Is Feeding On Demand Crushing You? How To Establish A Newborn Feeding Schedule WITHOUT Leaving Baby Hungry

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When my mum had my brother and I, the advice was to use a 4-hourly newborn feeding schedule.  I was surprised at this and asked my mum when this started, ‘Surely not from day 1?”  I asked.  Well, like most things baby, she couldn’t remember!

Whether this 4-hourly schedule started day 1 or day 7, this is certainly not the advice these days.

Now the recommendation is to ‘feed on demand’.  Just feed whenever your baby wants, BE LED BY YOUR BABY.

Yes, in the first few days/couple of weeks it’s absolutely necessary.  (We’ll get to that in a minute).

But feeding on demand can quickly go from demanding to downright crushing.

3 minutes feeding, 20 minutes sleeping.  Repeat.  That was the routine that I found myself in when my firstborn was 3 weeks old.

That was all fine and dandy for him, but even only 3 weeks in, I was a little tired.  Funny that.

 

Demand feeding can lead to exhaustion
Feeding on demand for months on end can be exhausting

 

And this is where the problem with breastfeeding on demand lies.  It quickly becomes exhausting.

Exhaustion is linked to post-partum depression. Is exposing yourself to PPD helpful to your baby in the long run?  It sure can’t be for you.

Guess what, I found that a loosely implemented newborn feeding schedule is possible without letting your baby starve!

Halleluiah.

The milk bar can have more than 20 minutes off at a time.

It takes a bit of time and a bit of sneaky maneuvering but it’s not complicated.

(It never involves leaving your baby hungry by the way.  Thought I’d point that out now!)

Say bye-bye to 2/3/4 minute feeds every half hour.  Say hello to 2 to 3-hourly feeds.

If you then fancy going down a more structured newborn sleep schedule, you’ll be ready to start.

Newborn feeding schedules WERE the done thing

In the 1960s and 1970s, a strictly imposed 4-hourly feeding regimen was the recommendation.

This resulted in poor milk supply in the mother and surely meant crying babies that were starved both of adequate nutrition and the comfort of their mother.

Feeding on demand from day 1 is essential

It’s now understood that ‘feeding on demand’, ‘responsive feeding’ or ‘baby-led feeding’ is essential, starting as soon after birth as possible.

It’s fundamental:

  1. to develop and establish a healthy milk supply, since breast milk is produced on a supply-and-demand basis
  2. to ensure healthy newborn weight gain, since their tummies are small
  3. and a huge source of comfort to both baby and mother.  (Skin-to-skin contact helps regulate the body temperature of your newborn and reduce stress levels in both of you)

Read more about the importance of frequent breastfeeds in this post: The Essential Guide To Newborn Breastfeeding: A Must Read To Start It Right

So feeding on demand is the current advice internationally, and is endorsed by the World Health Organization, La Leche League, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What this means specifically:

#1 Feed when baby shows hunger cues

Feeding cues include rooting, mouth opening, stretching, stirring, sucking fingers as per this chart below.

You want to feed your newborn BEFORE he or she starts crying (this is a late hunger cue).

 

Feeding on demand means responding to hunger cues
Feeding cues, courtesy of Breastfeed LA.org

#2 Let your newborn drink as much as he or she desires

Babies are very good at regulating how much they want to feed and breastfed babies particularly, are highly unlikely to overfeed.

Feeding on demand is an old-age concept

Not surprisingly, feeding on demand goes back to hunter-gatherer ways, when communities were close-knit and families large.  The load was shared when it came to pretty much everything.  Including that of feeding a newborn.

Feeding on demand was not done EXCLUSIVELY.  As this article sites:

Anthropological research demonstrates traditional, non-industrialized peoples do not typically engage in exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. From the earliest days after childbirth, mothers get help in the feeding of their infants. In some groups, this includes having other, lactating women donate their milk to the cause.

In addition, breastfeeding was pretty much the only thing the mother was allowed to do.

Help was offered to a new mother from day 1.  The mother was not expected to cook, clean, do laundry or look after older children.

The mother does nothing but care for her newborn, of which breastfeeding is 90% of the task in the first few weeks.  Even then, breastfeeding duties could be passed to other lactating women to allow the mother to get a decent chunk of sleep.

Does it fit with a modern lifestyle?

Is it logistically and physically possible?

Is it physically possible to leave all the chores to someone else?  A bit damn difficult I think for most new mothers these days.

 

Hard to keep up with chores when feeding on demand
It’s hard to keep up with all the chores expected when you stay at home with baby in this day and age

 

I was very lucky to have a lot of help from family in those first few weeks with my first-born and although I contributed to cooking and cleaning when I could, it wasn’t essential.

Second time around, with a just walking toddler in tow, it was a lot more difficult and I’m not sure I contributed much to the house at all, but I was lucky because it wasn’t essential.

I was very lucky in that sense and most of my friends didn’t have their help so close at hand.

I might add that neither time did anyone offer to feed my baby from their own breasts.  And I wouldn’t have accepted if they had!

As normal, it seems society decides what us mothers do

There’s an underlying feeling these days that mothers have to DO IT ALL.  That we’re failures if we don’t.

Certainly, this seems true of American/UK society.

I felt guilty about giving my baby one bottle of formula a day to both of my babies.  From 3 months, just 1 bottle.

Heaven forbid I might actually switch to formula feeding altogether as crossed my mind a few times.

(If you’re wondering whether or not breastfeeding is right for you, check out this article from my dear friend Beth at The DGAF Mom: How to know when breastfeeding isn’t right for you.)

I felt guilty about pretty much everything I did that was FOR ME and not for my baby for at least the first 2 years of my journey into motherhood.

But that’s not what this is about.

The issues with feeding on demand

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, my firstborn loved to snack!  This is best avoided. He’d feed a few minutes (4-5 mins tops), then fall asleep.  Wake hungry 20 to 40 minutes later, feed 2 minutes, fall asleep.  And so on, day and night.

I thought this was ok; I was feeding on demand.

Don’t get me wrong my son was fine.  But I wasn’t!  I couldn’t do a thing (let alone sleep at night).  The snack bar had to be open 24/7.  Not great when you’re the owner, manager and everything else…. of said snack bar.

How you are meant to make it work

There are a lot of ways to make this completely baby-led feeding work, apparently.

Your newborn may naturally start taking bigger feeds, in which case bigger intervals between feeds will naturally develop, both day and night.

But it may not and it didn’t for me.

The ‘helpful advice’ you may receive

Tiredness is normally the big hurdle to overcome with a non-existent feeding schedule where baby continues to snack feed, on demand, both day and night.  It was for me.

“Sleep when baby sleeps”.  

But my baby only sleeps an hour tops at any one point?  Because after his 2 minute snack, he wakes up hungry again.  And, what about my older child?  What about washing, eating and all those other chores?

“It’s only a few months, you’ll cope, the time will fly”

“It will get easier”

“Feed while babywearing so you can get stuff done.”

I never even tried that one. But seriously, how?

“Ask a friend or relative to watch your kids so you can sleep.”

That one would help, but only in the short-term.  And still, maybe there isn’t anyone that can help.

Basically, it’s just a case of SUCKING IT UP.

And for a real kick in the teeth…

This is my favorite:

“Enjoy them when they’re still little.”

(“But I’m hating it.  How shitty am I?” My response I never vocalized)

I’m sorry to say I struggle to enjoy much at all after a night of 5 30-45 minute sleeps weeks on end.

So this leads me to 3 main issues with feeding on demand in the long-run

#1 The mothers’ needs are almost completely ignored

#2 Feeding on demand can result in and almost encourages a ‘snacker’

In addition:

#3 It does nothing to aid the speed up of mature circadian rhythms

Ie baby will remain with day-night confusion much longer than is necessary.

Related post: Newborn Sleeps All day? 10 fail-safe tactics to fix day night confusion fast!

So say hello to exhaustion and put yourself at risk of postpartum depression.

But it is possible to gently move from feeding your newborn ‘on demand’ to more of a ‘feeding schedule’, and still be catering to your babies nutritional and emotional needs. 

It’s about being flexible and adaptable and, quite honestly, is not much more than a little common sense.  Plus someone giving you a push in the right direction! 

A feeding schedule is possible without leaving your newborn hungry

The mere mention of a ‘newborn feeding schedule’ raised a look of shock and concern from the health visitor at an early check-up with my second born.

“How long did I leave her without feeding?”

“Did I ignore her when she was hungry?”

She asked.

(“3 hours max” and, “No, of course not” were my answers by the way.)

She then weighed her and asked me about wet and dirty nappies.

“Well, she’s putting on weight and is 85th percentile on the weight chart”.

So that was that.

Ensuring baby gets enough milk is what matters

Regardless of whether you feed your baby every 2 minutes or every 2 hours, as long as your baby is getting enough milk over the course of the day as well as getting all the love and cuddles needed, that’s all that matters, right?

2 main indicators that your newborn is getting enough milk:

  1. healthy weight gain – as verified by scheduled newborn check-ups
  2. several dirty and wet diapers every day (check out this article for more guidance on how many)

The many benefits of a schedule (for feeding & sleep)

The main point of this post is in defense of a new mother who is trying to do her best for her baby,  by following current ‘feeding on demand’ advice and stay sane.

In fact, a sleep and feeding schedule has more benefits to the baby than the mother.

I will be getting to this shortly in another post.

MOVING TO A NEWBORN FEEDING SCHEDULE: 4 simple tactics

In the first few days after birth, the frequent feedings are necessary and desirable, for reasons mentioned above.  For more detail check out this post: Essential newborn breastfeeding info: winning from the beginning

#1 Aim for longer feed times and longer between feeds over time

Each day encourage longer sucking time, a few minutes extra from one day to the next.

Don’t let feeds stay at the 5-minute mark as I did.

By the time your milk has come in, aim for at least 10 minutes sucking.

The longer the better.  At the end of week 2, 20 to 40 minutes.

Of course, EVERY BABY IS DIFFERENT.  Those timings are GUIDELINES.

I’m saying this before some feeding-on-demand advocate responds by saying that some babies only need to feed for 3.5 minutes even at 3 weeks old.

Babies vary in their sucking strength, the efficiency at which they feed, your milk may be a little fattier than someone elses etc…

The point is, try and ensure that as your baby grows, you are getting LONGER feed times and LONGER between feeds over time.

At some feeds your baby may be fuller sooner and satisfied by a shorter feed:

#1 Dependent on how fatty your milk is, which can vary by time of day and what you’ve eaten.

Think steak, egg and chips vs. bowl of vegetable soup

#2 How well your baby latches and so how efficiently he or she feeds

Think eating your steak with a blunt knife or your soup with a fork

#3 How alert your newborn is when feeding

No analogy needed.

Baby may also be hungrier from one feed to the next or one day to the next.

Again, try and ensure the general trend is in the right direction.  So LONGER feeds and LONGER between feeds.

The longer your baby feeds, the more milk they will have consumed, the longer until they need another feed.

This is the logical theory.

#2 Keep gently waking a sleepy newborn in order to take a bigger feed

This can be a real battle in the early days!

No point to dream feed tiny baby
Tiny babies are difficult to keep awake for a feed

 

My first born in particular was a very sleepy feeder and partly why I think he became such an avid snacker.  So I had to work very hard to keep him awake to take a bigger feed.  Here are some of the many, many things you can try:

  • tickle feet and hands
  • lightly touch back and cheeks
  • talk to your baby
  • remove nappy
  • top-and-tail or gently wipe face and hands etc with a washcloth
  • remove a layer of clothing

If baby loses interest when feeding

  • unlatching and re-latching (a poor latch may mean that milk flow is slow and baby loses interest)
  • play and tickle finger, hands and feet
  • change feeding positions
  • pull your nipple or bottle teat slowly out of their mouth – this can often lead to frantic sucking!
  • dabbing some milk on babys’ lips

There are even more tips on trying to keep your baby awake during a feed here.

#3 Avoid switching breasts until the one you’re feeding on is completely drained

You may have heard of ‘foremilk’ and ‘hindmilk’.

Really, all you need to know is that as the breast empties during a feed, the fat content of the milk gradually increases, because the breast becomes emptier.

The longer your newborn feeds on one breast, the fattier the milk.

Maximizing fat intake, by feeding on one breast until it’s empty before switching to the other will help keep that tummy full for longer.

To find out more about foremilk and hindmilk, check this post: The Essential Guide To Newborn Breastfeeding: A Must Read To Start It Right

#4 Persevere!  Until you’ve established 3-hourly feeds

Continue to stretch feeds apart, little by little, until they are every 3 hours in the day.

It really is as simple as that.

Once you’ve established a 3-hourly feeding pattern, you can now start more structured newborn feeding schedule or sleep schedule, such as this one:

Related post: Starting A Newborn Sleep Schedule That You And Your Baby Will Love – The Ultimate Guide

At night, feed on demand, when baby wakes.   Just by stretching feeds to 3-hourly, your newborn should be able to go a longer stretch at night.  And you can sleep!

HELP! My baby can’t stretch to 3-hourly feeds

Since all babies are different and all mothers are different, there will be babies that need to be fed more frequently.

Research has found large variability in the storage capacity of breasts from different women and it’s not related to breast size.  So don’t worry if you have small breasts!

For the answers to all your breastfeeding check out: Newborn Breastfeeding FAQs: The Answers You’re Desperately Searching For!

Regardless of your breast size, the storage capacity of breasts can differ.  And if your breasts have a smaller storage capacity you will need to feed your baby more frequently than someone with a larger capacity. Logical.

Even working with these differences, stretching your baby to 2 hours rather than 3, seems a big improvement from every 30 minutes.

Being led by your baby & following a feeding schedule

Just because you follow a feeding or sleep schedule, does not mean you shouldn’t be flexible and adaptable.  This is where schedules can get a lot of bad rap.

You still need to be ‘led by your baby’.

If your baby is clearly hungry but not due a feed according to the feeding schedule, feed that baby!

(Note: crying is a late hunger cue so don’t wait until baby is crying).

This may happen:

  • during growth spurts
  • if baby is particularly uncomfortable/gassy (feeding/closeness with the mother can comfort)
  • at other random times for reasons unknown…

The important thing is that you are not feeding your newborn hourly day-in-day-out for months on end.  It really can be avoided!

Whatever the schedule, structure it to avoid multiple night wakings

Whether you follow this feeding and sleep schedule or have stretched feeds more or less to suit you and your baby, it’s key to structure feeds in order to minimize night wakings due to hunger.

This means you need to feed your newborn enough in the day.

This table below has guidelines on how often to feed your newborn during the day, week-by-week, so that multiple night wakings are minimized.

(As the table infers, this is step #3 in this post on getting your baby to sleep through the night

Baby sleep through the night # 3 strategy - getting baby to drink plenty of milk in day

Where it says ‘every 2 hours’, this time is from the beginning of one feed to the beginning of the next.  So, if your baby took 30 minutes to feed then there’s only 1 hour 30 mins until your baby is likely to want to feed again.

THIS IS CRUCIAL – you want your baby to feed frequently IN THE DAY in order to get longer stretches at night. So you need to wake baby up if due a feed!

In Summary

Feeding frequently as and when your baby demands is absolutely essential in those early days.

It fills your newborn’s tiny stomach, helps build up your milk supply and is a great source of comfort and means of bonding for you both.

But continuing to exclusively feed on demand makes it very difficult to accomplish any other tasks that you likely have!  Let alone get any sleep.

By beginning to encourage bigger feeds and stretch feeds out a little by little in the day, you will also encourage longer intervals between feeds at night.  Which hopefully means more uninterrupted sleep for both of you!

Whether you arrive at a 3-hourly feeding schedule, decide to start a more structured sleep and feeding schedule like this one, or only manage feeds every 2 hours, you must still be: LED BY YOUR BABY.

When baby is hungry, feed that baby!

Keep an eye on weight gain, wet and dirty diapers.  These plus a happy baby should be your only concerns.

Got any other questions regarding breastfeeding your newborn?  This post may have the answers: Newborn Breastfeeding FAQs: The Answers You’re Desperately Searching For

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Hi, I'm Sarah

Mum of two outrageously gorgeous and ridiculously energetic toddlers – A.K.A. not so little, Littllees.  I’m determined to give them the best without losing my mind.  I reckon it’s possible.  Most days.  

I love a challenge and have to find out they ‘why’, ‘what’ or ‘how to’  –  there are rather a lot of these when it comes to kids… 

I also love, love, love things to be neat and tidy and just so.   The Littlees normally have other ideas!  

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