It can feel reassuring to have specific instructions about when to feed your baby, especially when everything about caring for a baby is new and uncertain to you.
However, when you are expected to time how many minutes you feed, watch the hours between feeds or count how many feeds your baby has in a day, with the ultimate goal being how many hours you can make your baby sleep, you will soon see feeding your baby as a chore.
Despite claims by various people that a strict feeding schedule will positively influence your baby’s sleep patterns, in most cases there are risks to be considered: some strict regimes have been associated with breast milk supply failure, poor infant weight gain and failing-to-thrive infants.
How strict feeding schedules can impact milk supply
Breastfeeding according to a schedule may seem to work at first but many women who use strict feeding schedules in the early weeks find that their milk supply dwindles and their baby may be weaned by about three months.
By restricting feeds or repeatedly spacing them out with dummies, you may limit the development of the hormonal process that enhances ongoing milk production. This translates to: early and frequent breastfeeding will promote a continuing milk supply, which means that your baby will get lots of milk so he is less likely to wake up often to be fed.
The amount of breast milk you produce and how much your baby drinks is influenced by other factors including your baby’s stomach size, the milk storage capacity of your own breast, the degree of breast emptying during a feed, the fat content in your milk, growth spurts and illness.
Your baby’s stomach size
At first, your baby’s tummy is only the size of his tiny fist and breast milk is very quickly digested so your baby will need frequent feeds, at least in the early weeks. It is common for a breastfed baby to need feeding from several times in one hour to about every two hours at first. It is also common for babies to need a ‘cluster’ of feeds closer together in the evening.
Milk storage capacity of your breasts
Ultrasound studies by biochemist Dr Peter Hartmann and colleagues at the University of Western Australia have shown that breast milk storage capacity can vary up to three times as much between individual women (this is not necessarily related to breast size and doesn’t influence milk production ability). This means that while some women who have a large milk storage capacity will be able to feed their babies enough milk to go three or four hours between feeds (providing their baby has a big enough stomach), other women will need to feed their babies more often. For women with a smaller milk storage capacity, a rigid feeding schedule could result in a hungry, unsettled baby and a mother who questions her ability to produce enough milk when really, it is the schedule that is inappropriate, not the mother’s feeding ability.
An ’empty’ breast fills quicker
According to Dr Hartmann’s research, an empty breast will make milk more quickly while a full breast will make milk more slowly. This means that if your baby sucks vigorously and ’empties’ your breasts (because you make milk continuously your breasts will never be completely empty), production speeds up and if he doesn’t take much milk from the breast at a feeding, your breasts will get the message to make less milk. If your baby seems to go on a feeding binge at any time, this isn’t an indicator that you are ‘losing your milk’ but that you will need to take it easy and feed your baby more frequently for a few days so your breasts get the message to produce more milk. By responding to your baby’s signals, in a few days’ time, he will space out his feeds again.
The fatty hind milk
Babies regulate the type of milk they need by the way they suck. The first type (foremilk) will quench their thirst, which is why they often have short, frequent feeds on hot days, just as we sip from our water bottles. Hunger will be satisfied by longer sucking periods when baby gets the fatty hind milk which is squeezed down into your ducts by the reflex known as ‘letdown’: this is usually felt as a ‘tingly’ sensation in your breasts and accompanied by leaking from the breast that your baby is not sucking from. Letting your baby decide how long he needs to feed and letting him finish the first breast before switching sides, rather than limiting him to an arbitrary number of minutes each side, will ensure he gets the rich fatty hind milk – and will satisfy him, so he sleeps longer.
Growth spurts and illness
There will be times when your baby has a growth spurt and will need to feed more often to match his increasing appetite. Babies who are unwell also often increase their feeding frequency. Researchers now believe that this not only provides comfort, but also increases the baby’s intake of antibodies and immune factors through the mother’s breast milk.
When bottlefeeding is taking too long
Bottlefeeding, whether you are giving your baby formula or expressed breast milk, can be as time-consuming as breastfeeding, especially if your baby feeds slowly as some very little babies do.
The solution to a slow or sleepy feeding baby is not to force him to stay awake by means such as sponging him with wet face washers or by cutting a bigger hole in the teat – this poses a choking risk and most certainly would cause discomfort and distress. Rather, follow your baby’s lead and perhaps offer smaller, more frequent feeds. As he grows stronger, he will find it easier to stay awake and will become a more efficient feeder naturally.
Whether you are bottle or breastfeeding, by trying to see this time as an expression of your love for your baby, you will be able to appreciate the rewards of these intimate moments – breathing in your baby’s delicious smell, stroking his silky skin as his warm little body snuggles against your own, and gazing into his trusting eyes as they meet yours – and you will cherish this precious time long after he has outgrown your lap.