Feeding your baby as often and for as long as they want is the best way to make sure that they get everything they need, and to ensure a good supply. Most small babies feed A LOT, often much more than we expect! Breastmilk is digested very quickly, and a newborns’ stomach is very small, so it needs filling frequently. They also don’t just feed for nutrition. Breastfeeding provides your baby with all the comfort and security they need to make the transition between life inside the womb and the big wide world. Their need for comfort, love and security is no less important for their development than their need for nutrition. Most babies need feeding at least 8-12 times in every 24 hours, but some may want feeding more than this. Feeding patterns vary and as does the length of feeds. Sometimes your baby might want to be on the boob for 40 minutes and then not want feeding again for a few hours, and later in the day they might want feeding for ten minutes every half an hour. This is normal! Trust your baby and follow their lead. As babies get older their feeding patterns usually become more predictable and you feel much less like a dairy cow, I promise!
Should I wake my baby for feeds?
Some babies are very sleepy in the first few days after birth and, despite what your Nanna might tell you, some will be too sleepy to wake when they need feeding. For this reason it is a good idea to wake your baby for feeds in the first few weeks if you have to, to ensure they are feeding at least 8-12 times in 24 hours. After this, as long as their weight and nappy output is OK and they are still feeding plenty, you don’t have to wake your baby to feed them.
The dangers of spaced feeding
Some people might tell you that you should feed your baby ‘by the clock’ and get them into a routine as soon as possible. This is not a good idea when you are breastfeeding as it can lead to a low supply and a hungry, irritable baby. As I explained in this post, when you feed your baby at set intervals you will be leaving milk in your breasts for longer periods of time. This means that the level of the protein ‘FIL’ in your breasts rises, and production slows down until the next feed. Overtime this can lead to you producing less milk. Have a look at this article written by Emma Pickett (IBCLC, Chair of ABM) for further explanation of why it is not a good idea to time the intervals between feeds.
Responsive feeding means feeding your baby whenever they show hunger cues AND whenever YOU need to. It’s about meeting your own needs as well as your baby’s. If your breasts are feeling uncomfortably engorged, or you just want to feed your baby, you don’t have to wait for your baby to ask for their next feed. Offer them the breast and chances are they will take it.
How do you know when your baby is hungry?
Unfortunately, some people have the impression that feeding a baby who is old enough to ask to be fed is ‘weird’ (see here for my thoughts on that). The reality is, they ask to be fed from day one, it’s just that the way that they ask changes as they get older. So how does a baby who isn’t old enough to use language or hand gestures ask to be fed? Crying is uaually the last resort. Babies tend to show their hunger in other ways first, and then cry impatiently if those cues are not acted on straight away. If your baby is already agitated and crying, they may refuse the breast unless they are calmed first. Often a bit of skin to skin and a cuddle will help. Here is a list of ways in which a young baby will tell ask to be fed, ordered from earlier signs to later signs:
- Opening their mouths, licking their lips and making sucking noises
- Rooting: this is a reflex wherein babies turn their head from side to side, opening their mouth to search for food.
- Bringing their hands to their mouths
- Frantic movements
As your baby gets older, they will begin to use other signs too such as:
- Positioning themselves for a feed
- Repeatedly hitting you on the chest or arms
- Pulling at your top
- Asking using words
How long should each feed last?
There is no need to time your baby’s feeds, and doing so will not tell you how much milk they are getting! Sometimes they just want a quick drink, and other times they want to fill their tummies to the brim. Sometimes they will feed very quickly, and other times they will want to take their time.
Feeds will *usually* last between 5 and 45 minutes, and the length will vary from feed to feed. Sometimes they will want to stay attached to the breast for over an hour, and sometimes they will only stay on for a minute or two. As long as most feeds last between 5 and 45 minutes, you’re doing OK.
Allowing your baby to finish feeds themselves is important as it allows them to get a good balance of everything they need. The fat content of your milk gradually increases as the feed progresses, so cutting feeds short could mean that they are not getting everything they need. It can also mean that they are not getting enough milk, or enough comfort.
One boob or two?
It is a good idea to offer baby both breasts at each feed in the early days. Your baby will naturally settle into their own routine. Some babies want both boobs at every feed, some want just one boob at every feed, and some will have a mix. It’s really important to allow baby to finish feeding from one breast, allowing them to come off the breast themselves, before offering the other breast. This is because the fat content in your milk gradually increases throughout the feed, and so giving them a time limit on one boob before offering the other may mean that they’re not getting enough fat. Doing this can also reduce your milk supply. Instead, allow baby to come off the first breast themselves, and then offer them the other one. Whether they take it or not doesn’t matter, but it’s a good idea to give them that choice. Allow your baby to take the lead. Starting the next feed on the opposite boob will help your milk supply remain even in both breasts and will help to keep your breasts an even size.
Cluster feeding can be challenging, but it is also completely normal. This is when your baby suddenly wants to have lots of feeds very close together. They may also be quite fussy at the breast, showing all the hunger cues, latching for a few seconds and then pulling off and crying and then going back on again and so on. It can feel like they are glued to the boob for hours and commonly (but not always!) happens on an evening with young babies. This is normal. Grab yourself a drink and a snack and get comfy on the sofa with the TV remote in reach. Holding your baby skin to skin can help. We’ve all been there, and I promise they grow out of it!