Thursday, 9 June 2011

Breastfeeding: Routine or Demand Feeding?

In the lead up to National Breastfeeding Awareness Week (19 - 26 June), we're examining some of the breastfeeding issues that affect new mums. And today we're looking at the sometimes contentious issue of whether to feed your baby on demand or to a set routine.

One of the challenges with breastfeeding is that unlike a bottle, you can't be 100% sure of how much your baby has had to eat. Inexperienced mums might worry whether their baby is still hungry, if the baby is putting on enough weight and whether their baby crying means that they're hungry - or if it's something else entirely.

Take heart - we’re all unsure initially and especially if it’s your first, knowing how often and how much your baby needs to eat is difficult. It's even more difficult when there are two opposing schools of thought - routine feeding or on demand. Let's take a look at both:

Feeding on demand simply means feeding your baby whenever he signals that he's hungry — usually by squirming around and sucking on his hands and eventually crying. It works on the principle that your baby knows instinctively when she needs to feed and will take the amount she needs, no more no less.

As a result, during the early weeks you may feel like you’re feeding your baby constantly, especially if you’re feeding every couple of hours, which is not uncommon. Keep in mind that young babies have tiny stomachs — about the size of a walnut. Milk quickly fills their little stomach and is absorbed, so it's no wonder they need to eat again relatively soon.

If your baby seems hungry soon after eating, go ahead and feed him again. Keep in mind, too, that babies are just hungrier on some days than on other days, which often precedes a growth spurt.

Feeding on demand works well so long as you are able to determine when your baby is actually hungry and not tired, needs a nappy change or is bored. If this is the case, it can be easy to automatically feed your baby whenever she cries thinking she is hungry, but it won’t take you long to get to know your baby’s wants and needs. Most babies will be happy to settle into a feeding rhythm of around 3-4 hourly by 2-3 months of age.

The second school of thought is to have a routine with set times for feed, sleep, bath and play (depending on baby’s age) and regardless of whether they cry to be fed. Some mums will follow the routine rigidly and wake the baby up for a feed if they were asleep. We think: take a view and do what’s right for you.

This method can work especially well for babies that may not show obvious signs to be fed and very young babies who don't yet have the strength to wake up and demand to be fed. Sometimes a premature, jaundiced, or sick baby is too small and sleepy to cry, conserving energy for growth and recovery instead. If your baby's hunger cues are slight or non-existent, be sure to wake him at least every three to four hours and encourage him to feed.

If you’re a mother of multiples this method often works best and can be a great way to maintain some order at a time that is full of change and uncertainty. Routines are often used to improve sleep patterns too – another bonus!

So, routine or demand feeding?
There is no right answer. The right answer is what works for you and what works for your baby. Often a combination of both demand feeding and routine can work well - try to stick to a routine, but be flexible with it to accommodate your baby's needs on any given day.

It depends on you, your baby and your family dynamics. All that matters is that your baby is healthy, happy and thriving. Oh, and give yourself a pat on the back for giving your baby the best start in life by breastfeeding in the first place!

Don't forget to check out our range of nursing bras if you are breastfeeding. At least having a comfortable, supportive bra will be one less thing for you to worry about!


  1. it's always great to read positive articles about breastfeeding.
    and i agree, the decision to nurse on demand or use a routine is entirely the choice of the mother and everyone should do what works best for them.
    however, to nurse on a routine from day one can prevent milk supply from establishing and i was a bit concerned that there was no mention of this in your article.
    it's really important that mothers feed on demand in the early weeks. once a good supply is established they may choose to move to a routine if they so wish.
    i often hear of women who stop nursing due to low supply so i think it is really vital that the message to nurse as often as possible in the early weeks gets across.

  2. That's a really good point Mule. Thanks for making it

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