How long to breastfeed is a VERY common question. It seems like it should have a simple answer, right? Unfortunately, just like a lot of issues that come up for new parents, there is not a simple answer. So many of the questions that parents have can’t be answered definitively. There are usually MANY right answers. This might be frustrating for some people. A lot of people like to know that they are doing THE right thing. For others, knowing that there isn’t one right answer can be comforting. It took me a little while to figure this out when I had my first baby, but I’ve been very happy to run with it ever since.
How Much Milk are They Getting?
When you are breastfeeding, you don’t usually get to know exactly how much milk your baby is getting. There are so many things about breastfeeding that involve some faith. Fortunately, our bodies and our babies are pretty well-designed to do it right. When you get a good start with breastfeeding and then follow your baby’s lead, things tend to work out. Your baby decides when to eat, you listen and respond, then your body follows by making the right amount of milk. Those are the basics.
Some people worry about a drop in milk supply early on, but that is a very normal part of the process. Sometimes there really are problems with low milk supply, but often that is caused by something manageable, and there is usually a simple way to fix it.
Why Isn’t There a Simple Answer?
There are many reasons. First, there is a lot of variation in breast milk. The nutritional content varies from person to person, and that is very normal. Some milk has more or less fat and calories, and that can make a difference in how much a baby needs to eat.
Also, babies are very different. Some babies are very efficient eaters. They latch on quickly and create really excellent suction! These babies will get a lot of milk out fast. Other babies are weaker or sleepier or less motivated. Some babies have structural issues in the mouth that might make breastfeeding harder. These babies need more time to get out the same amount of milk.
For all of these reasons, it can be really hard to tell someone how long they should breastfeed.
The Common Wisdom
A lot of people will hear that they should feed their newborn for 10-15 minutes per breast every two to three hours. This works out for some, but it’s really just an average. It can be perfectly healthy for a baby to eat more or less often. It can also be perfectly healthy for a baby to spend more or less time at the breast. It’s important to pay attention to your baby’s wisdom. They know best how much time is needed. When you can relax and let the baby lead the way, things tend to work out for the best.
What to Do if My Baby is Not “Common”?
If you’re concerned about a baby who isn’t eating as often as recommended, check out this article about what to expect.
Some babies will eat for 10-15 minutes on each side very happily, but then get hungry again an hour later! It’s OK to feed your baby again. Some babies won’t be hungry again for four or five hours! This can also be normal and healthy. A very efficient eater might be finished in just five minutes and be too full or too sleepy for the other breast! In a case like this, you may have to shift to alternating breasts at each feeding. It may be a little difficult at first.
The neglected breast might get very full and engorged when the milk doesn’t get drained at a feeding time. That can be uncomfortable or even painful. Eventually, your breasts will most likely adjust to the baby’s schedule, but in the meantime, you might like to try some strategies to make yourself more comfortable.
You might try some gentle hand expression from the neglected breast after your baby feeds. If you’re doing this correctly, you can often remove enough milk to make you more comfortable without creating too much stimulation in that breast. It’s also important to do this so you’re offering some stimulation to that breast. That makes it less likely to slow down production too much and create a low milk supply problem.
On the opposite extreme, some babies need A LOT of time to drain a breast. I call these “marathon eaters”. They may even fall asleep briefly during a feed because they get exhausted. You might think they’re finished and try to remove your nipple from their mouth only to have the baby wake up and grab on again. It’s good to let the baby continue or move the baby to the other breast, EVEN IF they spent 45 minutes on the first side. This baby might still be hungry, and it’s important to remove milk from the other side too. It’s also important to allow the baby to drain each breast as thoroughly as possible so that they’re getting the foremilk and the hindmilk. If you have a marathon eater, it’s important to plan your day around this. They just need more time, and it’s a good thing for the baby and for your milk supply. It can be so frustrating though!
I completely understand wanting to hurry through a feeding so you can get something done. This was a very hard lesson for me. Most people aren’t used to just sitting and waiting like this. I like the idea of turning that argument around. Maybe you can convince yourself that this is not time wasted. This is time that you may never have with your baby again.
Babies do tend to get bigger and stronger and more efficient over time. Eventually they stop breastfeeding altogether! You may then be able to cherish all those many minutes and celebrate yourself for being able to provide this attention and nutrition to your baby.