Each baby is a unique individual, with his or her own nursing habits. Breastfed babies can thrive within a wide range of normal feeding patterns. Even in the same family, mothers observe that different siblings have different nursing styles. Some babies breastfeed at closer intervals than others or take longer to complete a feeding. Some like to nurse leisurely, while others get right down to business. Mothers often find a nickname for their baby's particular nursing style, ranging from the "nibbler" to the "barracuda."
While no two babies are alike, the following typical feeding routines should let you know what to expect, help you recognize the ranges of normal, and give you guidance about when to seek help.
Breastfed newborns nurse frequently, at least eight times each twenty-four hours. In fact, ten or twelve feedings a day are not uncommon during the early weeks. On average, your baby will awaken to breastfeed every two to three hours. Feedings are timed from the beginning of one nursing to the beginning of the next. After your baby finishes a feeding, she'll probably be ready to nurse again within the next two hours. In fact, don't be surprised if she sometimes wants to nurse only an hour or so after her last feeding. Babies often cluster several nursings close together, especially in the evenings, and then sleep for a longer stretch at other times, such as the middle of the night.
Many new breastfeeding mothers are not prepared for the normal frequency of feedings. They assume they must not have enough milk because their baby wants to feed so often. New breastfeeding mothers often complain, "It seems like all I do is breastfeed." My response is, "Good for you. Frequent breastfeeding is the most important thing you can do right now!" Getting breastfeeding off to a successful start is indeed a high priority; everything else can wait.
To better understand your baby's needs, try writing down everything you eat or drink for one day, including full meals, snacks, and even sips of water. I'll bet you make at least eight to ten entries. Well, some nursings are more like sips or snacks, while others are full meals. Human milk is digested more rapidly than formula, so the breastfed baby is hungry sooner. Unfortunately, many contemporary parents, grandparents, and even physicians, are more familiar with the typical three- to four-hour feeding schedule of formula-fed infants. Despite the appealing convenience of an infrequent feeding schedule, it's simply unrealistic to expect a breastfed baby to thrive without frequent, round-the-clock nursings.
The best advice is don't focus much attention on the clock. Instead, follow your baby's cues about how often she needs to nurse. If she just fed an hour ago and is acting hungry again, respond to her signals and offer your breast. Feeding frequently during these first weeks is the principal way your milk supply becomes adjusted to meet your baby's requirements. This is known as the breastfeeding law of supply and demand.
Generally, babies can be counted on to let us know when they are hungry. Some babies, however, need to be awakened to nurse because they just don't demand as often as they should. During the daytime, if three and a half to four hours have elapsed since your baby last nursed, you should gently arouse her to feed. Pick her up, change her diaper, and remove some of her clothing to try to awaken her to breastfeed. At night, don't let her sleep longer than five hours without breastfeeding until she's at least a month old. To assure she breastfeeds often enough each day, don't allow more than a single four- to five-hour interval without nursing during each twenty-four-hour period.
WHEN TO SEEK HELP: If your baby often sleeps through feeding times, seldom demands to be fed, or frequently needs to be awakened to nurse, contact her physician. If your baby nurses more than twelve times each day and acts perpetually hungry, arrange to have her weighed promptly to see if she is obtaining enough milk. Ask to be referred to a lactation consultant who can evaluate your breastfeeding technique and make suggestions for improving your baby's intake of breast milk.