Should Babies Be Breast-Fed on Demand?

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on February 5, 2016Written by Annamarya Scaccia on February 5, 2016
Breastfeeding On-Demand

It can be tough for moms-to-be to choose whether to breast-feed on demand or on a schedule.

After all, both types of nursing methods have their pros and cons for mom and baby. And your doctor — or loved ones — may have strong opinions about which way is best, confusing you all the more.

If you’re leaning towards breast-feeding on demand, read through our handy guide about how it works and its benefits.

Breast-Feeding on Demand for a Newborn

When your little one is born, they’ll need to eat up to 12 times a day, which means you’ll breast-feed every one to three hours. Since breast-feeding provides nutrition and comfort to your baby, experts say you should breast-feed whenever your newborn shows signs that they are hungry.

And because nursing drives milk production, breast-feeding on cue will ensure that you will produce a good milk supply for your little one. Allowing your baby to feed on demand also means your newborn can control their own milk intake.

Here are feeding cues you should watch for when your baby is awake and asleep:

  • lip smacking or movements
  • sucking motions or sucking on fists
  • turning toward your breasts
  • rooting
  • mouthing
  • vocalization
  • stirring and stretching
  • wiggling
  • tossing and turning
  • restless during sleep

You should look for early feeding cues and feed your baby at the onset of hunger. Waiting until your newborn fusses or cries — the late stages of hunger — means your little one will have a harder time sucking or latching on correctly. According to La Leche League, repeatedly delaying feeding can also decrease milk production over time because your infant won’t take in as much milk as they need.

Breast-feeding your little one on demand also benefits the family. Your baby will grow to be healthy, happy, secure, and trusting of you when you pay attention and respond quickly to their feeding cues. In turn, you will trust your own instincts and ability to accurately discern your newborn’s needs, especially as their eating patterns change as they grow.

Breast-Feeding on Demand During Growth Spurts and Beyond

After the first 6 weeks, your baby will experience physical and developmental growth spurts which last a few days, at 3 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 9 months. During these periods, your little one will want to feed more often and may be fussier than usual. For some mothers, that could mean feeding on demand every hour.

But as your baby grows in between spurts, their feedings will slowly decrease in frequency. And by 8 months — when your little one is handling cereals and solids with no problem — your baby may be easily distracted, pulling off your breast and wiggling around while breast-feeding. Since less frequent and shorter feeds can lead to low milk production, you should try nurse during the day as much as possible and needed.

Moms should breast-feed exclusively for the first 6 months and continue breast-feeding after solids are introduced, up to 12 months or longer if you and your baby wish. Many women do choose to breast-feed their toddlers, although breast-feeding a toddler is far different from nursing a newborn. At this stage, your child may start to naturally wean, and new parenting demands may make breast-feeding on demand challenging.

If you’re not coaxing weaning, you should continue to nurse on demand, day and night, until they are ready to stop. If you have initiated weaning, though, then you should breast-feed only when they ask, or postpone nursing.

Breast-Feeding on Demand vs. on Schedule

Some parents choose to time when they breast-feed their newborns rather than do it on cue, for a number of reasons, including nursing around a full-time work schedule. Schedule feeding can also do the following.

  • Improve maternal well-being. According to a European Journal of Public Health study, mothers who feed on schedule are less likely to report feeling exhausted. The study also found that they are more likely to experience parenting and confidence.
  • Help babies understand routine.

But while feeding on a schedule may have its benefits, research shows that waiting to nurse can have negative effects on many newborns, like the following.

  • Decrease in milk supply. The longer you wait to nurse, the less milk you will produce. When you delay feeding, your breasts will overfill with milk, which will signal to your body that you need less milk.
  • Poor growth and weight gain. Restricting when and how much your baby eats can reduce both your milk supply and fat content, which may led to poor growth and poor weight gain. Most babies want to feed more often during growth spurts, so confining your newborn to a schedule may mean they aren’t getting the amount of milk they need for healthy growth.
  • Lower IQ and academic performance. The same European Journal of Public Health study found that babies fed on demand are more likely to have higher IQs and score higher on tests than their schedule-fed counterparts.
  • A distressed and unsatisfied baby. La Leche League notes that many babies who nurse on a schedule rather than on demand become frequently distressed and left feeling unsatisfied. This could have a negative impact on your baby’s emotional growth, as they may feel their needs won’t be met or that they can’t trust their own instincts.

Parents who feed on a schedule may find ways to distract or soothe their baby during hungry moments, including using a pacifier. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that parents should limit pacifier use for their baby in the hospital, to specific medical situations such as pain relief. After that, pacifiers should be used only after breast-feeding has been well-established and your baby is gaining weight well, at about 3 to 4 weeks old.

The Takeaway

While babies can thrive both with feeding on demand or on schedule, most doctors and available research are in favor of breast-feeding on demand.

The benefits of nursing on demand are widely accepted. However, making the choice to follow cues or follow the clock depends on you and your baby’s wants and needs.

Annamarya Scaccia
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