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Breastfeeding on baby’s timetable – how often is normal?

Is your baby wanting to breastfeed too often? Not often enough? Is he sucking for long enough to get a full feed? Or perhaps sucking for too long? After how many minutes are you supposed to change breasts?

These are the kinds of questions that plague new mothers. After all, you can’t see how many millilitres of milk a baby drinks on the breast, so how on earth do you know how often or for how long he should be drinking? If you start reading about this on the internet, you’ll get even more confused – it seems every expert has a different guideline, every mother a different experience. How on earth do you make sense of it all?!

How often to breastfeed

Rules? What rules?

The bad news (and, for that matter, the good news) is that there is no correct pattern. There’s no feeding pattern that will work for every baby. Heck, most babies don’t even follow the same pattern two days in a row! And how long or how often baby drinks doesn’t give you any indication of how much milk he’s actually taking in.

This may sound like bad news if you have a type-A, detail-oriented, control-loving personality: this whole breastfeeding thing just seems too out of control. Trust me, I get it – I am (or, as I like to think, used to be) a control freak of note. But the sheer unstructuredness of breastfeeding has since become my favourite part of it – after all, if there are no rules, I can’t be doing it wrong!

Where did the rules come from?

I’m sad to see how often a 3-hourly or 4-hourly feeding routine is still enforced on breastfed babies. Do you know where those routines came from? No, not from studies of babies and their physiologic needs. They come from hospitals and orphanages: they were the feeding times that fit in nicely with the hospital routines and nursing shifts. That’s all. So the hallowed feeding routines were simply instated for the convenience of the adults who were looking after the babies, not because it was in the babies’ best interests!

When we start talking about the frequency and duration of feeds, it becomes clear just how “normal” bottle feeding has become in our society. Bottle fed babies are much more amenable to a feeding routine, because you can “force” them to drink a certain volume of milk at every feed. Breastfed babies don’t work like that – they’ll drink until they’ve had enough, which is generally much less that they would drink from a bottle. And then they drink again when they’re hungry.

So, how often is normal?

Okay, so how often should a breast-fed baby drink? That question has a very precise answer, but it’s probably not the answer you were looking for: baby should drink often enough and long enough to get all the milk he needs. In practical terms, this means feeding baby whenever he wants to, for as long as he wants to. Baby’s needs are the only guideline.

As vague as that guideline may seem, it’s really the only one that makes any sense. You have no way of knowing whether your baby is hungry or not except by looking at their body language. And babies are individuals: no two babies will drink at the same speed, or for the same amount of time or need the same number of feeds in 24 hours. Some babies are slow, leisurely eaters; others chug down their milk as if they’re afraid it’s going to run away. Some babies tank up and then stretch for a long time between feeds; others prefer to snack frequently. If you try to force your baby into a feeding schedule that doesn’t suit him, you’ll end up with a miserable baby and quite possibly a reduced milk supply.

To give you some idea of what is “normal”, if you define normal as “I’ve seen babies who did this and were thriving”:

  • Feeds that last 3 minutes, 20 minutes, 45 minutes
  • Wanting to feed again after 2 hours, 3 hours, 30 minutes, 10 minutes
  • Taking 8 feeds in 24 hours, or 12 feeds, or 20+ feeds

The bottom line is this: as long as your baby is happy, healthy and gaining weight, it really doesn’t matter how often or for how long you breastfeed!

How to know when baby is hungry

There are a few signs that will show you baby is ready for a feed:

  • Baby wakes up. Pretty much all babies want a sip of milk when they wake up.
  • Baby starts rooting – that is, he turns his head around looking for a nipple to latch on to. He may even latch on to a blanket, a soft toy or your cheek, if it happens to be nearby!
  • Baby sucks on his hands. This one is not all about the food though; babies also stick their hands in their mouth as part of normal development. It can’t hurt to offer the breast.
  • Baby moans and fusses. If baby starts to make mewling or crying sounds, you can be pretty sure it’s time for a feed. Even if hunger wasn’t the main problem, the breast almost always makes it better.

This is just a short list, and you’ll soon learn to read your own baby. If in doubt, always offer the breast. Baby won’t drink if he’s not hungry, so there’s no risk of overfeeding.

One thing you shouldn’t do is wait until baby is crying. Crying from hunger means that baby should have been fed some time ago already. A crying baby will also find it more difficult to latch and suckle effectively. Feed baby at the first signs of hunger, and you’ll both be much happier.

baby-cues

A lovely visual guide to signs that baby’s hungry, courtesy of the Women’s and Newborn Services Unit at the Royal Brisbane and Woman’s Hospital, Queensland. Click the picture to visit their website.

How to know when to end the feed

Just like baby decides when to feed, baby should also decide how long to feed. Baby will end the feed when he’s had enough; either by falling asleep or by spitting out the breast. Sometimes baby will still be making little fluttery sucks while almost-but-not-quite asleep – some babies are happy if you take them off the breast then and others will protest loudly. As ever, just follow your baby’s lead.

I also like to look at baby’s hands: when baby is hungry, they’re usually balled into little fists or clawing at your clothes. As that tummy fills up, though, you can see them relax. I’ve heard someone say that baby’s hands are like a fuel gauge showing you how “full” or “empty” they are.

One breast or both?

In old baby books you ill always find something along the lines of “switch baby to the other breast after 10 (or 15, or 20) minutes.” This is not only unnecessary, it’s counterproductive. It’s actually more important for baby to finish the one breast, and for a simple reason: in the beginning of a feed, the first milk in the breast is very watery, to quench baby’s thirst. As the feed continues, more and more fat is released into the milk. As a result, the more milk baby drinks out of one breast, the fattier the milk becomes – and that fat is important for growth. So you want baby to drink one breast as empty as possible, even if it means you only give one breast per feed.

The simple, practical way to do it is this: start on whichever breast feels the fullest. Let baby drink on that breast until he unlatches or falls asleep. Burp baby and change diaper if it’s dirty. Offer the other breast – let bay decide whether or not to take it. Sometimes baby will take only one breast, sometimes he’ll take both, and sometimes he’ll even go back and forth a few times – it’s all normal. The next feed you can then start on the other breast – you don’t even need to remember which breast it is, just feel which one feels the fullest.

Feeding marathons

I can’t finish this post without talking about those days when it feels like your baby is just feeding non-stop. Baby has been on the breast for what feels like an eternity, you can’t imagine that there’s a single drop of milk left in there, but just try and move that nipple and baby screams blue murder. Don’t worry! All babies have times like these, and for a number of reasons:

  • Cluster feeding, aka the suicide hour: most babies have a certain time of day when they’re cranky and irritable and they just need the breast. There’s no point in fighting it – just sit down on the couch and let baby breastfeed.
  • Growth spurts: these are like cluster feeds, but they last for a few days non-stop. I’m not going to lie; growth spurts are tough! You will feel like your life has turned into one long breastfeed. Again, there’s no point in fighting it. In fact, allowing your baby to breastfeed as much as he wants to is the best thing you can do – all that suckling is boosting your supply to make sure he has enough milk for the rapid growth he’s going through. Things will calm down in a few days. Growth spurts can happen at any time, but the most common ones are at 10-14 days, 3 weeks, 6 weeks (that’s a rough one!), 2 months, 3 months, 4 months (nicely coinciding with a sleep regression) and 6 months.
  • Anything that causes baby stress: whether it’s a new environment, an illness, a lot of strange people, mommy going back to work or even something as small as getting a fright from the dog, babies will breastfeed more when they’re upset. Again, just roll with it. You’re helping your baby to settle and to get those toxic stress hormones out of his system.

Bringing it all together

So here it is, baby-led breastfeeding in a nutshell:

  • Feed whenever the baby is hungry, stop when the baby stops.
  • Start the feed on whichever breast feels the fullest.
  • Let baby finish on one breast, then offer the second if he wants it.
  • Don’t count or time feeds – the only thing you can possibly achieve by doing that is to increase your stress levels!
  • Remember our mantra: as long as your baby is happy, healthy and gaining weight, it really doesn’t matter how often or for how long you breastfeed!

How long or how often did your baby feed? Did it ever worry you? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

6 Comments

  1. nelie

    Hi my amper 3 maande oue baba drink en as sy kla gedrink het nie eers n half uur soek sy weer melk ek borsvoed dis asof sy net honger bly maar skree nie suig net haar hande en doek of enige iets wat sy kry dankie nelie

    Reply
    1. Sanja (Post author)

      Dit kan wees dat sy nou besig is om te ontdek hoe om goed in haar mond te sit. As sy nie ongelukkig is nie is sy dalk nie honger nie, sy explore maar net.

      Reply
  2. Elbie

    My 12 week oue baba het my omtrent laat twyfel of ek genoeg melk maak, sy wou net aanhoudend drink tussen 6-9 weke. As dit nie vir my man se aanmoediging was nie sou ek dalk begin het om iets by te gee. Maar ja, baie trane later het sy meer gesettle met haar drinkery en kan ek rustig wees. Op die stadium wil sy altyd drink voor sy gaan slaap. Is dit normaal? Al voed ek wanneer sy net wakker word sy eet gewoontlik en raak aan die slaap op die bors later, probleem is ek voel soos ‘n dummy, want sy maak my teupels seer wanneer sy aan die slaap begin raak (ek skat sy verloor haar goeie latch effens), maar haal ek haar af dan skree sy asof ek haar kos wegvat. Dan is dit op die skouer en sus tot sy kalmeer en dan aan die slaap raak. Leer ek haar slegte ‘sleep associations’?

    Reply
    1. Sanja (Post author)

      Dis heeltemal normaal vir ‘n baba om aan die bors aan die slaap te wil raak; omtrent alle babas verkies dit, en jy kan hulle wel later anders leer. So jy hoef niks daaraan te doen tensy dit jou pla nie.

      Reply
  3. Julie

    Hi, what are your thoughts on waking a 2 week old baby to feed? Like in the evenings, every 3 hours or so and even during the day.

    Reply
    1. Sanja (Post author)

      If it’s a healthy baby who’s growing well, it’s not necessary. I’d only advise waking baby if she’s taking fewer than 8 feeds in 24 hours, or if she’s not getting enough milk for whatever reason. Some moms also wake baby more often during the day to help them sort out their day and night, but that’s not a necessity. Hope that helps?

      Reply

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