Being a new parent can be a daunting experience.
It can feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster ride, with feelings ranging from exhilaration to fear.
Many new parents worry if what their baby is doing is normal.
In most cases, what your baby is doing is completely normal! If you head along to any Australian Breastfeeding Association group meeting, you’ll discover this.
However, some parents are told or believe that a feeding schedule will help their baby fall into a routine, not realising how damaging a feeding schedule can be on the breastfeeding relationship.
How A Feeding Schedule Harms Breastfeeding
Before I explain how a feeding schedule can be harmful to breastfeeding, there are two big barriers we need to understand.
1. Social Constructions Vs Biology
Unfortunately, our society encourages the perception that babies should be sleeping through the night and feeding ‘X’ amount of times per day by age ‘X’. And if they are not there, something must be wrong.
It’s no wonder that many parents are bewildered when, in spite of all their efforts, their baby doesn’t fit into these socially constructed molds, most of which are completely non-biological.
This can result in multiple visits to health professionals in search of a diagnosis and cure. Often, all that the health professional needs to do is actively listen and be supportive and encouraging, rather than provide a medical diagnosis or medication.
2. Beware Of The Baby Sleep ‘Experts’
There are many so-called baby sleep ‘experts’ around who have no breastfeeding qualifications and who advocate feeding schedules. They’re typically unaware of the potential impact feeding schedules can have on breastfeeding outcomes for mothers and babies.
Here are 6 ways that feeding according to a schedule can impact breastfeeding:
#1: Feeding According To Need Helps Ensure Your Baby Gets What He Needs
Feeding your baby according his is own individual need (i.e. in response to his feeding cues) helps ensure he gets the milk he needs. When a baby gets the milk he needs, he grows well. Feeding your baby in this way is appropriate regardless of whether your baby is breastfed or bottle-fed.
If your baby is fed according to a schedule, he may be fed more or less often than he actually needs. This can result in a baby not getting what he needs. If a baby doesn’t get what he needs, this can result in weight gain and breastmilk supply problems.
#2: Different Storage Capacities Means Some Women Store Less Milk Than Others
Different mothers have different storage capacities. Storage capacity refers to how much milk your breasts can store between feeds.
A baby whose mother has a smaller storage capacity typically needs to feed more often to get what he needs. Whereas a baby whose mother has a larger storage capacity typically needs to feed less often to get what he needs.
Breastfeeding according to a schedule doesn’t account for different storage capacities amongst different mothers and hence can lead to a baby not getting the amount of milk he needs.
#3: Baby’s Feed Best When They're Fed According To Need
When a baby is fed according to need, he typically feeds better than if he’s fed according to a schedule.
When a baby is fed according to his feeding cues, he is fed when his body is telling him he needs to feed. A baby showing early feeding cues is likely to be calm and primed to feed which helps ensure he drinks the amount of milk he needs and hence grows well.
For a breastfed baby, this can result in him attaching and draining the breast well. This reduces the risk of sore nipples and mastitis or blocked ducts.
If your baby is fed according to a schedule, he may not be ready to feed when it is ‘time’ to feed. He may be tired, very hungry, upset or even asleep. All these things can result in a poorer feed. Over time, such feeds can mean a baby doesn’t get the milk he needs and weight gains can falter.
#4: Breastmilk Production Is All About Supply And Demand
The amount of breastmilk you make is determined by the amount of milk your baby drinks. If your baby is fed according to need, this helps ensure the amount of milk you make matches the needs of your baby.
Feeding according to a schedule can mean that the amount of milk you make doesn’t match the amount of milk your baby needs.
#5: Different Babies Require Different Feeding Frequencies
There is no one size fits all when it comes to how many times each day a baby needs to feed. Research shows us that while the average number of breastfeeds an exclusively breastfed baby has in a 24 hour period is 11, the range is 6-18!
Feeding according to a schedule doesn’t account for this large range in normal feeding frequency and can result in your baby not getting what he needs.
#6: Your Breasts Make More Milk Based On The Degree Of Fullness
The rate at which more breastmilk is made is determined by how full or ‘empty’ the breast is (note that ‘empty’ is in inverted commas, because lactating breasts are never fully empty). The emptier the breast, the faster the rate that more milk is made. Whereas the fuller the breast, the slower the rate that more milk is made.
Feeding you baby according to his individual needs, helps ensure your breasts make more milk at a rate determined by your baby’s needs. This means that your supply matches your baby’s needs.
If the length of time between breastfeeds is unnaturally extended (eg by scheduled feeding), or if things are done to get him to sleep through the night when he is not ready to, this could result in your breasts remaining fuller for longer (at least initially). This gives them the message to not make as much milk, and hence overtime, your supply can drop.
So next time someone tells you that your baby should be feeding ‘X’ number of times or at specific times, what will you say?
A Note About Very Sleepy Newborns
Occasionally during the early newborn period there are some babies who are very sleepy and don’t wake on their own accord for feeds. This may be due to jaundice or the effects of pain relief drugs used during the birthing process.
It is best to be guided by a health professional (i.e. lactation consultant) in these sorts of situations. Typically, such a scenario is short-lived, but there can be things that need to be done until the baby becomes more wakeful.
Waking a baby for feeds can be a bit of a catch twenty two because babies tend to feed better when they wake on their own accord for feeds and are showing feeding cues. However, there are times that a baby won’t wake often enough on their own accord and hence risk not getting enough.
Also, frequent milk removal is important for establishing a mother's milk supply – long periods between feeds are not helpful for this. A lactation consultant can provide you with tips about how to manage the situation.