Nursing on Demand and Growth Spurts

161052_lactation2When I work with mothers who are breastfeeding or who intend to breastfeed, I cannot overemphasize the importance of nursing on demand. This means not scheduling feedings and not substituting pacifiers or bottles for the real thing.

The breasts produce as much milk as is needed, no more and no less. And a baby nurses as often as he or she needs to, no more and no less. And each baby is different—in their personalities and nursing habits—so that some babies need to nurse for shorter or longer periods of time, more or less frequently, than others.

As newly expectant mothers, we’re handed book after book that says that babies should feed x-number of times, x-hours apart. And once our baby is born, this same formulaic approach to breastfeeding is reiterated by our baby’s doctor who asks how many times a day we’re nursing and for how long. The doctor’s point is to make sure that nursing is going OK, but this conveys that anything done differently than what can be marked on the pull-down menu of an electronic form is then abnormal. The truth is, as long as babies aren’t showing signs of dehydration and are gaining adequately, your breastfeeding pattern is working and is normal. And most likely, if your milk supply is good and your baby is healthy, you’re nursing on demand.

And if you’re nursing on demand, you’re on a solid start to having a healthy parenting relationship with your child.

Nursing on demand will always guide your breastfeeding relationship, from the early days of establishing your supply and getting the latch right all the way through weaning. Often, mothers will question whether nursing on demand is working during periods of growth spurts, because it will seem that the baby is not being satisfied by nursing. The baby will seem to be nursing more often, perhaps seemingly around the clock. This is normal. It doesn’t mean you don’t have enough milk or that by nursing on demand, you’re teaching your baby to nurse more often than he needs to be. On the contrary, your baby is nursing more often because he is growing physically, as is his appetite, and after a couple days, sometimes a week, your supply will catch up and his nursing patterns will slow down again. His more frequent nursing patterns are normal and healthy and do not mean that you’re starving your baby.

A common reason why mothers begin to lose their supply is that they respond to the changed nursing patterns that come with growth spurts by supplementing with formula, thinking that their breasts aren’t producing enough. But since the breasts only make as much milk as is being taken out, they won’t produce any more milk to make up for the bottles of formula that you’re feeding. The end result will be a still-growing baby with a bigger appetite but breasts that are accustomed to the younger baby with a smaller appetite—in other words, a milk supply that is smaller than what is needed by the baby.

It’s good to note that growth spurts don’t necessarily have to be just physical weight and height. Increased nursing frequency often tends to happen before developmental leaps, such as rolling over and crawling.

If you have started supplementing formula and want to reverse the trend of a decreasing milk supply, go back to letting the baby nurse as often as she wants, for however long or short of time that she chooses. Some moms use breast pumps to help increase supply, but it’s still important to nurse truly on demand and then pump between the baby’s nursing sessions.

Wondering if your baby is going through a growth spurt? Remember these guidelines, but also consider that all babies follow their own developmental paths and may not be right on schedule:

  • 7-10 days
  • 2-3 weeks
  • 4-6 weeks
  • 3 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 9 months.
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Rita Brhel
Rita Brhel is a stay-at-home mother to three children. She is also a WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counselor for the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska, the Publications Coordinator for Attachment Parenting International, the managing editor of the Attached Family magazine, an API Support Group Leader, PSI Postpartum Support Coordinator, Sidelines High-Risk Pregnancy Peer Counselor.
Rita Brhel

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