Should you breastfeed on demand or on a set schedule? Learn pros and cons of breastfeeding on demand vs. on a schedule, to help you choose the approach that’s best for you and baby.
Should you breastfeed on demand, whenever baby shows signs of hunger? Or, should you establish a breastfeeding schedule, where you feed baby after a set number of hours? Here are the pros and cons of breastfeeding on demand vs. on a schedule, to help you make the decision that’s best for you and your baby.
On demand or on a schedule? Notes before you decide
- Whether you breastfeed on demand or on a schedule, you should let baby keep feeding at the breast for as long as they’re hungry, and stop when they show signs of fullness. So, it’s vital to know your baby’s hunger and fullness cues.
- Signs of hunger include moving the fists to the mouth, looking for the breast, smacking the lips, sucking on the hands, making sucking noises or motions, opening and closing the mouth, becoming more active, and rooting (opening the mouth and searching for the breast when their mouth or cheek is stroked).
- Signs of fullness include releasing the breast, turning away from the breast, relaxing the body, and opening the fists.
- If you’re breastfeeding on a schedule, this schedule should be in line with your baby’s developmental needs. Gradually adjust if baby needs more or less milk.
Advantages Of Breastfeeding On Demand
1. It’s the recommended approach for young babies
When your baby is first born, the recommended approach is to feed them on demand rather than on a schedule. This is due to babies’ frequent feeding needs, the need to promote a healthy milk supply, and the opportunity for nurturing and bonding with your baby. Feeding on demand is recommended for at least the first few months, until baby starts to establish a more predictable schedule on their own.
2. It helps you build and maintain your supply
Breastfeeding is all about supply and demand. The more baby feeds, the more milk your body will produce for them. So, feeding on your baby’s cues will help your body learn to make enough milk for their needs, and promote a healthy milk supply. Breastfeed on a schedule, and your body might have trouble making enough milk for baby’s growth needs.
3. It helps you become attentive to baby’s hunger cues
Feeding baby on demand requires recognizing what their hunger cues look like, and responding with nourishment. As you listen to these hunger cues, you’ll build more confidence in caring for baby. You’ll learn to differentiate hunger cues from signs they need something else, such as cries for a diaper change or a nap. Plus, responsively feeding baby will help you bond with your little one.
4. It builds healthy eating habits
Yes, even from their first tastes of breastmilk, responding to baby’s hunger and fullness cues encourages baby to develop intuitive eating habits later in life. Feeding them when they’re hungry, and stopping when they’re full, will help them learn to listen to their body (and associate hunger with feeding).
This will provide a healthy foundation for when they start solids – and lifelong healthy eating habits are formed in the first years. As they grow, your little one will be more likely to start eating only when they’re hungry, eat for as long as they’re hungry, and to keep themself from overeating once they’re already full.
5. Your breasts may be more comfortable
If you’re attentive to their cues, baby will be hungry every time you feed on demand, and will empty your breasts effectively. So, you won’t be as likely to end up with uncomfortable, overfilled breasts. In contrast, if you’re breastfeeding on a schedule, baby might not empty your breasts well if they aren’t hungry when they feed. This may mean that your breasts could fill up, and stay uncomfortably full, for a while.
6. No tracking is needed
There’s no way to measure how much breastmilk baby takes in if they’re feeding directly from the breast. But if you’re following baby’s hunger and fullness cues, you won’t have to worry about baby’s intake. You’ll know that your little one is getting enough to eat. And you won’t feel like you need to track all the times and lengths of feedings every time you feed.
Disadvantages Of Breastfeeding On Demand
1. It’s unpredictable
The main disadvantage of breastfeeding on demand is you won’t know what to expect. Baby’s hunger cues could happen at any moment, and feeding on demand means feeding whenever those hunger cues emerge. For some moms, it can be difficult – and stressful – making their body available to baby whenever they need it.
2. It can be very tiring and overwhelming
Making your breasts available to baby on demand can also be very tiring, another reason that this feeding method can lead to stress. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that it’s normal for baby to need to feed every 2 to 3 hours as a newborn. With patience, you’ll get used to baby’s “schedule” of eating and use this time as a precious bonding moment with baby. Plus, as baby gets older, they won’t need to feed as much – this too shall pass.
Advantages Of A Breastfeeding Schedule
1. It teaches baby that breasts are for feeding
If baby is allowed access to your breasts at any time – and you aren’t distinguishing hunger and fullness cues from other needs – your baby might use the breast for soothing reasons when they aren’t actually hungry. A schedule is one way to teach baby that the main purpose of sucking on the breasts is for food. (Yes, breastfeeding is also an opportunity for soothing and bonding, but baby needs to learn to eat when they’re hungry and not overeat when they’re already full.)
2. It can encourage baby to make the most of each feed
Babies can learn to feed on a schedule, as long as that schedule is consistent enough with their developmental needs. And when baby learns that breastmilk isn’t available at every moment, they may be more likely to make the most of the feed and empty your breasts.
3. It gives you control and consistency
Knowing how often you’ll be feeding baby means that you know what to expect. Once you’ve settled into a schedule, you can play with baby, complete household tasks, enjoy some self-care time, or even leave the house when it’s not feeding time. And you won’t have to worry about when to feed, since you’ve settled into a routine.
4. A routine is less stressful for you
When you know what to expect as far as feeding baby, and how often to feed them, this will likely lead to less stress for you. One survey study reported that moms who fed on a schedule report higher levels of confidence and well-being. In the same study, the schedule-feeding moms also reported that they felt less exhausted, compared to their counterparts who fed on demand.
5. As babies get older, they’ll more naturally settle into a schedule
By 3 or 4 months of age, you might notice that baby settles into a schedule on their own. No matter how you’ve fed baby before this point, it's easier to start to settle into a schedule as baby gets older, based on the patterns you start to observe in your baby’s hunger cues.
6. It may help you balance breastmilk with solids when baby is ready
Once baby is ready for solids, using a feeding schedule can help you balance breastfeeding meals with new solids meals. You’ll know to feed your child after every set number of hours, whether you’re feeding them breastmilk or solids.
4-8 month olds who have started solids will need 3-5 breastmilk feedings in a day. By 8 months of age, your baby will need to eat about every three hours, whether that’s breastmilk or solids.
Disadvantages Of A Breastfeeding Schedule
1. Feeding could be more difficult if baby is crying
Crying is a late-stage hunger cue – a “feed me now, I’m too hungry” cue. If you feed baby on a schedule and they get hungry before a scheduled feed, they might be crying by the time the scheduled feed takes place. And if baby is crying out of hunger, that may make it harder for them to properly latch onto your breast and get enough to eat.
2. You could have trouble maintaining your supply
If you decide to breastfeed on a schedule, especially within the first few months, you may be at risk for a lower milk supply. After all, when baby feeds on demand, this prompts your body to make more milk in response to their needs. But if you feed on a timed schedule, your body might not make enough milk to meet your little one’s needs.
3. Scheduled feeding doesn’t accommodate growth spurts
When baby is going through a growth spurt, they’ll want to feed more often, as they will need more breastmilk to meet their rapid growth needs. This is known as “cluster feeding.” Baby’s “cluster feeding” helps encourage your body to produce more breastmilk at a time when baby needs more, as the frequent emptying of the breasts prompts more milk production.
If you try to follow a feeding schedule, and don’t let baby nurse more often when they need to increase their intake, your body won’t be prompted to increase breastmilk production. So, you might not make enough breastmilk to meet baby’s needs during growth spurts. You might also find that baby is fussier, because they want more milk more often than the schedule allows.
The bottom line: feed on demand or on a schedule?
Fed is best – no matter how you choose to feed your little one. We want to empower parents to make the best decision for themselves and their little ones, whether that’s feeding on demand or on a schedule.
Here’s what to keep in mind:
Most medical professionals and lactation consultants say that on-demand breastfeeding is best for at least the first three months or so. This will help you best meet baby’s needs, learn baby’s hunger and fullness cues, and build your supply.
But once baby starts to settle into a pattern on their own, feel free to switch to an “every x hours” schedule based on those needs if that works best for you. And if you’re feeding on a schedule and it looks like baby’s needs are changing – say, they seem like they’re going through a growth spurt – be flexible and adjust that schedule gradually.
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