Should My Baby Be on a Schedule?
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
When a doctor tells a mother to nurse her newborn every 2-3 hours, many women misinterpret this message and try to go 3-hour stretches in between feedings. While it is true that most babies feed an average of 8-12 times in a 24 hour period, it is important to remember that all babies are different and these numbers are simply based on averages, meaning sometimes babies will feed more or less often. In most cases, a breastfed infant should never be put on a feeding schedule. Here’s why:
First of all, responsive feeding, better known as feeding on demand, is crucial to maintain breast milk supply, especially for the long term.
The more milk that is transferred from the breast, the more milk will be made. By limiting or restricting an infant’s time at the breast, we interfere with the natural process of supply and demand. There may be times your baby will nurse every 30-45 minutes and there may be times your baby will go over 3 hours in between feeds. Additionally, sometimes a nursing session will last for 5 minutes, and other times they will last over an hour. By paying close attention to your baby, you will be able to tell if he is actively drinking or not and will never need to worry about the time.
Watch your baby, not the clock!
Another way feeding schedules can harm a breastfeeding relationship is they teach babies not to trust their own instincts and feelings. Just like adults, infants and children will rarely eat the same amount at every meal and their snacking habits will vary. Imagine if someone put you on a feeding schedule? It would be awful to not have enough food when you wanted more or being forced to keep eating when you’re already full. A breastfed baby will always take the exact amount of milk needed at any given time.
Furthermore, comfort nursing is an important part of any breastfeeding relationship and happens when a baby is not actively feeding, but rather breastfeeds in order to feel safe and secure. Fulfilling a child’s emotional need for connection is equally as important as nursing for hunger or thirst. Therefore, a mother should never feel as if she needs to deprive her child from nursing for comfort because it doesn’t fit into a schedule or because it is believed a baby isn’t hungry for food.
Comfort nursing can also benefit the mother and help her to relax which may also aid in milk production.
Another common consequence of following a feeding schedule is breast engorgement. Engorgement is most often a result of not nursing frequently enough. If the milk is not being removed from the breasts after a certain amount of time, they may become overly full and can cause pain or discomfort. Additionally, when a full breast is not transferring the stored milk, that signals the body to stop producing as much. This can ultimately result in low supply.
Finally, putting breastfed babies on schedules usually leads to night weaning before they are ready. It is normal and healthy for breastfed babies to wake throughout the night to nurse at least several times. Depending on each unique situation, doctors may even suggest waking a sleeping newborn every 3-5 hours overnight to nurse in the early weeks of life, especially for preemies and low birth weight babies. It’s crucial to understand that a breastfeeding relationship does not pause because the sun sets; infants’ needs still exist at nighttime and they may continue to seek security and comfort from the breast throughout the first year or beyond.
Continuing to breastfeed overnight provides various advantages for many breastfeeding relationships.
Responsive breastfeeding provides numerous benefits to mother and child. It is necessary to follow an infant's lead while breastfeeding, especially if the goal is child led weaning or breastfeeding to natural term. It will never be a mistake to offer the breast to your child because you simply cannot overfeed a breastfed baby. Always watch your baby instead of the clock and trust your own instincts while considering advice from a qualified lactation specialist or health care provider.
If a mother must begin to follow a certain schedule and is not able to continue breastfeeding on demand, she can express or pump breast milk for the baby to have while she is away. It is important, specifically in the newborn stage, that mamma pumps or expresses breast milk every time the baby is fed expressed breast milk. This will ensure that her supply will not suffer and she can continue to produce almost exactly what her child needs.
Once a child reaches toddler-hood, it may be easier to start setting boundaries and creating schedules if necessary. After the first 12 months, there will be plenty of other options to offer a child to eat in addition to offering water. Contrary to popular belief, the importance of breastfeeding doesn’t magically disappear after 1 year. A breastfeeding relationship should continue for as long as both parties involved are willing and able to participate. There is no set expiration date on breastfeeding and no family should feel pressured to end their journey before they are ready.
Avoiding feeding schedules and restrictions can help to ensure you and your child will be able to continue breastfeeding for as long as you like.