Should I Breastfeed On Demand or on a Schedule?

JanelMS, RD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 5 minutes

What to know about breastfeeding on-demand versus on a schedule

  • Feeding needs vary depending on baby’s age

  • Know when to expect a natural feeding pattern to emerge

  • Understand your baby’s and your body’s signs that it’s time to feed

Many new parents wonder if they should be breastfeeding on demand or on a schedule. On demand breastfeeding, also called cue-based, baby-led, or responsive breastfeeding, is when you follow your baby’s cues for when and how much to feed. On the other hand, feeding on a schedule means you’re breastfeeding at specific times, and perhaps for a specific amount of time, that is not determined by the baby.10

Early on in your baby’s life, feeding on demand is best.1 Breastfeeding is instinctual for babies. They show hunger when their body needs nutrients and calories for growth and development. As soon as you see those feeding cues, let them drink up! In fact, breastfeeding on demand helps support a healthy breastmilk supply as well.2

Read on to learn about when it’s best to breastfeed on demand, and when you may finally start to see a feeding schedule begin to emerge.

How often does my newborn need to breastfeed?

Breastmilk is easily digestible, and newborn’s stomachs are tiny, resulting in your baby needing to eat around the clock. Breastfed infants usually eat 8 to 12 times per 24 hours, or about every 1 to 3 hours.3,4 Each feed may last anywhere from 15 minutes to 20 minutes per breast, give or take depending on each infant.5

Frequent on-demand feedings benefit both you and your baby. Breastmilk production works by supply and demand, the more you feed, the more milk the body will make.6 Following your baby’s lead and feeding as frequently as they demand will help your body know exactly how much milk it needs to make to meet your baby’s needs. Scheduled feeds may interrupt this natural process of milk production.

Read more: Breastfeeding: How to Support a Good Milk Supply

How do I know when my breastfed baby is hungry?

Signs that your baby is hungry and ready to breastfeed include:

  • Becoming more alert

  • Putting their hands or fingers on or in their mouth

  • Making sucking motions or sounds

  • Sticking their tongue out or smacking lips

  • Rooting (moving their jaw and mouth or head in search of the breast).7

Many caregivers think crying is the main sign of hunger, however crying is actually a late-stage hunger cue and a sign of distress. Watch for earlier hunger cues, as once a baby is crying, it can be harder to get them to latch onto the breast and feed.7,8

Read more: Understanding Your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues

How much breastmilk can your breasts hold? Does breast size affect breastmilk production?

The good news is that total volume of milk you’re able to make per day is not related to the size of your breast.2 The size of your breast is solely related to the amount of fatty tissue. However, the capacity of your milk-making glandular tissue to hold breastmilk is strictly related to how much milk you can store at one time.2

People with a smaller breastmilk storage capacity may need to feed their babies more often for their little one to get enough.2,9 With this smaller capacity, your breasts may feel full often, and it may be best to feed baby (or express milk) when you feel the sensation to release milk. This helps to keep the milk flowing, which can help prevent problems such as leaking, engorgement, low supply, plugged ducts, and mastitis.9,12

Learn about: Avoiding and Managing Blocked Ducts while Breastfeeding

Responsive feeding for healthy growth in breastfed babies

In the first year of life your baby has very high calorie needs in proportion to their small body size. The average baby will triple their birth weight in the first year.12,13 All of this growth is dependent on good feeding practices. Meeting your baby’s needs by feeding on demand in response to their cues ensures adequate growth, nutrient intake, and helps promote the essential bonding moments that happen between baby and caregiver.

It can be tempting to encourage your baby to stay at the breast and feed more, or feed more often than they are asking; however, unless your doctor has instructed you to do so, it’s better to allow your baby to guide the feeding. Let them decide how slow, how often, and how much they eat.1 This is called responsive feeding, and it’s the practice of following and responding to your baby’s hunger and fullness cues.

You will learn about how often and for how long your baby typically breastfeeds. Over time, your baby will fall into their own breastfeeding schedule, which will then continually change over time. And don’t be surprised if the amount your baby drinks varies throughout the day. Just like adults, babies don’t need all their feeds to be the same size.4

When does a breastfeeding schedule emerge?

At around 3 to 4 months old, you may notice a more predictable feeding pattern emerge. For example, your baby may begin to space out feedings from every 2 to 3 hours to every 3 to 4 hours. This type of pattern is helpful in creating a natural breastfeeding rhythm and routine, but don’t assume that this is the way feeding will go from now on. Babies are constantly growing, and their needs will change frequently to support that growth.

The schedule may still shift from day to day and will continue to change as your baby grows. A baby is a little person after all; some days they’re hungrier than others, so continue to watch for your baby’s hunger cues and make adjustments accordingly.

Wondering if your baby’s feeding pattern is normal and meeting their needs? Reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am - 6pm (ET), and Saturday – Sunday 8am - 2pm (ET). Chat Now!

Breastfeeding on-demand and cluster feeding

Babies have multiple growth spurts during their first 6 months. During these times your little one needs more calories and nutrients to meet their growth and development needs, so for a couple days they’ll seem like all they want to do is feed, feed, feed all day long. This is called ‘cluster feeding’. Some babies even act fussier at the breast during these times.15

The good news is that feeding this frequently helps your body make more breastmilk to meet baby’s growing needs.14

When can you expect growth spurts and cluster feeding?

  • 2 – 3 weeks

  • 4 - 6 weeks

  • 3 months

  • 6 months14

Cluster feeding can also happen for some babies every day at a certain time of day. For example, some little ones cluster feed every evening before bed for the first 4 to 6 weeks of life.15 By following your baby’s lead and feeding on demand, you will help meet their needs as well as support your breastmilk supply.

Read about: Dealing with Low Breastmilk Supply

Starting solids and baby’s breastfeeding schedule

At around 6 months old, when babies typically begin solids, a more consistent feeding schedule often develops. Sometimes these schedules mimic parents eating schedules or daycare schedules but just as often they don’t, so be prepared to meet baby’s schedule rather than have him meet yours.

By 6 months most babies’ feeding schedules consist of a breastfeeding at least 6 to 8 times per 24 hours (sometimes more!) as well as solid food feeding 1 to 2 times per day.4

If your baby seems less interested in breastfeeding once solids are introduced, be sure to provide breastmilk before offering solids.4 Breastmilk should remain the primary source of calories and nutrients for babies under the age of 1 year.16

Read more:

Meal Plan for 6 to 9 Month Old Baby

Introducing Solids: First Foods and Textures

Why might breastfeeding on a schedule not work?

If you were to schedule breastfeeding sessions rather than listen to your baby and your body, there is a higher likelihood of your breastmilk supply reducing. This is especially true if a schedule is implemented during the first few months of life when your breastmilk supply is so highly reliant upon your body learning how much milk to make from how much milk your baby asks for.2,9

For some women, scheduled feedings may lead to some unpleasant side effects, such as increased risk of clogged ducts, painful engorgement, and ultimately low supply.2,11

What should I do to support my breastfed baby’s feeding schedule?

Know that the newborn feeding pattern is usually the toughest and most unpredictable

If you’re in the thick of the first 8 weeks, take a deep breath! You and baby are both still learning, and things will get easier for both of you with time. Focus on baby’s feeding cues and know most newborns will breastfeed 8 to 12 times per 24 hours.

Remember that your baby will likely start to space out their feedings in a more predictable pattern after 3 to 4 months.

Know if your baby is getting enough breastmilk

Having your little one demand to eat often can sometimes make us doubt our breastmilk supply. The good news is that usually there is no problem with how much we are producing!

Here is how you’ll know your baby is getting enough breastmilk:

  • Baby is making 5+ wet diapers per 24 hours

  • Baby is making 3 to 4 (or more) dirty diapers per 24 hours

  • Baby seems satisfied and happy between feedings

  • Baby is gaining weight well18,19

Try breast compressions

Using breast compressions while baby is feeding can help push more milk out to help your little one stay interested in the feed and help them get enough. This is particularly helpful if your little one is not an efficient feeder quite yet or if they are falling asleep at the breast too soon.17

Place your hand around the breast with your thumb on one side (the top side is usually easiest) and your fingers on the other side. Your hand should be close to your chest wall, leaving plenty of space around your areola.17 Gently squeeze your breast and hold.

This technique may be helpful but is not guaranteed, and it’s important not to do this aggressively! The compressions should not be painful.

Read more: How and When to Hand Express

Build a strong support network

Breastfeeding is a demanding job and may come with some challenges. Reach out to friends and family members who have breastfed and find a local breastfeeding support group.

If you’re facing significant breastfeeding challenges, you may want to seek out an in-person lactation consultant (IBCLC) for help.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Dealing With a Low Breastmilk SupplyBreastfeeding: How to Support a Good Milk Supply

Meal and Hydration Plan for Supporting Milk Supply

How to Choose the Right Breast Pump

6 Breastfeeding Positions for You and Your Baby

Top Tips for Pumping Breastmilk