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Which is Better for Breastfeeding, on Demand vs Scheduled Feedings?

When we bring our new baby into this world our life is pretty much turned upside down. One aspect that is hard for many parents to deal with is the complete upheaval of their predictable schedule. For this reason some parents are drawn to the idea to get their baby on a schedule and quickly. But what does this mean and is this the best way to feed a baby? Which feeding method is better when breastfeeding, on demand vs scheduled feedings?

Feeding your baby on demand

Image courtesy of Jomphong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Jomphong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Feeding your baby on demand means following your baby's hunger queues and feeding whenever they are hungry. You do not watch the clock, you watch your baby. Hunger queues include suckling, rooting around, sucking on their hand or fist, and crying. By the time your baby is crying you have already missed the early queues.

This can be very frequent and some new parents are caught off guard. I know I was, I expected my newborn to eat every two to three hours. Once the cluster feeding kicked in and it was more like every hour or multiple times an hour I really had to adjust my expectations.

Scheduled feeding

Scheduled feeding means watching a clock and trying to feed your baby at set intervals that you have come up with. Usually these times are set to fit into a parent's day or to get their baby on some kind of schedule so things are more predictable for the parents. While this can have benefits when your baby is older it is not recommended for newborns.

Reasons to feed on demand

It is highly recommended by most health authorities, including the AAP and WHO, to feed your baby on demand. While scheduling babies is sometimes recommended in our Western society and by many parenting books, it has now been recognized that this is not the best way to feed a baby.

When your baby is born they need to eat at least every 2 hours or so in a 24 hour period. This comes out to about 8-12 breastfeeding sessions per day. You should not be scheduling these though, you should only be watching your baby for hunger. Sure, you can keep an eye on the clock to make sure hours have not passed but you should never force your baby to wait until a set time to eat. In my experience I breastfed my baby much more than these recommendations in the early weeks.

Newborns eat very frequently and for good reason. Their stomachs are tiny and they digest breast milk very quickly. There are negative consequences to attempting to put a breastfeeding newborn on a schedule. This includes lowering your milk supply and quality as well as possibly affecting your baby's weight gain and growth.

When babies are allowed to feed on demand they take in what they need, when they need. They are also then able to freely nurse when they are going through a growth spurt or need to for whatever reason. This improves your milk supply and the quality of the breast milk that your baby is receiving.

Babies nurse for reasons other than food as well, such as comfort and to be close to you. Forcing a schedule may lead to missed queues for these needs.

While this can feel very demanding when you have a newborn it does get much easier. As babies get closer to 3-4 months many start to fall into their own kind of schedule. At this point it will be much easier to schedule your day (not that it's ever that easy/predictable with a baby :)) and work around your baby's routine. Once my babies both hit this age range we are able to function on a very reasonable routine while continuing to feed on demand.

Why scheduled feedings?

Photo by William Warby

Photo by William Warby

So why would anyone attempt to feed their newborn on a schedule? Parenting books all over encourage scheduling for the parent's sake. A schedule may be easier to maintain if you are bottle feeding, whether that is from exclusively pumping or formula feeding. Life with a new baby is exhausting and some parents are looking for ways to make their day more predictable.

In some cases a schedule may be required if you are going back to work and your baby is in daycare. Hopefully if this is the case your baby is past the newborn stage. As I said above, it gets much easier to establish a routine with an older baby and most babies do sort of work out a schedule on their own.

I still believe that even if a baby is on a daycare or child care schedule that they are allowed to be fed on demand when home.

Demand feeding is normal for babies

There is evidence that human babies have been fed on demand for the majority of our history. Hunter gatherer groups around the world continue to nurse their babies very frequently, up to multiple times per hour. This is probably similar to how our ancestors handled baby feeding as well, with the feeding on demand initiated by the baby. This is still the norm in many non industrial societies.

Babies fed on demand end up smarter?

The largest study of it's kind recently analyzed how being fed on a schedule or on demand may affect babies.

Researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex and Oxford University assessed 10,419 children born in the early 1990s to compare the outcomes of feeding on demand or according to a schedule. They looked at parents’ educational levels, family income and maternal health, among other factors.

The findings showed evidence that babies whose cries were rewarded with milk or formula boasted an IQ that was up to five points higher than babies fed on a schedule by the time they were 8 years old.

You can see the study here.

While this is just one study it certainly is interesting and can make you feel good about feeding your baby on demand.

Conclusion

While it can be more demanding for new parents, breastfeeding your baby on demand is definitely the preferred and healthiest way to go. Feeding on demand encourages your baby to get the highest quality breast milk and make sure your supply is sufficient. While it can be tiring it is only for a short time.

Once your baby is a little older and their feedings stretch out farther, feeding on demand becomes much easier. I personally loved it because I did not have to worry about a set feeding time and feeding on the go was always easy.

Let me know your thoughts on feeding on demand vs a schedule and please let me know if you have any questions! Thanks for reading!

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sauda

Friday 6th of April 2018

Kyle ! I just looked at you're post because lam training to be a maternity nurse with babyem , So what you wrote it makes sense thanks for the post. Sauda

Kyla

Sunday 17th of January 2016

I actually clicked on this post because I need to wake my baby up for every feeding. The doctor assures me that many babies are just very sleepy and that this is not abnormal. She cluster feeds now too, and I know she has plenty to eat- lots of poopy diapers. I want to know for how long I need to be waking her every two to three hours to eat. Last night I slept through my alarm and she went a six hour stretch between feedings. Way too long, I know. She was still sleeping, I still had to wake her up! She is two weeks old. I wonder if other parents have this experience. It's frustrating to wake her from sleep, especially since often I can't get her to settle down again afterwards.

Jen

Sunday 17th of January 2016

Hi Kyla, I am not a Dr. so I would definitely double check with yours, but after the first two weeks I stopped waking to feed at night. I fed every 2-3 hours during the day and did wake during the day to eat but at night I would go 5-6 hours. Once they are back to birth weight, have tons of poop and wet diapers and are eating plenty during the day I believe this is safe. I always checked first so I have my dr. to back me up. If you are meeting all of these goals then it may be fine to let her sleep that longer stretch at night. Which is awesome! Good luck!