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Ask the lactation expert: What's a normal breastfeeding routine?

If you're new to breastfeeding, you probably have questions.
breastfeeding, how long to breastfeed, how much should newborns eat, breastfeeding questions, lactation consultant
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/ Source: TODAY

Confused about how long to breastfeed your baby each time? Wondering whether you should put her on a schedule, wait for her to cry, or wake her up? If you're new to breastfeeding, you probably have questions. Lactation expert Kathy Kuhn has the answers.

How often should I breastfeed my baby?

Most babies will breastfeed 8 to 12 times in 24 hours, from their second or third day of life until they are three to six months old. Feedings are not usually spaced evenly around the clock. Most babies will vary the time between feedings and the length of time each feeding takes. The average amount of time a breastfeeding session takes can vary from about 10 minutes to about 45 minutes.

Should I wake my baby for feedings?

For the first few weeks of life, I usually recommend that Mom wake the baby to breastfeed at least every two to three hours, measured from the start of one feeding to the start of the next, during the day and evening hours. It's okay to let the baby take one longer stretch of sleep at night if she is able to do that.

What if my baby wakes before it's time to feed her?

You should not make your baby wait until two to three hours has passed if she is crying or actively sucking on her hands, or otherwise showing interest in breastfeeding. If your baby wants to breastfeed sooner than two hours, it's always appropriate to breastfeed at that time, even if the last feeding just ended a short time ago. You don't need to worry that the breast is "empty"; since your breasts make milk continuously, there's always more milk available for your baby.

Should I feed my baby for a certain number of minutes per breast?

Don't remove your baby from the breast. Allow him to tell you when he's done with the first breast. You'll know he's had enough when he removes himself or when he stops sucking for longer than a few minutes. There's no specific amount of time he should spend on each breast. If he wants to take the second breast, that's fine. If not, that's okay too. It's important to allow your baby to determine the end of the feeding to allow him access to the higher fat, creamier milk that usually comes near the end of the session. If you remove the baby after a specific amount of time you may hinder his ability to get enough of the creamier milk.

When can I stop waking my baby for feedings?

Once breastfeeding is well established, your baby has been to the pediatrician once or twice and you have been told that she's growing well, you can begin to feed her only when she asks to be fed. You can stop waking her for feedings, if you'd like, as long as she continues to grow well and produce plenty of wet and dirty diapers.

How will I know when my baby wants to breastfeed?

Your baby will "cue" you, or tell you she needs to be fed, by sucking on her hands, making mouthing movements, rooting with her mouth wide open, making little sounds or crying. It's often best to breastfeed when she signals you with the earlier, more subtle feeding cues, rather than waiting for her to cry. Once she's crying, you may find it's harder to get her onto the breast and you may need to calm her first before she can breastfeed.

Why does my baby want to breastfeed so much in the evening?

It's expected and normal for your baby to choose a time when she wants to have very, very frequent feedings. This is commonly called "cluster feeding," during which she typically has long feedings with short breaks between. She might breastfeed almost nonstop for several hours. She may also be fussy or unsettled during cluster feeding time. Understandably, some parents get the wrong idea about this behavior and think that it means Mom has a low milk supply. It's important to remember that the way your baby behaves is not a reliable sign of how much milk she's drinking.

How much should newborns eat?

The most dependable way to judge the milk supply is by your baby's growth pattern and diapers. If she's gaining well then she's getting enough milk, no matter how fussy she might be or how long she might cluster feed in the evening.

On a daily basis, your baby's diapers are the best indicator of whether she's had enough to eat. From age five days up to six to eight weeks, she should have at least five or six sopping wets and three or four palm-sized yellow bowel movements every 24 hours. After six to eight weeks, some babies develop a pattern of fewer bowel movements but should continue with at least five or six sopping wets along with a good weight gain.

Why do breastfed babies vary their feedings so much?

We don't know all the reasons, but it's probably connected to changing fat levels in mother's milk. The amount of fat varies somewhat from feeding to feeding and within each feeding. If some time has passed since the last feeding, the milk at the beginning of the feeding is lower in fat (like skim milk), then it becomes more like whole milk, and then high in fat (like cream) toward the end of the feeding. When feedings are more closely spaced (as in cluster feeding), they're higher in fat. Your baby needs to get this creamy milk to help her grow well, and to help her brain develop. Happily, many babies will take a longer stretch of sleep right after they cluster because getting the creamier milk helps to slow the digestion and makes the baby feel fuller. It's okay to let your baby take this longer stretch of sleep after a cluster. You don't need to wake her up in two to three hours at that time '- just enjoy the break!

Shouldn't I put my baby on a feeding schedule?

Research indicates that trying to manipulate a baby's natural feeding pattern too much '- especially trying to make her wait longer for the next feeding—can lead to problems like low milk supply and poor weight gain in the baby. The longer between feedings, the greater the signal to the breast to reduce its production of milk. Frequent breastfeeding helps ensure an ample milk supply and good health for your baby. Variety is the spice of life when it comes to breastfeeding patterns! Natural patterns and rhythms will emerge, and you'll get to know your baby exceptionally well by watching her instead of focusing on the clock.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.