Breastfeeding on demand vs. on a schedule

What to Know

  • Feeding needs vary depending on baby’s age
  • When to expect a natural feeding pattern to emerge
  • Your baby’s and your body’s signs that it’s time to feed
  • You can breastfeed too little, but not too much

Many new parents wonder if they should be breastfeeding on demand (following baby’s cues for when and how much to feed) or on a schedule (feeding baby at timed intervals for a specific length of time).

The answer is… it depends on your baby’s age.

Mother breastfeeding baby on airplane

Early on in your baby’s life, it’s best to feed on demand. Breastfeeding is instinctual for babies. If they are looking and cueing to feed, it is what their bodies actually need for growth and development. Let them drink up!

Newborns in particular need to eat around the clock (a minimum of 8 times per day!), and may feed anywhere from 10 minutes to 60 minutes. Breastmilk is easily digestible and babies’ stomachs are small – the combination results in baby wanting to be at the breast often. This programmed cluster feeding is specifically designed to grow their tummies (and the rest of their bodies) as well as your milk supply.

Frequent on-demand feedings benefit both you and your baby. Because milk production works by supply and demand, feeding on demand will help to establish a good milk supply and allow your baby and your body to be in sync. Scheduled feeds may interrupt this natural process of milk production.

Signs that your baby is hungry and ready to eat include becoming more alert, putting his hands or fingers on or in his mouth, making sucking motions or sounds, sticking out his tongue, smacking his lips or rooting (moving his jaw and mouth or head in search of your breast).

Your body may also signal when it’s time for a feed because breast storage capacity plays a part. If you have smaller breasts that feel full often, then it is 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 (problems also sometimes associated with more a more rigid feeding schedule).

You cannot breastfeed too much, but you can breastfeed too little. In the first year of life your baby has very high calorie needs in proportion to his small body size. Babies typically increase their weight by 200% in the first year and quadruple their weight by 24 months! All of this growth is dependent on your good feeding practices.

Making sure you are there and ready to feed whenever your baby decides it’s time will ensure adequate growth, nutrient intake and will promote the essential bonding moments that happen between baby and mom.

At around 3-4 months old, you may notice a predictable feeding pattern emerge. For example, your baby may begin to space out feedings from every 2 hours to every 3 hours. This type of pattern is helpful in creating a schedule and routine but don’t assume that this is the way feeding will go from now on because 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. It is normal for your baby’s food intake to vary by about 20% each day. 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.

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 breast or bottle plus solid food feeding every 2.5 to 3 hours.

What to Do

If you’re in the thick of the first 12 weeks, take a deep breath – you and baby are both still learning and things will get easier for both of you with time.

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

Feed your newborn a minimum of 8 feedings in a 24 hour period

Your hungry baby may even feed up to 12 times or more in 24 hours during the first few weeks of life. A minimum of 8 feeds will both give your baby all the calories needed to grow and signal your body to produce an adequate milk supply.

Try breast compressions

Using breast compressions while baby is feeding can help push more milk out to fill him up faster and also may shorten the feeding time or help him go longer between feeds.

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. 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.

Follow your baby’s hunger and fullness cues for the first 6 months

A consistent feeding schedule may not emerge until your baby is 6 months old. Until then, follow his hunger and fullness cues. Remember that your baby needs to eat frequently (every ~2-3 hours), especially throughout the first 3 months. Watch for your baby’s natural schedule, but do not force it or stick to a rigid schedule.

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, find a local breastfeeding support group, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a Happy Family Coach. If you’re facing significant breastfeeding challenges, you may want to seek out an in-person lactation consultant (IBCLC) for help.

You may also like