usually enough.

Speak to your doctor or child health nurse for advice on cleaning expressing equipment and bottles if:

  • your baby is sick
  • your baby was born premature
  • you have any type of infection on either of your breasts or nipples

It’s recommended to clean bottle-feeding equipment after every feed. If you can’t clean the bottle and teat straight away, rinse them with clean water. This will make them easier to clean properly later.

What if my baby refuses the bottle?

If your baby does not want to feed, stop offering the bottle and re-offer in an hour or so. Feeding in a quiet, distraction-free environment sometimes helps. Think about how much milk and solids they’ve had already and if they’re likely to be hungry. Check the milk temperature and teat flow is fine. If there are changes in their feeding behaviour or you’re worried, have your baby checked by a GP.

How many bottles should my baby have each day?

Newborn babies generally have between 6 to 8 feeds in 24 hours. Older babies from around 3 months are generally satisfied with around 5 to 6 bottles in 24 hours. But there’s no one right number of feeds and every baby is an individual. Sometimes babies feed more closely together and at other times, further apart. As a general guide, most babies show cues when they’re hungry and cry, look for the bottle and then calm when it’s offered.

Can I feed my baby too much?

It is possible to overfeed a bottle-fed baby. This is more likely to happen when strict feeding schedules are followed and feeds offered according to time, rather than a baby’s cues.

How long should my baby use a bottle?

Try to stop offering your baby a bottle once they reach 12 months. This will help to reduce the risk of tooth decay, ear infections and low iron. Instead, offer a training or sipper cup with milk or water. Be patient and encouraging as your child learns what’s involved in drinking from a cup.

Resources and support

Feeding can be challenging for many parents and babies. Fortunately, there are many supports available to you.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023

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