Why breastfeeding routines suck

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Did you know you would be having a cup of coffee at four o’clock this afternoon, or did you just feel like one?

Did you tell your work colleagues that you wouldn’t be able to have lunch with them at midday because you are not scheduled to eat until one o’clock?

Does your hunger and thirst change according to the weather and your activity levels?

As adults, we eat and drink according to our body signals, not a pre-determined schedule –and so should babies. Trying to impose a strict feeding schedule, rather than watching your baby’s hunger cues is not only likely to result in unnecessary crying, but may be a risk to her health. When you compare a baby’s needs to those of an adult (who is generally not trying to gain weight –at least, not to double or triple their current size!), it is easy to understand that expecting a baby to eat according to a strict regime, which restricts the duration and quantity of feeds, is not only unkind, but can also contribute to failure to thrive.

There is evidence that allowing babies to feed according to their own appetite, rather than imposing rigid feeding schedules, is more compatible with the biology of mothers and babies. Although breastfeeding according to a schedule may seem to work at first, 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 ( which, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, have no calories), you will not only reduce stimulation that signals your breasts to make milk, but 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 cry because he is hungry.

Another reason for watching your baby, rather than the clock, is that mothers have varying breast milk storage capacities: ultrasound studies by biochemist Dr Peter Hartmann and colleagues at the University of Western Australia have shown that although most women have the capacity to produce similar amounts of milk over a 24 hour period),  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 three- or four-hourly 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. Instead of becoming stressed about how much milk your breasts are making or storing, think in terms of drinking out of a cup – you can still drink a litre of water whether you drink it from a large cup or several small cupfuls. If you allow your baby to nurse whenever he lets you know he is hungry, you will never have to worry about your milk storage capacity.

Whether he wants to feed because he is hungry or simply thirsty, your baby will be able to regulate the type of milk he needs, if you allow him to set the pace. The composition of breast milk changes throughout the course of a feeding. The first (‘fore’) milk, is rather like skim milk. This will quench your baby’s thirst, which is why he will often have very short, frequent feeds on hot days (it isn’t recommended to give your baby water as this can be unsafe). As the feed progresses, your breast-milk’s fat content increases.  Hunger will be satisfied by longer sucking periods when your baby gets the fattier (hind)milk that is squeezed down into your ducts by the let-down reflex, rather like how, when you turn on a hot tap, the warmer water mixes with the cool water as it flows.

So, by watching your baby, rather than the clock and respecting his cues (crying is a late hunger signal), your breasts and your baby will soon become synchronised in a perfect balance of supply and demand,  and you will make exactly the right amount of milk to help your baby thrive!

Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised breastfeeding expert. She’s an internationally certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby, Parenting By Heart and 100 Ways to Calm the Crying (Penguin Random House). She is also the creator of Boobie bikkies all natural and organic health food cookies for breastfeeding mums.  

For Pinky’s top tips to boost your breast milk supply, Download your FREE ebook “Making More Mummy Milk, Naturally” by Pinky McKay.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you!!!!!! My 5 month old still nurses 2 hrly in th day and feeds 2-3x at night (plus solids) and im always been told ‘oh does she always feed’ or give her water!! So thanku for this x

  2. Great info. Could this be a possible reason why some babies can’t sleep through the night or for longer periods? I fed on demand as my baby always seemed hungry. At 10 months she still seems hungry during the night.

  3. Wow! One of the first and only informative pieces on breast feeding to resonate with me and not scare or confuse me or make me feel downright rotten and hopeless! Thank you. After struggling to feed my two boys due to “low supply” and just about to welcome our new bub, this is something I am going to take on board as I feed and bond. No more clock watching, just pure instinctual connection between my baby and me! Ahh…

  4. Thankyou Prudence. Good luck this time around. If you look around this blog you will find a number of articles to support early breastfeeding – and you can download our free ebook, Making More Mummy Milk, Naturally.

    Trust your baby, trust your body and trust your intuition.

  5. Thank you! I felt like a terrible Mum for not having a “routine” as such with feeding. In the beginning I was demand feeding, tried to change to a routine feeding around 8 weeks and it went down like a lead balloon, then I found the EASY routine which I started this week which we are following but not strictly. My little fella feeds every 2-3 hours or so and will only sleep for 40-60 minutes. In conjunction with this article, could you tell me if I’m best to let him feed for as long as he wants or go with the routine of 45 minutes? I feel a little embarrassed to ask anyone in person or anyone local as I feel like I should know already :/ he’s putting on stacks of weight feeding for 45 minutes anyway but I don’t want him to feel deprived at the time. If he asks for more I never refuse whether it be straight away or just before nap or bed time. I’m just a little confused, get sick of sitting feeding for more than an hour, worried he’s getting deprived by me taking him off at 45 minutes. He’s currently 11 weeks old. P.S. Where can I buy these boobie biscuits? 😀 xox

    • I always let my little guy feed for as long as he wanted. If you get bored sitting there try grabbing a book or something to keep your mind occupied or just enjoy your time with your little one. I always found it like a mini meditation session.
      My lactation consultant always said “just let them feed for however long they want because you never know if they want a four course dinner, a lite snack or gummy bears” lol 😉

  6. Excellent article and one that should be read by all new mothers.
    I demand fed both my babies from the start and ignored anyone who said to feed them according to a schedule (my own mother included). I had so much milk and loved breastfeeding and watching my babies thrive, it really is the answer to almost everything! I am still breastfeeding my 13 month old daughter who still has a feed in the middle of the night and whenever she is grizzly or upset or hurt I just pop her on the boob and all is well.

  7. Great article all breast feeding mothers should read this. I was told early on to feed every three to four hours and dont let them snack feed because i was new to breast feeding i assumed the midwives new what they talking about but i ended up with a very upset cranky hungry baby for almost three days and decided enough and considered formula but my instict was to feed her when ever she wanted so i did and it made a huge difference in my milk supply and my daughter was so much happierand satisfied.

  8. I have breast fed my now almost 5 month old on a schedule since she was 10 weeks old. It has worked for us but probably only because she is a very efficient feeder and literally sucks every last drop of milk from my breasts each feed. She had also slept through the night since she was 3.5 weeks old so she must be getting enough milk during the day (and one dream feed at 10:30pm). I think scheduling feeds does work for some people, but doesn’t for others.

  9. I was more lenient in the newborn days but having a loose schedule really kept my sanity as a new mother. I would feed about every 2-3 hours if he seemed really hungry i would feed every one hour when he was teething or going by cluster feedings. But working in a mini schedule did save both of us, otherwise i was scatterbrained and sleep deprived. he didn’t sleep through the night until six months but he would wake up around the same times each night so it literally developed into a routine but it was HIS routine not mine. I began to understand his sleep patterns and rhythms. Do you see what i mean?
    I think that’s the best way to learn is watching your baby’s personal routine and modifying it as you go, however my paranoia of making sure he had enough to eat made me watch the clock[he was underweight when he was newborn] and make sure he was eatting every two hours but that was just me. He’s healthy as ever now. Good article 🙂

  10. I tried demand feeding and it just wasn’t working for us… my bub wasn’t really showing your normal feeding cues and rarely cries so I never really knew when to feed and was always offering the breast. We had breast refusal and sleeping through the night and a drop in my supply and very short feeds when she was feeding…
    After seeing a paediatrician for something else he asked about my babies lack of weight gain and told me that my baby wasn’t getting enough sleep between feeds to grow and was constantly topping up and not having a full feed and to ‘stop trying to breastfeed’, to express and give a set amount every four hours.
    I didn’t want to stop trying to bf so we continued trying and though it went against everything I’d read, I started to stretch out her feeds. I had previously been dream feeding her at night to get my supply back up and then she started to wake on her own again so I went off her lead as she was waking around 1am and 5am so I would then offer the breast at 9am, 1pm, 5pm, 9pm and she would wake at night.
    I wasn’t strict with it and we modified it to her so it’s now around 1pm, 5pm then any where from 8-9pm usually around 8-8.30pm then around 1am and 5am then again any where from 8-9am usually about 8.30am. my bub now feeds a lot longer then she used to and is putting on weight, not a whole lot but more than she was.
    she will occasionally have an extra feed if we are un able to settle her, I would not refuse her a feed if I thought she wanted one. Going from a baby that was refusing the breast and when she did feed it was only for 3-4mins on one breast to a baby that feeds anywhere from 7-10mins (sometimes longer during leaps) and sometimes both breasts I think it’s worked for us. Maybe it’s still the wrong thing to do but if we hadn’t tried it, I don’t think I would have lasted breast feeding. I had considered quitting numerous times due to the stress on both of us and her lack of weight gain. so while it isn’t a strict schedule, it’s still a schedule but seems to be working for us and I am proud to say we’ve nearly hit 4 months in our bf journey!

    *sorry for the loooong post!*

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