I remember when my first son was born, I was utterly overwhelmed by how much and how often he needed me. All the books had assured me my son would nurse for 20 minutes per breast every few hours…so why was he sucking on each breast for 45 minutes every 90 minutes?
Turns out, a lot of the mainstream books I was reading weren’t really focused on biological breastfeeding behavior. By the time I had my second son, and completed my accreditation with Breastfeeding USA to be a breastfeeding counselor, I’d learned a lot more about normal infant feeding.
Nancy Mohrbacher, renowned internationally board certified lactation consultant, reminds us in her book Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple that “Especially at first, the sensory experience of breastfeeding may be as important as the milk the newborn receives.”
If you’re concerned about the number of times your baby is asking to nurse each day, read on to learn some facts about newborn feeding patterns!
Some newborns might indeed only need to nurse every few hours, but many newborns nurse upwards of 11 times per day. Research shows us that more feedings per day are associated with more milk production in the mother and less early weight loss. More feedings are also associated with fewer cases of newborn jaundice. So, if it seems like all your newborn wants to do is nurse, that likely means your baby is doing just what he needs to help you establish your milk supply and fill his belly with milk.
Your newborn baby has an itty-bitty stomach–and it doesn’t stretch or expand until later. Newborns, thus, take small, frequent feedings as their stomachs grow and develop. New parents are sometimes encouraged to fill their babies as full as possible to help them sleep longer, but this doesn’t account for the ways new babies grow and develop. During the first month, a mother’s milk supply will ramp up to meet the needs of her growing baby, whose stomach will also develop during this time frame. In the mean time, if baby is asking to nurse frequently, it could be because she has a tiny belly and is working on growing it gently.
Not all breasts store or produce the same amount of milk per feeding. Some women’s breasts produce and store 4 ounces per feeding…some far less than this. One Australian study of 71 mothers and babies found a breast storage capacity range among its mothers of 74 to 382 g (2.6 to 12.9 oz.) per breast.
Most women can produce exactly as much milk as their babies need each day, but sometimes it takes more frequent nursing sessions to do so–the same Australian study found all the mothers with low storage capacity were able to produce enough milk for their babies. They just had different feeding rhythms than the women with large storage capacity.
Breast storage capacity is not related to breast size–large breasts could have small storage capacity and small breasts could have large storage capacity. Capacity dictates the number of feedings your baby will take per day, one breast or two per feeding, and the number of night feedings you should expect.
Differences from Bottle-Fed Babies
Breastfeeding babies eat differently from babies drinking artificial baby milk (ABM). We know babies drinking ABM consume more volume with less frequency than babies drinking mothers milk. Women nursing newborn babies sometimes compare their baby’s behavior to babies who drink ABM and grow concerned that their baby seems to drink far more often–this is unlikely to be a cause for concern, but more likely to just be a difference in feeding behaviors. Sometimes mothers worry they need to pump as much milk for a feeding as their friends’ babies drinking ABM are taking from a bottle, but this is not the case.
Mohrbacher reminds us that “The Western advice to expect the number of feedings per day to decrease as babies grow is based on bottle-feeding norms.”
Sound Breastfeeding Books
I mentioned that I had read mainstream books that weren’t actually very helpful for breastfeeding. Some evidence-based books written by breastfeeding experts include Breastfeeding Made Simple (even though breastfeeding isn’t really that simple!) and The Nursing Mother’s Companion. With these tools and the support of other mothers who had breastfed their children, I managed to make it through and learn what was normal for a breastfeeding baby. In my case, normal meant long days on the couch with a baby permanently at my breast.
Were you concerned by how frequently your newborn nursed? Leave us a comment to share your most helpful resources!