Some moms are total type A personalities and want to always be on a schedule. After all, most people function better with some sort of routine, and in the sleep-deprived months that follow a baby’s birth, parents are clinging to normalcy!
Of course, when it comes to babies, scheduling isn’t always as easy as the baby “experts” make it seem. Seriously, have any of those people actually raised a baby? Because when it comes to timing their bodily functions or planning specific meals, there’s not really much parents can do when things fall apart.
Still, they can strive for a regular routine, even if the specific timing of said routine is all over the place. And the most basic routine for babies is this: eat, sleep, change, repeat. Right?
But when it comes to the feeding bit, how are parents supposed to make sure their babies are eating enough (but not too much), eating properly (and not harming themselves or mom), and eating frequently enough? Especially with breastfeeding, there are so many traps and pitfalls that it can feel like moms aren’t doing any of those things “right.”
Both to help relieve guilt and give moms everywhere a reality check, here’s the truth behind a real breastfeeding schedule in 23 points.
First things first: technically, it’s not a schedule. Yes, lies! It’s more of a routine than anything else. And for sleep-deprived new mamas, routines are lifesavers! Because it’s regular and repetitive, you can do it without even thinking about it, which is essential when it’s 3am and you’re not sure who you are or where you are, let alone what you’re supposed to be doing with the baby. And that routine is basically: feed, change, sleep, repeat. Sorry to disappoint, but that’s the long and the short of it. Babies don’t run on clocks, so when they’re hungry, that’s when the first part of the “routine” begins. Need more guidance?
Most new moms’ questions about newborn feeding start with: how often? For a breastfed newborn, eating very frequently is absolutely normal and biologically necessary. Their tummies are tiny at birth, and they’ll stretch out gradually over time. So it’s unreasonable to think that a newborn will nurse for 10 minutes and get ‘full enough’ to sleep for four hours. They might eat every two hours for 10 minutes, or every hour for 10. Every baby is different, but all those variations are very normal. And on the flip side, a baby might eat for 20 minutes and then not be hungry again for three hours. Still normal!
While there’s a huge range of what’s normal—including newborns who sleep long stretches at night—most babies don’t go longer than a few hours without a full meal. In general, many pediatricians (and lactation consultants) will even recommend that moms wake their breastfed babies to eat after three or more hours between feedings. At the same time, a new mom who’s working on nursing will likely feel engorged—lots of milk building up—if her baby doesn’t eat frequently. It’s not only uncomfortable, but not getting the milk out can lead to undersupply later. Waking a sleepy baby might seem mean, but the milk-making process might require it!
I remember with my second kiddo, there were apps that were supposed to help moms with breastfeeding. There were timers, info about nursing, and even a toggle switch for moms to mark down which side they nursed on last. And sure, balance is great—we don’t want to be lopsided—but the mama can’t always dictate which side of the tap the baby nurses on. Some babies are very particular and want to lay a certain way to nurse, which means they can only eat off one side because of it. Other times one side just naturally produces more so, of course, the baby wants that side.
Part of why I found those tracking apps laughable was that babies decide which side to nurse on and when. The other part was because for most of us, it’s tough to forget which side you nursed on last. I don’t think most mamas need an app or any other smart technique to recall this. We all do the grab-and-gauge anyway, to check our milk supply manually, so really, what’s the point of an app? Besides, if you go long enough only nursing on one side, the other side will get engorged — and that’s tough to ignore for very long.
Although many moms have successfully boosted their milk supply farther on, the first 12 weeks of the baby’s life are most crucial. During this time, the mom and baby duo is bonding, but there are also a lot of hormones at play. Unfortunately, that’s one of the reasons why mamas wind up with postpartum depression. A benefit of that hormonal shift, however, is that a mom’s hard work making milk sometimes becomes easier as everything settles into place around the three-month mark. Nursing often and pumping as necessary are vital parts of the nursing “schedule,” especially in the first 12 weeks.
Although we talk about nursing sessions in terms of 10 or 20 minutes, some babies nurse far more frequently. Your “schedule” might be nursing for 10 minutes, then taking a break for 30, and then nursing again. And the thing is, it all depends on your baby! Sometimes the “schedule” is actually the same steps over and over various lengths of time apart. And sometimes, it can feel like you’re constantly nursing (and you just might be). The main thing is that you just have to trust the process, though, because nature knows what it’s doing most of the time!
As nice as it sounds to have a regular schedule that the baby sort of follows, don’t count on there being time for your personal pursuits. Like showering. Most of the time, you’re lucky if you can get away long enough to shower. Even if your baby has just eaten, there’s no telling whether you’ll have a window of time long enough to indulge in even a lukewarm shower. Clearly, some extra hands are helpful to try and distract the baby until you’re at least rinsed off, but even that isn’t always a solution when the baby just wants more milk, and now.
Another truth about breastfeeding schedules is that what’s true in the newborn months isn’t usually the same through the next few months. Things can change often when it comes to breastfeeding, especially as your baby grows and meets milestones. One of those things is feeds that are spaced further out because your milk changes in composition as the baby grows. It could be that the baby eats less frequently as they get older, or it could be that they eat smaller amounts more frequently. Whatever happens, it’s usually not reasonable to expect it to stay the same for very long!
Plenty of mamas turn to pumping in an effort to get their babies on a good schedule with feedings — especially if the mom has to be away during the day for the duration of a few feeds. But moms who start pumping are often disappointed with their overall milk output. The thing is, a pump is usually not as effective as a baby is at getting milk from the tap. So even if your pumping output is really low, that doesn’t mean your baby isn’t getting enough milk on their own. Tons of mamas successfully nurse their babies but never pump more than a drop or two.
As well-meaning as your feeding schedule might be, if you’re trying to block out time for a long stretch of sleep, good luck with that. Most of the time, babies don’t cooperate with schedules that cut out their night feedings — especially (and rightfully so) if they’re still young; around six months or younger. Many babies do need to eat throughout the night, so unfortunately, nighttime just isn’t a break for nursing mamas. That said, some babies do sleep for longer stretches, but it’s sort of the exception rather than the rule. And you can usually expect that as they get older, they’ll settle into their own sleep schedule —which hopefully includes a bit of restful time for mom and dad.
Some parents decide that they’re going to hop on the baby scheduling train and try to get their infants to eat according to the clock. And maybe you’re going about it gently and plan to space feedings a certain amount of time apart, but then the baby falls asleep. Do you wake the baby up, or just wait until they wake up on their own, potentially hours later? In most cases, it’s better to feed the baby early, especially if it means a longer stretch of sleep for you both. It could mean waking them up, but that’s preferable to screaming later when they’re so hungry they can’t manage to wait for a bite to eat.
When new mamas (especially) are learning what their nursing babies need, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important to mom, too. After all, a mama who is nursing definitely benefits from regular mealtimes on the schedule, too. The thing is, most new moms often forget to eat or simply don’t eat enough to ensure an adequate milk supply. So whatever your craving is, it’s important to put your own meals on the schedule so you don’t forget to top off your calories. Sure, you can still make milk if you haven’t eaten all day, but after a while, the lack of nutrition can start to take its toll. Besides, you’ll definitely get hangry!
Whatever your baby’s general feeding routine is, make sure you leave room in the “schedule” for exceptions. Like snacks. To a nursing baby, eating for less than five minutes isn’t so much a meal as it is a quick snack or drink. So we can’t really expect to plan the next feeding three hours from then, since they’ll likely be hungry way sooner. In general, expect that if the baby has a pit stop for a bit of a snack, they’ll still need a full feeding (whatever that normally is for them) sooner or later. That might mean ten minutes, or it might mean an hour or two between feeds.
A lot of the time, a mom just lets her baby dictate when to nurse and when to stop. But if your baby regularly falls asleep nursing and you think they’re probably not full yet (as evidenced by some crying 10 minutes later!), there are ways to modify their schedule. If the baby starts to fall asleep while nursing, you can encourage them to keep nursing by stroking their cheek (which encourages them to keep suckling), removing some of their clothing so they’re not so cozy, or using a cool washcloth to encourage them to perk up. That way, you’re not cutting a feeding short for nap time, only to have to feed again mid-nap!
Whatever good intentions a mama has about keeping her baby on a daytime schedule, all bets are off if you’ve got a baby who’s particular about mealtimes. Some moms who have to leave their babies during the day can rely on their little ones to reliably bottle feed throughout the day. Other mamas come home to a baby who’s barely eaten all day and then wants to nurse all night while mom is there. And the thing is, that’s a biologically normal “schedule” to take. After all, if they consume most of their calories while the mom is home, breastfed babies can go longer without eating while she’s away. It’s a bit unnerving, but it’s a variation of normal when it comes to schedules.
Sometimes moms get so caught up in trying to achieve the perfect schedule or nursing habits that they forget what it’s really about: the milk! And as nature dictates, the milk is different depending on the time of day and the baby’s needs. So the milk that comes first when a baby latches on is foremilk, the kind that’s watery and isn’t as nutritionally dense. It’s basically to quench thirst, while the later milk, the rich hindmilk, has a whole bunch of nutrients. The latter of the two help fill babies’ bellies, so it’s important to let them nurse as long as they want to fill up, not just cut them off after they’ve had a drink.
Sometimes mamas fall into a regular routine with their babies, and then suddenly, something happens that makes them question their supply: the baby suddenly seems super hungry! Even after nursing and seemingly filling up, the baby might want another meal soon after. This can lead a mom to think that she’s not making enough milk — but sometimes, it’s just that the baby is going through a growth spurt. And as long as the mom is making enough milk, her body will continue to up her supply in order to compensate. So a growth spurt where a baby’s appetite increases doesn’t always mean a mom is losing her supply.
For the brave mamas who tandem nurse or lactation consultants (and everyone else) often give the advice to nurse the newborn first. And it makes sense if you’re nursing a big healthy toddler alongside your tiny newborn! However, a mom’s body often learns to compensate for the difference between the babies’ eating habits. Some mamas who pump can see a visible difference in their milk, both in terms of the color and composition (milk for newborns is yellowish colostrum) and the amount (there may be less colostrum and more toddler milk). Therefore, if each kiddo has a favorite side, moms might be able to nurse the toddler on demand, too, instead of making them wait.
Although the average nursing duration is somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes, there are babies who are exceptions to the rule! And while a new mama might think her baby’s schedule is perfect when she’s nursing for ten minutes, the baby might not think so. Some little ones take as long as 30 minutes to eat, and it’s all dependent on the baby’s habits and appetite. Some babies will always eat for the same amount of time, and others will switch it up and cause mom even more frustration! Either way, again, it’s all a variation of normal to the babies.
As much as everyone talks about making sure the baby eats often enough, many new moms have a built-in reminder of their own! Most of us have noticed we start to leak milk when it’s about time for the baby’s next meal, whether they’re with us or not! And sometimes, even another baby’s crying causes a nursing mom’s milk to start flowing. The bottom line is that most of the time—unless they’re sleeping—new moms don’t need a clock to tell them when it’s time for the baby to eat. Their bodies will give them a little nudge, and they’ll go off in search of their baby (or a pump!).
Some babies have no sense of what mom’s ideal schedule is, and they consistently stay inconsistent with their eating habits! The thing is, when a baby routinely skips feeds—whether it’s because they’re starting solids or just sleeping through the night—it can negatively impact a mom’s milk supply. It’s that whole supply and demand thing: when the baby requests more milk, your body makes it. When the baby doesn’t remove the milk, your body “thinks” it doesn’t need to make as much. So, sometimes pumping is necessary—either that, or waking the baby up—to maintain a mom’s supply.
As much as every mom wants to feel like she’s in control—of her birth experience, her breastfeeding habits, and everything else—that’s not exactly how things usually go down. The baby is ultimately the boss because you can’t tell a hungry baby “no” when they’re crying for milk! So as well-meaning as the mom’s schedule might be, there’s not much she can do when the baby decides they’re hungry between scheduled feedings or during an otherwise different part of the routine. So that whole sticking to a schedule thing? It’s all up to the babies’ whims, and their hungry little bellies!