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The Truth About How Often to Breastfeed Your Baby

The Truth About How Often to Breastfeed Your Baby

Breastfeeding Baby
Lex Beach, IBCLC

Lex is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and mother to seven children.

Today’s question comes from Jasmine in Houston, TX.

 

Hi Jasmine. Thank you so much for submitting this question (and for including your DELICIOUS baby in your video!).

First, let me assure you that the feeding frequency you describe sounds absolutely perfect and normal. Nursing your 3-month-old in response to his hunger cues is exactly what I recommend to all breastfeeding mothers. Feeding your baby “on cue” is the best way to ensure long term breastfeeding success, and is precisely how the whole milk production system is designed to work. Your baby isn’t wearing a watch, and you don’t need to wear one either in order to succeed with breastfeeding. Your baby’s hunger should determine how often you nurse. Trying to get your baby to go longer between feedings could reduce your milk supply and lead to a need for supplementation.

I, too, have come across baby care advice that includes reference to a 3 or 4-hour feeding schedule as being normal for breastfeeding babies. And every time I do, it stops me in my tracks. Here’s the problem: This advice is outdated and not in line with the science of milk production. If your goal is to exclusively breastfeed your baby, it’s important to know that following a feeding schedule of any kind could undermine your goals. By “schedule,” I mean anything other than feeding your baby on cue, in response to your baby’s hunger signs. In fact, scheduled feeding advice dates back to the nineteenth century, to a time when we literally knew nothing about the science of milk production and how it works. The idea of scheduling a baby’s feeds was originally based on a fear of overfeeding, during a time when parents were still regularly offering their just-born babies bread crumbs and butter while waiting for their milk to come in (can you imagine?). In the 19th century, restricting babies’ access to breastfeeding did not work for the majority of families; babies cried a lot, and failed to gain enough weight; mothers’ milk supplies dropped, and it became standard practice to need to supplement babies with other animal milk. So why (oh why?!) do well-intentioned baby experts still dole out this kind of advice today?

I’ll tell you why. The majority of baby care advice in our culture today is based on the care of bottle-fed babies. When breastfeeding was abandoned in the 20th century (in large part due to the failure of scheduled breastfeeding), and nearly all babies were exclusively bottle-fed right from birth, scheduled feeding became the standard norm of baby care. And even though breastfeeding has reemerged as a popular choice for mothers having babies today, the standard baby care advice has not caught up with the science of breastfeeding. Many mothers having babies today want to exclusively breastfeed, but when they attempt to do it according to the baby care norms of our bottle-feeding culture, they are often unable to meet their goals. 

Scheduled feedings—while never biologically appropriate—do work for bottle-fed babies. And by “work” I mean that bottle-fed babies can grow appropriately and get enough milk even when they’re fed on a schedule. When you bottle-feed a baby with infant formula, you can divide the total amount of milk your baby needs in a day by the number of bottles you plan to give, and ensure that your baby gets enough to eat, even if they only have 6 bottles a day. If your baby needs about 30oz of formula a day, you could offer that as 10, ~3-oz bottles, or as 6, ~5-oz bottles, or as 4, ~8-oz bottles. And for nearly a century, families have been taught to stretch out the time between their babies’ bottle feeds so that eventually their babies take in fewer, bigger bottles per day, and eliminate night feedings. 

But what happens if you try to apply this “fewer, bigger feeds” advice to breastfeeding? Much of the time, it’s a disaster. If you try to stretch out the time between your baby’s breastfeeding sessions, you’re likely to decrease your overall milk supply. Your breasts are not containers of milk, and your body’s ability to make as much milk as your baby needs is dependent on frequent emptying. You can’t just choose to offer your baby a 5oz breastfeed every 4 hours instead of offering a 3oz breastfeed every 2.5 hours. It is unlikely to work to offer your baby all the milk that they need during daylight hours. How much milk your body makes for each nursing session depends on lots of things: how often your baby is nursing around the clock, your milk storage capacity, how long it’s been since the last feed, and how vigorously your baby nurses. 

Nothing is at all wrong with you or your baby if your baby needs to nurse 10 or 12 or 15 or 20 times a day! Breastfeeding isn’t meant to happen on a strict schedule, and it rarely works to try to breastfeed that way. Instead of looking for your baby’s nursing sessions to get more spread out as your baby gets older, look for each feeding to get shorter as your baby gets more efficient at breastfeeding. In the early days and weeks, it might take your baby 20 or 30 minutes to nurse both sides and get a few ounces of milk. But after a few months, your baby will be able to transfer a whole feed much more quickly. You’ll no longer feel like you’re nursing ALL.THE.TIME even if your baby is still nursing every 1.5-2 hours during the day and a few times overnight because each feeding will be so quick. 

And this is important: when you hear someone, even the most well-meaning of baby advisors, suggesting a feeding schedule of any kind, you can know that their advice is based on bottle-fed baby care, and go right ahead and ignore it (and maybe send them to check out this blog post!). That advice and those expectations do not apply to you and your breastfed baby.  

Have any questions for Lactation Chats with Lex? Email me and let me know or head over to Instagram to share your thoughts!

Warmly,
Lex

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