A feeding schedule for you breastfed baby may sound appealing. After all, developing routines for you new little one is an important part of good parenting. It was once common to feed babies on a schedule every 3 or 4 hours. Feeding recommendations have changed over time, even though babies have not! More than 25 years of breastfeeding research has provided a large body of evidence on which to base recommendations. The subject of scheduling feedings for breastfed babies has been extensively studied. Here is what we know.
All feedings are not the same. Variation in milk volume and calories means some meals are snacks and some are dinners. Even if a breastfeeding mom is pumping milk for her baby and can give the baby a consistent volume, there will still be variations in the calorie content of milk pumped at different times of the day.
Among breastfeeding mothers, milk storage capacity is highly variable. Dr. Peter Hartmann, a well-know researcher in the field of human lactation, discovered storage capacity can vary as much as 300% from one mother to another. When the breast becomes full, it stops making milk. If we compare two mothers who are full to capacity, mother #1 could have 2 ounces of milk available for her baby, and mother #2 could have 6 ounces! It’s easy to see what could happen if these two mothers are feeding their babies on an every 3 or 4 hour schedule. Baby #1 is not going to get enough milk, and mother # 1 is not going to make enough milk unless she feeds her baby more often! Scheduled feedings can have serious health consequences for babies.
Another interesting finding is mothers who scheduled feedings in the first few weeks of breastfeeding often had difficulty producing enough milk by three or four months. The breast develops receptors for prolactin, the milk-making hormone, in the early weeks of breastfeeding. It is believed new receptor development stops at about three months as prolactin levels decrease. This could explain why it is much easier to increase a low milk supply in the first three months. Lots of receptors means more milk.
The recommendation to feed for 15 minutes on each breast is also outdated. The thought behind limiting time at the breast was to prevent sore nipples. A good latch prevents sore nipples. If nipples are tender, switch sides and check the latch. It’s ok to feed on each breast more than once during a feeding.
Restricting time at the breast can be just as problematic as scheduling. Unlike infant formula, breast milk changes in calories during the feeding, and at each feeding, as the milk fat content changes. Babies eat not just for volume, but also for satisfaction. When the breast delivers more fat, the feeding is more satisfying. That’s why it’s important to allow your baby to finish the first breast before offering the second, to get a proper balance of liquid, nutrients and fat.
Babies feed better and cry less when fed at the first signs of hunger. Feeding babies whenever they show hunger signs for as long as they desire helps to ensure normal weight gain and a good milk supply. Most babies develop a feeding routine naturally by the end of the first month, and sometimes sooner.
If your breastfeeding baby is nursing longer than 45 minutes and is not satisfied, is eating fewer than 8 times in 24 hours, or is not having the normal number of diapers, consult with a healthcare professional experienced in lactation support as these can be signs of a breastfeeding problem.
You can explore breastfeeding solutions and download my free Breastfeeding Tip Sheet at BreastfeedingTips4Moms.com.