breastfeeding,  nighttime parenting

Breastfeeding is Great; Breastfeeding On Demand is Even Better

Two days after Levi was born, I was in that strange place where sleep-deprivation, physical exhaustion, and blissful elation coincide. We had been home for about twenty-four hours, and we were adjusting fairly well to breastfeeding, but I was feeling unsure about how often and when to feed him.

Scheduled Breastfeeding?

When I was pregnant, I had been recommended a book that advocated for scheduled breastfeeding. It was important, the book argued, that the child adhered to the parents’ schedule and not the other way around. Having known very little about breastfeeding, I thought, sure, that sounds like a good plan — feed the baby every two or three hours the first week, and spread out feedings from then.

Then, when we took a breastfeeding class, I was told that book was absolute rubbish, and that I should throw it out completely. I was advised to breastfeed on demand, or as often as the child wanted to nurse, no matter how often or for how long. I remember thinking that breastfeeding on demand sounded all consuming, and being confused as to whose advice I should follow.

In any case, I carried the confusion with me into the first days at home. I think I would have stayed in a state of conflict if it had not been for the placenta lady. (Yes, I had my placenta encapsulated, and I totally recommend it – that’s another story.)

The Placenta Lady’s Advice

She delivered the rust-colored capsules and Levi’s umbilical cord woven into a heart, then asked us how we were doing with unexpected sincerity and kindness. I confessed my confusion over how often I should be feeding him.

“I’ve been feeding him when he cries, and it seems to settle him down, but I just am not sure if that’s right.”

She grinned at me, wisdom in her eyes. “My general rule of thumb is, if a baby cries, stick a boob in him.” There could be many reasons why a baby cried, but breastfeeding addressed many of them: hunger, thirst, exhaustion, fear, need for comfort, need to reconnect, temperature regulation. If breastfeeding didn’t fix it, then try changing a diaper or helping baby burp.

All in all, she stayed an hour, giving us tips and encouragement. I trusted her immediately, and her advice seemed to jive with my instinct; I just needed permission. So I heeded her advice.

As it turns out, I’ve been breastfeeding on demand for over three years. And I’m so glad I was advised to do so.

Breastfeeding on Demand Improves Supply

Perhaps the most practical reason to breastfeed on demand, especially in the first weeks, is that it maximizes Mama’s supply. Breastmilk is “demand and supply” and the more the baby suckles, the more it’s signaling to Mama that more milk is needed! The body is amazingly well-regulated and will not create more milk than baby needs (unless a mother pumps, ergo signaling the need for a higher milk production).

When Lucy was born, I remember her wanting to nurse and nurse and nurse those first 48 hours, even though no milk was coming out. “That’s totally fine,” the nurse reminded me. “She’s just signaling for a high supply of milk when it comes in!” I just let her go at it, a marathon of sucking. When my milk came in, then, the next day, I bet I could have fed twins. Once she was getting as much as she needed, the supply evened out.

Moms can easily feel discouraged if they think they’re not producing. The following reminders come directly from Medela’s article, “Demand and Supply: How Breastmilk Production Really Works“:

  • The more you breastfeed, and the more efficient the baby is in emptying the breasts, the more milk your body produces.
  • Your body will produce milk in response to stimulation of the breast.
  • Milk production speeds up in response to an empty breast.
  • Milk is being produced at all times, so the breast is never completely empty.

Breastfeeding on demand is the best way to increase your supply and ensure a healthy supply later.

Breastfeeding on Demand Promotes a Secure Attachment

A baby’s cry is her way of communicating. It is trying to signal that something is wrong, Dr. Sears explains in The Attachment Parenting Book. Breastfeeding is a way to fill a need, provide comfort, and connection.

“Breastfeeding is an exercise in baby reading. Successful breastfeeding depends on learning to read your baby’s cues, which means you have to spend a lot of time paying attention to your baby.” When a mother pays close attention to her baby, she grows more attached to her baby, and the baby to her.

There’s a hormonal, biological bond that is strengthened by frequent breastfeeding because of the oxytocin released in mother and baby during breastfeeding. The baby learns to trust that her mother will meet her needs when she expresses them, and the mother feels more connected to her child, and more confident of her ability to meet baby’s needs.

Scheduling, Dr. Sears argues, interferes with parents and babies learning to trust each other.

Breastfeeding on Demand Sets the Stage for Healthy Eating Later in Life

As adults, we are often advised to eat more, smaller meals throughout the day, eat them slow, and stop when satisfied.

That’s exactly what breastfeeding on demand teaches newborns.

Babies who breastfeed on demand are incredibly self-regulated. Dr. Sears explains that infants only eat exactly what they need; no one is pushing them to finish a bottle. The child will unlatch when satisfied, and is confident in knowing that when he is hungry again, his needs will once again be met.

As opposed to formula, breastmilk digests more quickly, meaning a baby needs to eat more often. Scheduled breastfeeding is more likely to mimic the needs of formula-fed babies and permits the child from self-regulating his own intake.

Breastfeeding On Demand is Less Stressful

In La Leche League’s book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, they explain how scheduling baby’s feeding will actually make more complicated, not less. A child’s needs change all the time; if a baby is going through a growth spurt, sick, or undergoing environmental changes, she may want to nurse more frequently or at unusual times. For the mom who is trying to limit breastfeeding to certain times during the day, this creates conflict.

The child who is fed on demand can be fed anywhere, in any situation, at any time. And, LLL acknowledges, the scheduled child will not grow as well, because biologically, babies were meant to be fed on a flexible schedule: “Nursing babies were around long, long before clocks were, when life was truly hard. Nursing had to fit into a day of finding food (often unpredictable), tending animals (ditto), and avoiding sudden dangers (ditto again). Raising a baby had to be all about flexibility, and it was, and it worked just fine.” 

What if I Work Outside the Home?

Working outside of the home is the situation for most mothers, and it can make breastfeeding on demand seem impossible, but be assured, it is not.The key is, breastfeed on demand as often as you can. Breastfeeding on demand while on maternity leave will help establish a strong supply for when you return to work. Then, breastfeeding on demand after returning home from work will provide many of the benefits listed above.

Sidenote: I am in awe of women who return to work and commit to pumping for their baby. It is amazing to me. It takes so much determination and self-sacrifice to work and breastfeed. It has been easy for me to breastfeed on demand because as a SAHM, I have always been available to feed them, and I realize that I am the exception, not the rule. You working mothers are simply amazing.

Do I Need to keep Breastfeeding Through the Night?

The issue of sleep and breastfeeding is controversial. On one side is the sleep-training camp, and the other side, the attachment-style, “cosleep and breastfeed all night long”. On the sleep-training side, they will say breastfeeding to sleep is a crutch of some kind, an association that needs to be removed for a child to fall asleep independently. The other side will argue that nature intended for babies to be breastfed to sleep, and it’s a lot less stressful nursing a baby to sleep in a few minutes than pacing, rocking, or listening to a baby cry for an hour at a time.

Here’s some information:

  • Formula fed babies are more likely to sleep longer at night because it takes longer for baby to digest. The question of whether or not your child is sleeping through the night is influenced by the popularity of formula in recent history.
  • Breastmilk digests in a few hours, leaving baby hungry more frequently. This is by design. According to Dr. McKenna, co-sleeping expert, babies who are breastfed and co-sleep spend less time in deep sleep which is physiologically appropriate. Their frequent wakings are meant for reconnecting to Mama, keeping supply up, and can prevent against SIDS.
  • Prolactin, the hormone responsible for producing breastmilk, is higher at night than during the day, meaning a mother produces more milk at night.
  • According to Psychology Today evening breastmilk contains more tryptophan, an amino acid meant to induce sleep as well as help with brain functioning, improving mood, and helping with sleep-wake cycles.
  • According to The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, some mothers and babies need nighttime feedings to keep up milk supply: “Some breastfed babies who have gone through early ‘sleep training’ programs end up with weight gain problems” (pg 225).

In general, most lactation experts will argue that nighttime feeding is an important part for breastfeeding success. The decision to sleep-train a child and/or wean a child of nighttime nursing is ultimately up to the mother. It’s a difficult call to make. I know from experience.

Isn’t it Breastfeeding on Demand Exhausting?

Yes. Especially in the beginning. And it makes you ravenously hungry, like, scarfing-down-granola-bars-at-two-in-the-morning hungry.

But parenting in general is exhausting. Breastfeeding on demand offers so many benefits, it can be completely worthwhile.

Breastfeeding on demand also does not look like a babe on your boob for 20 hours a day. It looks more like frequent snacking, latching on and off here and there, with a few longer nursing sessions thrown in.

If it seems like you spend more time nursing than not, seek out professional help and/or support. It’s always helpful to have a professional opinion.

Won’t it make Baby Completely Dependent on me?

This was one of the questions I asked early on before having my first child. Then, he was born, and I realized my baby is completely dependent on me, by design. Whether I breastfeed him on demand or on schedule does not change that fact. Biologically, he cannot meet his own needs, and that is ok. That’s part of the beauty of the parent-child relationship, especially in those early months.

Breastfeeding on demand is a compassionate way of meeting his needs. It says, “I recognize your vulnerability, I recognize that I can meet your needs, and I want to care for you in the same way I would want to be taken care of.”

Does it mean that you are in any way a “bad mom” because you work, or that you shouldn’t allow your partner to bottle-feed your baby so you can have some space? Absolutely not! All it means is your baby needs you.

Your baby needs you to take care of yourself, too. That means something different for each of us.

Won’t it Spoil the Baby?

If I could remove one thought from every new mom’s mind, it would be the concept that a baby can be spoiled. He can’t. In The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, it states: “Babies aren’t manipulative, perceptive, sneaky or subversive. They just…are.”

There’s a huge difference between indulging wants and indulging needs. At this stage in the game, the baby’s wants are their needs; she needs to be fed, clean, safe, loved, cared for. The book continues to say: “When the same baby is two years old, sometimes his wants and needs will be different. He may not know the difference, and it will be up to us to help him sort it out – to help him learn patience, tolerance, kindness. But for now? All he needs to learn is love.”

Amen and amen.


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