Help! My baby is ‘snacking’ at the breast

For the past couple of days, Sarah’s baby, 8 week old Jack, has been wanting to feed for 10 to 15 minutes every two hours and still doesn’t seem satisfied. He’s got his cranky pants on and Sarah is at the end of her tether.  Sarah’s mum is going on about strict 4-hourly feeds but her baby’s got other ideas.

The term ‘demand feeding’ can sound very negative can’t it? As though your baby is a wee tyrant ruling the roost!  Personally, I prefer the label ‘cue feeding’ which is a more positive interpretation of watching and responding to your baby’s hunger cues.  ‘Cue feeding’ is also more appropriate from a physiological perspective, than trying to force your baby into any strict feeding schedule, whatever time limits you try and impose.

Making milk

Your baby’s sucking at your breast stimulates milk production: the more your baby sucks, the more milk your breasts will make.  Strict feeding schedules are also inappropriate because women have different milk storage capacities. This isn’t something to worry about but it means that although you will make enough milk for your baby, you may have to feed more often – rather like drinking the same amount from a small glass or a large one!

How often should you feed?

After birth your baby’s stomach is only the size of a marble and about 10 days later is only the size of his tiny fist (or a golf ball).  Also, breast-milk is very quickly and easily digested so your baby will need frequent feeds, at least in the early weeks. It is perfectly normal for a breastfed baby to need 8 to 12 feeds in 24 hours in the first few weeks. This could mean that he will feed as often as every two hours – and that means two hours from the beginning of one feed to the beginning of the next, not two hours between feeds.

Hungry or thirsty?

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 babies’ thirst, which is why they often have very short, frequent feeds on hot days (if you feed your baby according to his needs, he won’t need bottles of water).  As the feeding progresses, the fat content increases and more closely resembles whole milk. Hunger will be satisfied by longer sucking periods when baby gets the fatty, hind milk (like a rich, creamy desert) that is squeezed down into your ducts by the ‘let down’ reflex .

So, why is he ‘cranky’?

Rather than blaming breastfeeding for her baby’s crankiness, it could be helpful for Sarah to consider the developmental needs of an eight week old: although we expect six weeks to be a peak crying time and we hear about 6 week growth spurts, 8 weeks is a time of neurological changes for babies – they are more aware of the world around them but, due to their immature nervous systems, they don’t have the capacity to shut out stimulation and this can be overwhelming to sensitive babies.

In Sarah’s case, the pressure of her mother’s advice could be inhibiting her letdown reflex  ( and slowing her milk flow) so her baby is grizzling and unsatisfied after feeding (perhaps she could go into another room and feed away from distractions); he could be falling asleep at the breast before he has taken a full feed  – this can be remedied by changing baby half way through to help him wake and ‘finish’ his feed or you could try gently but firmly compressing your breast to encourage milk flow when sucking slows (using your thumb on one side of your breast and your four fingers on the other side, high up on your breast, the motion is ‘press, compress, then release’). As your baby gets a big mouthful of milk, he will probably start sucking again.

Your baby may feed more frequently because of hot weather, a growth spurt or he may be ‘coming down with something’ (and need a boost of antibodies – as well as receiving antibodies in your milk to bugs that you have been in contact with, if your baby is exposed to a bug that you may not have been exposed to, the transfer of bugs from his mouth to your breast will encourage your amazing breasts to produce antibodies to the specific bugs he is brewing in his tiny body). Also, some babies with reflux or tummy pains find sucking helps them settle or conversely, feeding can create discomfort so they tend to feed little and often.

Although Sarah is having a difficult time right now, by responding to her baby’s hunger cues, he will quickly settle down into a more predictable rhythm again.  And, if he doesn’t, it would be worth seeking help from a breastfeeding counsellor or Lactation Consultant to explore other reasons why her baby is ‘snacking’ rather than trying to force him onto a strict feeding schedule.



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