Should I breastfeed on demand?

Choosing whether to breastfeed or to formula-feed is generally the first big feeding decision a new parent makes, but it’s certainly not the last. One of the next significant questions that needs to be answered is whether to feed when a new baby wants to, or to settle into a more regular schedule. It’s not always an easy choice to make, since there are benefits to either option, and choosing on demand versus scheduled feeding is a question that generally comes up for the first time not long after your little one is placed in your arms in the hospital.

Begin at the beginning

During the first few weeks of a newborn’s life, when the breastfeeding relationship is still being established, most authorities, from the World Health Organization to La Leche League, recommend breastfeeding on demand, since these early weeks help to establish a new mom’s milk supply, and feeding on demand sends her body signals telling how much milk is needed. On the other hand, many experts recommend feeding once every 3 hours, at least during the day, in the newborn period. Many babies fall into feeding patterns involving feeding about every 3 hours naturally, without needing a schedule, but others can be a little more reluctant to wake up for such regular feeding times. If your baby’s pediatrician is concerned about their weight gain, they might recommend waking the baby to feed more frequently.

How long should I feed on demand?

It’s strongly recommended that newborns feed on demand. As infants grow older, though, their eating patterns, like their sleeping patterns, tend to fall into more regular routines. Around this time, it often makes sense to start feeding babies bigger meals at around the same time as the rest of the family, and filling out the rest of the day with regular snack times. It makes sense that, eventually, babies end up eating at fairly regular meal times, but figuring out the cut-off point for demand feeding can be tricky.

In 2012, a group of researchers determined that babies studied who were being fed on demand at 4 weeks old had more harried, stressed mothers, but also showed somewhat higher performance in school when surveyed again at age 8. The greater maternal well-being associated with scheduled feeding is probably linked to having a more predictable schedule, which can lead to more rest.
On the other hand, international breastfeeding group La Leche League says that breastfeeding on demand increases the chances that the breastfeeding relationship will last for as long as both mom and baby want it to. Feeding on demand even for a shorter amount of time can have advantages as well, since looking for hunger cues can increase new parents’ awareness of babies’ early signals. For instance, crying is a late sign of hunger, and looking for earlier hunger cues can lead to a considerable drop in crying.

  • Alana Pearl Ben-Joseph. “Breastfeeding FAQs: How Much and How Often.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation. February 2015. Web.
  • Maria Iacovou, Almudena Sevilla. “Infant feeding: The effects of scheduled vs. on-demand feeding on mothers’ wellbeing and children’s cognitive development.” European Journal of Public Health. 14 March 2010. Web.
  • Sue Iwinski. “Feeding On Cue.” La Leche League International. La Leche League International, July-August 2013. Web.
  • Keren Perles. “Mommy Wars: Demand Feeding or Feeding on a Schedule.” Children’s Advocate. Action Alliance Children, March 13, 2014. Web.
  • “Breastfeeding: The first weeks.” Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic, March 10 2016. Web.
  • “Exclusive Breastfeeding.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization 2016. Web.
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