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.