Demand vs Scheduled Breastfeeding

Before I became a mother, I had no idea that the subject of breastfeeding could be so touchy. There are advocates of breastfeeding who declare, “Breast is Best!” and wave their banner proud. Then there are those who chant, “Formula is quite alright, too!”

There is also this divide between the breastfeeders. One group advocates for letting baby drink whenever they want. The other claims that baby and mama can thrive best on a schedule.

It’s not really that easy to pick a group and stick to it. Sometimes challenges arise that you didn’t plan on, and they can throw you for a loop.

To help you decide what is best for you and your baby, I would like to discuss the two groups of breastfeeding: demand feeding and scheduled feeding.

Demand vs scheduled breastfeeding: It’s not about what method is best. It’s about what works for you and your baby, and nobody can tell you how to go about doing that.© Svetlana Fedoseeva / Dollar Photo Club

There has been a ton of research on this topic, but research is just that and there will be deviations from the results. In fact, a mother’s instincts, in my humble opinion, are superior to any research that has been done on breastfeeding.

DEMAND FEEDING

Demand (or cue) feeding is when the mother feeds her baby whenever the baby is hungry. Personally, I believe that feeding a baby on cue in the first few weeks of life is easier than trying to set a schedule. You want to establish your milk supply, so if you feed your baby once in the night, but they wake up hungry 3-5 times, your milk supply could diminish a lot quicker.

Pros of demand feeding include:

  • The baby is fed when he is hungry.
  • The mommy’s milk supply is more easily established in those first few weeks and months after the baby is born.
  • It allows the mom to go with her intuition.
  • Feedings may be much shorter (i.e. 5 minutes on each side vs 15).

Cons of demand feeding include:

  • In between feedings can be very short (i.e. 1 hour vs. 2-3 hours).
  • Mommy may not be able to care for her older children if she is feeding the baby too often.
  • It can be hard to know if the baby is crying for hunger or for some other reason.
  • The baby will show signs of hunger before crying, but if the mom doesn’t learn to pick up on those signs, it will be stressful to hear the baby crying every time he is hungry.
  • It could lead to gas, vomiting, and fussiness.
  • Nap time cannot be scheduled.

SCHEDULED FEEDING

Scheduled feeding is when the mother feeds the baby according to a routine or schedule. There are actually two different ways to schedule feed: clock feeding and parent-directed feeding. Clock feeding is much more strict than parent-directed feeding. Even if the baby cries two hours after the last feeding, he must wait to eat again until the third hour. Parent-directed feeding is more similar to a routine (read more about parent-directed feeding HERE). There is much more flexibility with this feeding method than with clock feeding.

Pros of scheduled feeding include:

  • Mommy knows when she will feed the baby next so she can actually go shopping or make dinner in between feedings.
  • This method teaches baby that being a little hungry is quite alright. Hunger does not equal starvation by any means. Prolonged hunger obviously leads to starvation, but a couple minutes or even an hour will not kill the baby. Training for lifelong healthy eating habits starts young.
  • Mommy can more easily find out why the baby is crying. If baby normally eats at 5, for example, but he is crying at 3:30, he probably has a different reason for crying than for food (unless he is going through a growth spurt).
  • It gives baby more time to do other baby things in between feedings like play, tummy time, reading, and observing. I always felt like I couldn’t do tummy time when Sofía was eating every 2 hours around 8 weeks old. She would drink for a good 40 minutes, take 20 minutes to burp, and then she’d be hungry again an hour later. I was worried that if I put her on her tummy in that hour, that she would just throw everything up. When she was eating closer to every 3 hours, tummy time was a whole lot easier to fit in.
  • Baby can eat for as long as he would like.
  • Feeding a baby more often than every 3 hours can be super exhausting.

Cons of scheduled feeding include:

  • Breastmilk supply may be much harder to establish since mommy’s breasts depend on the baby to eat often to start building up milk.
  • During a growth spurt especially, baby might cry for an hour or more because he is hungry. Mommy can try everything, but, ultimately, what he wants is milk. If the mom is so rigid with feedings, both baby and mommy will suffer unnecessarily.
  • It is hard to deal with let down and engorgement, and both of these can become major issues if mommy is not breastfeeding often enough.

My Breastfeeding Method

I fall into the parent-directed feeding group. In the first few weeks, I will feed the baby as often as I can, but no more than every 2 hours. When I think the baby is going through a growth spurt, I will let her drink more. When I felt like my baby was overly hungry, I would feed her. There is usually a reason why a baby will cry more often for food when they are normally just fine, and that is when they are going through a growth spurt. A baby will experience several different growth spurts throughout the first year, so it is good to know the approximate time they can happen (click HERE to find out more about growth spurts).

I wish that while Sofía was in the NICU it could have been easier to do parent-directed feeding. Instead, she had to wait exactly 3 hours to eat. It made it really difficult for my milk to come in, I think, and I had to pump for a good 2-3 weeks before I finally got her to switch from formula to breastmilk.

I spent two years of my life breastfeeding, but that doesn’t make me an expert by any means. It wasn’t until my first daughter (Sofía) was about 4 months old that I finally felt like I had the breastfeeding thing down. Then it took some trial-and-error again with my second daughter. When you are making a decision about which method will work best for you and your baby, think about your lifestyle and your own baby’s personality. What works for one baby doesn’t always work for the next one.

If you feel like you want to give up, don’t just yet. Try out a routine or let baby set the schedule. The first few weeks and months can be stressful, but when you find what works for both you and your baby, breastfeeding will be much more natural and easy-going.

It’s really not about what method is best. Instead, it’s about what works for you and your baby, and nobody can tell you how to go about doing that.

Sources:

Feeding on Cue” by Sue Iwinski via La Leche League International

Feeding Your Newborn: Tips for New Parents” by Mayo Clinic Staff via Mayo Clinic

Mommy Wars: Demand Feeding or Feeding on a Schedule?” by Keren Perles on Children’s Advocate.

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Charlee

I'm a mom of 3 on a journey to feed my family healthy-er food. Personally, I believe that you can feed your family healthy, delicious meals without spending a fortune or slaving away in the kitchen.

Comments

  1. As much as I hated feeding on demand, it really worked, especially with my twins the second time around. Like their pediatrician said, usually if a baby is crying, it’s because he’s hungry. Sure, he might be bored, have an itch or tired, but usually he’s hungry 🙂 I didn’t like it though because I felt like I was so burdened with this sole task. Once they were older then I put them on a schedule. And with twins, a schedule was a must.

    • It’s good that you found your groove with your twins. I honestly can’t imagine feeding twins on demand. It sounds like a ton of work!

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