By Ali Weatherford

I get to see EVERY class registration form that comes through at Breastfeeding Success. There are a lot of registrations, and I honestly like looking through them and seeing who is going to be taking our classes.

Each family has a different story and a different set of expectations when facing birth, breastfeeding, and parenting for the first time. I often see comments about wanting to know about “feeding and sleeping schedules” for their newborns. These make me smile a little, but I also feel deflated because I know this expectation is a holdover from a time when care providers and experts were giving bad advice. I really don’t like it when new parents are given bad advice! If I could insert a frowny emoji here I would.

What is a feeding schedule?

Some people think that they need to figure out some standard mealtimes for their newborn baby. This makes sense! At home we have standard mealtimes, kids in school have standard mealtimes, we have meal and break times at work, and this tends to work well for most people. It can help us plan our days, and we even set up social time around meals and drinks. We have breakfast, brunch, lunch, happy hour, dinner, and dessert times. It has probably always made sense for humans to plan around meals, or at least since we started cooking food.

Especially a long time ago, preparing food took a lot of time. It began to make sense for a smaller group of people to focus on preparing it, and then serve it. That had to be planned. People adjusted to having set mealtimes.

Unfortunately, babies just don’t work like that. You might like the idea of planning to feed your baby every 2, 3, or 4 hours. You might like to set a time limit on the feeding so you can move on to the next thing. That is what a feeding schedule would look like, and there was a time when this was recommended. Especially for babies who were formula fed, this could be achieved, and it was thought to be ideal. YOU get to decide when, how, and how much your baby eats. Sounds pretty good, right?

What is the reality?

A feeding schedule for a newborn is actually NOT a good thing in most cases, especially for a breastfed newborn. Besides the fact that every baby is different and might not be happy with your idea of a good feeding schedule, there are so many other good reasons to avoid doing this.

  • Tiny bellies: Your baby will be born with a stomach about the size of a marble. It doesn’t take much milk to fill it. They likely won’t eat for long at first, partly because they’re not all that strong or good at it yet. They get tired! You also only have a small amount of milk for the first few days. Your milk supply and their bellies will grow quickly. A newborn stomach will be bigger, but still only ping pong ball size by about day 10 of life. It might not take long or very much to fill such a tiny belly, but it also means that it empties quickly. Brand new babies will feel hungry often. That is normal. And depending on the maturity and strength of the baby, the feeding can be longer or shorter. It’s not unusual to feed your baby almost every hour right at first. Other babies may only want to eat every 3-4 hours. As their bellies grow and the milk gets more plentiful, they can start to go longer in between feedings. But remember that each baby is different.
  • Different breast milk: Breastmilk is very nutritious, but the proportions of nutrients can vary from person to person. Some milk has a very high calorie and fat content, and other milk is more watery. A baby getting watery milk will likely need to eat for longer and more often. Since you can’t really know the nutritional content of your milk, it’s best to let the baby eat as long as and as often as they want.
  • Happy baby: A fussy baby is much harder to feed! If you notice early signs of hunger and feed your baby, it’s more likely to go well. The baby will probably get into a comfortable position and get a good latch and finish quickly. When the early signs are ignored, a baby’s behavior will intensify until they are very upset and hard to console, or until they fall asleep from exhaustion. When a newborn is that upset or tired, they may reject the breast, not able to calm down or wake up enough to latch on. The baby might be so upset that they cry themselves into exhaustion and fall asleep. If you miss a feeding, it can impact your milk supply.
  • Breastmilk supply: Your breastmilk supply is more likely to be strong and stable when you feed your baby more often. Feeding your baby when they are hungry ensures that your body is making enough milk to satisfy your baby. It’s important to “tell” your body each time your baby is hungry. That is how the system is designed. Your body works to make enough milk to satisfy your baby. If your body doesn’t know how often your baby is getting hungry, it won’t be able to keep up.
  • They need to poop a lot: Newborns are easily susceptible to jaundice. This is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Newborns have a high number of red blood cells which get broken down and replaced frequently. Bilirubin is the by-product. Newborns also have an immature liver. It’s the liver’s job to remove excess bilirubin from the body. Luckily, the bilirubin can be removed from the body in a couple of other ways. It can be pooped out, and also a certain spectrum of light, including sunlight, on the skin can get rid of it. Newborns have very soft yellow poop at first. This is because of all the bilirubin. Breast milk is very hydrating and has some laxative properties to encourage babies to poop a lot. Plenty of breastfeeding can ensure that baby poops enough to pass the bilirubin and be less likely to develop jaundice.
  • They need energy: Breastfeeding can be hard work for a newborn. It takes some practice and conditioning before they get really good at it. For that reason, they have to put in a lot of effort just to get out a little bit of milk at first. Then they tire quickly. That means they’ll need a little rest before they try again! Each time they eat is an opportunity to develop the strength and coordination they need to be very efficient breastfeeders.
  • Protection from SIDS: Most people love the idea of a baby who will sleep very deeply and for long periods of time. This is just not safe for newborns! We try all the techniques and gadgets to get a full night’s sleep not knowing that all the night wakings and feedings are actually protecting the baby! SIDS is more likely when a baby sleeps for too long or too deeply. They are too immature to roll over or move when they need to, so lighter sleep ensures their safety. Also, the need to eat often ensures that the baby will wake and have a parent nearby for safety and supervision.

What is “on-demand” feeding?

It is recommended that you feed your newborn “on-demand”. This just very simply means that you feed your baby when the baby wants it. When the baby demands it. Look for the following hunger cues to figure out how your baby is telling you that she is hungry, and then provide the milk!

  • Restless: Newborns tend to be pretty sleepy, meaning that they take lots of little naps. When your baby is alert and active and starts to stir or seem restless, this might be a sign of hunger.
  • Mouth movements: Your baby might start to open and close his mouth or make sucking or smacking sounds.
  • Rooting: Your baby might turn his head to the side with mouth open as if looking for a nipple. He might try to suck on anything that gets in the way of his mouth! That could be your shirt, your chin, or his own fist.
  • Hand to mouth: The baby might try to put a hand (or anything!) into their mouth.
  • The nipple dive: This is when a baby just throws herself toward the breast. It can be a little surprising, so be ready to catch!

Remember that the feeding will probably be more successful if you catch those early hunger cues. Once your baby is frustrated and angry, it might make things a lot harder.

If this all sounds very hard and chaotic, that’s OK because it’s temporary! Try to embrace the loose schedule and spontaneity of life with a newborn. Try to see it as a great learning and growth opportunity. Babies grow very quickly, and you’ll start to notice some patterns in their behavior and needs. The older they get, the more obvious those patterns will become. It’s a gradual transition, but in a few short years their schedules might look a lot like yours. It’s hard, but try not to be in a hurry.

There are some lessons that having a newborn can teach you. They are very important life lessons. You benefit when you learn to embrace change and not to fear chaos. You can’t completely control your kids or the world around you, so you are most resilient when you can roll gracefully with whatever comes your way.

WIC article How Much Milk Your Baby Needs

Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Recent Articles

Please Share This Article With Others:

Need Personalized Care, Now?

Call us anytime to discuss your lactation or infant feeding goals. We’re here to help you find success.

get breastfeeding help from Breastfeeding Success Company