This is one of the most common questions we see from new and expecting mothers. And the answer is a very straightforward one: whenever they’re hungry!
That’s obviously easier said than done. After all, you just got home from the hospital with a brand-new human being, and you’re trying to learn their unique personality while navigating their needs and emotions.
And feeding, especially in the beginning, can be tricky. For many women, their milk doesn’t come in for several days, and the colostrum produced in the first few days doesn't provide a whole lot of fat content to keep a baby satisfied. On top of that babies are born with an incredibly small stomach so the amount of food they can have is very limited. For these reasons, babies typically lose weight in those days following birth (this is usually anywhere between 5% and 7% of their birth weight).
As a new mom, you want to ensure that your little one is getting enough milk to regain that lost weight and continue to grow into a strong and healthy infant. That's why feeding is so important and can also be very stressful for you and your baby.
So, how do you know when to feed your baby?
There are two well-known approaches to feeding your newborn baby: having a feeding schedule and feeding on demand.
The recommended approach is to feed your baby when they are hungry, otherwise known as on-demand feeding.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that your baby be fed at least every two to three hours on-demand or about eight to twelve times per day.
On-demand feeding can also be referred to as responsive feeding, feeding on cue, and baby-led feeding.
When and how long those feedings are, should be dictated by your baby. It might sound nice to have a predictable schedule, but the research shows that there are greater benefits to feeding your baby frequently and on-demand.
The Advantages of Feeding Your Baby On-Demand
Letting your baby determine their feeding schedule comes with many benefits for both mom and baby. Research suggests that babies benefit physically and cognitively from being fed when they are hungry, and it improves mom's well-being.
On-demand feeding ensures proper growth and development for babies while offering the comfort and security they need.
Research suggests that feeding on-demand is linked to greater cognitive growth and academic performance, often performing better on standardized tests later in childhood than those fed on a schedule.
In addition, babies who are fed every time they show signs of hunger gain more weight during the first few weeks of life, at a time when weight gain is so important for a baby’s growth and development.
Let’s not forget the fact that a satisfied baby is a happy baby. When babies are fed when they want to be fed, they don’t cry or fuss as often because they are content and because suckling at the breast is comforting to them.
When babies enter the world after spending nine months inside their mother’s womb, the world is a big scary place, and they find solace in staying close to mom. The more opportunities to snuggle, suck and have that ever-important skin-to-skin contact will make your baby feel warm, comforted, and protected while helping to regulate their body temperature and blood glucose levels.
On-demand feeding ensures adequate milk production and offers an emotional boost for mom.
Studies show that milk comes in sooner for moms who feed frequently and on-demand, meaning that your baby could start getting that nutritionally rich milk and start gaining back their birth weight earlier if you feed them every few hours or when they show signs of hunger. Not only that but frequent breastfeeding sessions increase a mom's prolactin levels, which are necessary for establishing an adequate milk supply. When your milk comes in sooner, it ensures that your baby is getting enough to eat.
Breastfeeding initiates the release of oxytocin for the mom, producing an immediate calming effect. This helps new moms cope with stress at a time when their hormones are in hyperdrive.
**The recommendation to feed eight or more times per day comes with a caveat. From the first few days to the first two weeks of life, babies are often very tired from the childbirth experience, especially babies born prematurely, babies with jaundice, and babies having difficulty gaining weight. During these first few weeks postpartum, a baby may not wake on its own to feed. Until they regain their birth weight, the AAP recommends that parents wake their sleeping baby to feed every 3 hours during the day and every 4 hours at night to ensure they’re getting enough to eat. This also helps your milk supply come in fully. Once your baby reaches their birth weight, you no longer need to wake them up to feed.
Evolution favours the on-demand feeding approach.
From a historical and evolutionary perspective, mammals produce two types of feeders: spaced or continual. The way a mammal feeds is determined by its physiological traits, including the composition of its milk and the suckling capacity of the baby.
Human milk is composed of low amounts of fat (only 3.8%) and protein (a measly 1%), which likens them to continual feeders. Since the milk is not as caloric, babies need to nurse more frequently to get enough food. Like cows or monkeys, other continual feeders always keep their babies nearby as they forage and eat.
Spaced feeders have milk much higher in fat and protein so that the mothers can go out and forage while leaving their baby behind. The babies get enough highly concentrated food to last them while their mother is away.
In some modern societies, humans try to act like spaced feeders by leaving their baby in a crib or swing until it’s “time” to feed. This goes against our evolutionary heritage to feed on cue. In some traditional hunter-gatherer societies, babies are nursed up to 4 times an hour! This is more in line with our physiological makeup.
Just think about the way you eat. Some days you might only eat at designated mealtimes, but if you've been especially active, you might be hungry at odd times or need a few snacks in between meals. Your baby is no different and feeding them on-demand accounts for their ever-changing nutritional needs. Identifying when they are hungry tells you when it’s time to initiate a feeding session.
How to Identify Hunger Cues
Feeding on demand means that you feed your baby every time they show signs of hunger. But what are those signs?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, hunger cues include:
· Rooting (moving jaw and mouth or head in search of breast or bottle)
· Putting their hand to their mouth repeatedly
· Opening their mouth
· Licking lips
· Sticking out tongue
· Sucking on anything they can find
Once your baby starts crying, it's a late sign of hunger, and it might be difficult to calm them down enough to latch properly. Try to offer the breast when you see early signs of hunger. Sometimes, your baby might show signs of hunger but is searching for comfort. It’s not harmful to offer them food anyway and allow them to suckle while soaking up those skin-to-skin cuddles.
Your baby can self-regulate, and they will indicate to you when they are hungry and when they are finished. Picking up on these signals can be difficult at first but become easier over time as you get to know your little one.
Recognizing When Your Baby is Full
Now that you’re a pro at deciphering hunger cues, what about when it’s time to stop? When you're breastfeeding your baby, it isn't easy to know exactly how much milk they're getting, and you might unknowingly stop them before they get the best part of your milk.
At the beginning of a breastfeeding session, your baby gets what’s known as "foremilk," which is low in fat and more diluted. As the breastfeeding session continues, the milk becomes a more concentrated, fattier composition known as the "hindmilk." Your baby needs to get enough hindmilk to ensure they've had enough calories to be satisfied; otherwise, you'll notice them showing hunger cues more frequently because they're hungry.
Don't watch the clock. Watch your baby to ensure that they're getting their fill of both foremilk and hindmilk. Here are some cues that might signal your baby is full:
· They de-latch from your breast
· They fall asleep and cannot easily be reawakened
· They reject the breast (or bottle) three times
If your baby is still showing signs of hunger but has emptied one breast, then it’s time to offer them the other. You’ll want to make sure they’ve fully emptied one breast first so that they’re consuming the nutritionally dense hindmilk.
The On-Demand Approach Applies to Bottle-Fed Babies Too
What if you're bottle-feeding? The on-demand approach to feeding is still the best way to ensure your baby gets what they need. After all, they can regulate their intake to satisfy their caloric requirements. Research even shows that both breastfed and formula-fed infants can self-regulate the milk they consume.
It's even more important if you're bottle-feeding to pay attention to your baby's hunger and full cues because it's easy to push your baby to finish the entire bottle when they may not need or want it.
So, whether you're breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, your baby will tell you what they need. Follow their lead, and they will have all the food they need to continue their growth and development.
The Drawbacks of Scheduled Feedings
Scheduling your baby’s feedings might sound like a good idea in theory – it makes for a more predictable schedule for you, but it can have detrimental effects on your breastfeeding relationship and can lead to underfeeding.
After all, when you schedule exact times that your baby should get milk, you aren't accounting for a range of other factors like growth spurts. When a baby is going through a growth spurt or if they have used an excessive amount of energy, they will need more calories than usual. Ignoring their pleas for milk might mean that they aren’t getting the vital nutrients they need to sustain their growth.
This can interfere with the baby’s ability to self-regulate. We mentioned that babies have a natural way of controlling the amount they eat to accommodate their exact needs. If they're not given a chance to learn self-regulation, they may be more likely to overeat later in life.
You produce as much milk as your baby needs, so feeding according to a strict timetable might negatively impact your milk supply because you are not allowing your baby to feed until they are full. Therefore, you won’t produce as much milk, and it can derail your breastfeeding journey.
Suppose you create a rigid feeding schedule for your baby. In that case, it will also impact their sleep patterns, growth, and development, and they will even miss out on key bonding moments that happen naturally when a baby is fed early and often.
We understand it can be frustrating. It might seem like your baby is feeding around the clock, even several times within an hour, in the beginning. Remember that, like many things in the newborn stage, this will pass. Over time, your baby will naturally establish a feeding schedule, and you'll be able to recognize their cues better and predict their behaviours. Give yourself grace as you learn who your baby is and give them plenty of chances to feed to nurture their physical and emotional growth.
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