One of the biggest decisions that you will make as a new mother is deciding how you will breastfeed. While demand feeding is almost always recommended for immediately after birth, deciding whether to switch to a schedule is up to some debate among both parents and doctors.
Breastfeeding is one of the most natural and beautiful things in the world, but it can quickly get complicated when you try to do what’s best for your baby as well as your schedule and your personal sanity. Deciding whether you will try to stick to a breastfeeding schedule or embrace on-demand feeding is important, but there are some things to consider before you settle on a decision.
Benefits of On-Demand Feeding
For many new moms, the biggest benefit of allowing a newborn to breastfeed on demand is the freedom and convenience. If you’re home with your baby and have the flexibility in your schedule, then you don’t have to worry about watching the clock all day. You can allow your new baby to feed whenever he or she feels it’s time, so your days simply flow easily and naturally.
If you don’t like scheduling or want a break from the overly scheduled lifestyle that you endured prior to pregnancy, you may get a lot out of free breastfeeding. Your body may also have an easier time determining how much milk to produce. The frequency and length of feedings serve as signals that help your body determine what is needed to meet the needs of your baby. Scheduled breastfeeding is a good way to manipulate those signals if you struggle to produce enough milk for your newborn, but on-demand feeding is the most effective way to send those messages for most women.
While there are some qualities that apply to all babies, your newborn is unique. From the capacity of his or her stomach to the way he or she latches and sucks, breastfeeding is an expression of individuality. Allowing your baby to breastfeed on cue allows the person who knows his or her unique needs the best to take control of feeding, and that’s your baby.
It’s also important to keep in mind that babies don’t think of breastfeeding as a nutritional source alone. They also enjoy cuddling up next to their mother, and that brings a lot of comfort and a sense of safety. There’s no way to predict when your baby may need that type of support, and the bonding that occurs during impromptu feedings is priceless.
There is also some research that suggests newborns may gain weight faster when they’re allowed to feed on cue. Other studies have found that breastfeeding on a schedule may reduce the cognitive abilities and academic performances of children later in life, giving you even more reason to strongly consider feeding on demand if at all possible.
In overview, here are some of the biggest benefits to breastfeeding on demand:
- Saves time (no scheduling)
- Gives more control to the baby
- Caters to individual needs of the baby
- Adjusts to baby’s needs through growth spurts automatically
- Natural control of milk production
- Comfort & security on demand
- Faster baby weight gain
- Improved cognitive benefits long term
Frequency of On-Demand Breastfeeding Sessions
If you decide to throw the schedule out the window, how will you know if your baby’s feeding habits are “normal?” Start by realizing that your baby is the expert when it comes to his or her own nutritional needs. As long as you’re getting to the doctor for those milestone checkups and your baby is gaining weight at an adequate rate, then you can rest assured that your baby is thriving with the natural feeding schedule that you have developed together.
On a more technical side, most newborn babies will demand a feeding about every two hours. You should expect to stop your day to breastfeed at least eight times each day, but it’s not likely to occur like clockwork. Your newborn may want to feed every 90 minutes one day while sleeping for a surprising three-hour stretch the next.
You will also likely notice some differences in how often your baby wants to breastfeed during the day and night. Your little one may not seem to notice the difference for the first month or so, but eventually, that should change. As your little one becomes more alert and spends more time interacting with you and other loved ones, he or she should gradually start sleeping more during the night.
You can also expect some growth spurts along the way, and your little one may simply need more comfort and closeness at times. Your baby may suddenly start demanding more breastfeeding sessions, or they may feed for longer periods of time. Rest assured, this will eventually calm down as your baby settles back into a more reasonable breastfeeding schedule. The fact that you’re able and willing to meet your baby’s demand for more milk at those times is remarkable.
Length of On-Demand Feeding Sessions
There is no rule on how long your baby must breastfeed. You may have heard that your baby must continue feeding until both of your breasts are empty, but he or she may not always need that much milk. Your baby is also likely to get too sleep sometimes, which is why most breastfeeding mothers also have a pump to finish the job as needed.
In general, breastfeeding sessions tend to last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. Some babies will get what they need in less time, and there are times when they may just want a quick cuddle session rather than having a sincere need for nourishment. While your baby may not completely empty both breasts each time he or she feeds, you should have a strategy for ensuring that both breasts receive some attention.
One breastfeeding strategy is to feed on one breast until your baby starts to get sleepy and relaxes his or her muscles. Burp your baby at that point and switch to the second breast.
Some mothers also pay attention to the amount of time it takes to empty one breast and the time patterns for their own baby so that they can leave the baby on the first breast for a given amount of time. This won’t work perfectly for the on-demand breastfed baby, and you can always use your pump if you don’t want to get the clock involved. Remember, one big perk to feeding on demand is the freedom to abandon clocks and timers.
Just as with the frequency of your baby’s breastfeeding, you don’t have to stress about specifics as long as your baby is thriving. In addition to going to those doctor appointments and tracking your baby’s growth, you should pay some attention to the wet and dirty diapers produced by your baby. This is often the first change that you will notice if your baby isn’t getting enough milk for some reason.
In the first few weeks of life, your baby may have two to four dirty diapers and up to six wet diapers each day. Beyond the first month of life, you should notice a pattern in your baby’s bowel movements. Some babies have just one per day while others are more ambitious with their output. Most babies will deliver at least six wet diapers each day, but this too can vary with age.
So, What are Breastfeeding Cues?
We’ve talked a lot about listening to your baby’s cues that it’s time to feed and breastfeeding on demand, but what exactly will your baby do to signal that they want to feed? You may just know intuitively, but there are some other breastfeeding cues to look out for:
- Rooting (turning the head toward the breast, opening the mouth)
- Smacking lips
- Sucking on hands
- Crying or fussing
Notice that you don’t have to wait for your baby to scream before offering your breast. Your baby will give you more subtle and pleasant cues before getting to that level of frustration.
Should On-Demand Feeding Last Forever?
All good things must come to an end, right? When it comes to breastfeeding, that depends on your lifestyle and personal factors for your family. Many babies are naturally put on a schedule when their mother needs to return to work or simply wants to spend more time away from home and the baby.
Children also will naturally fall into some type of schedule if their parents keep a routing consistent. Often by 6 months, babies fall into a pretty regular pattern of eating and sleeping that can be rather predictable if not disrupted too often.
At about this same time, you will likely start introducing some solid foods into his or her meal plan. You may not have much choice over how long they prefer your breast to those foods, and some babies will naturally wean over time. How long you allow this to happen will depend on your baby’s personality and your lifestyle.
The decisions that you make with your first baby may not seem right for your second or third baby. Keep your mind open, consider your lifestyle, and do what you feel is best for your family at any given moment. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to nourishing your babies.
Benefits of Scheduled Breastfeeding
While much of our discussion has focused on the many benefits of on-demand or on-cue breastfeeding, it’s important to recognize that scheduled breastfeeding has some benefits. Just as many new moms consider on-demand feeding convenient, there are some women who function best when they follow a daily schedule.
If you’re one of those people, then you should weigh the many benefits of demand feeding against your personal need for structured living. Scheduled feeding may provide the predictability and routine that work-at-home moms need, and you may like the idea of quickly adjusting your baby to the schedule that will be required once you return to work. Not all women have complete flexibility of their schedules for a variety of reasons.
You also may have to fit this baby into an already busy life. While you may have had more flexibility with baby #1, once baby #3 comes along, they often have to roll with whatever the rest of the family is doing and that effects breastfeeding too!
Babies who are later in birth order are often dragged VERY early to their sibling’s events, ball games, play dates, etc… They tend to learn to adapt early!
How it Works in Real Life
There is also a potential middle ground here. You may allow your baby to feed on-demand for a designated period of time, paying close attention to patterns that he or she introduces naturally. That is almost ALWAYS best at the newborn stage!
However, you can then use those cues from your baby to develop a schedule that feels at least somewhat natural to him or her. You could both end up getting what you need even if you aren’t strictly feeding without a schedule.
As mentioned earlier, birth order may make a mix the overall best option you have after the first few weeks. For instance, if you know that you have to leave every day at 4 pm to take the baby’s sibling to soccer practice, you may choose to feed your baby as close to the time you need to leave as possible even if he or she has not actually indicated that it is time to eat. That way your baby is full and not ready to eat the second you get to the ball field!
Keep in mind that your original decision doesn’t have to be your long-term game plan. Be flexible!
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