As a Leader, I get asked that question a lot. Many mothers have been told “your baby should nurse eight to 12 times a day” – or every two to three hours – and they start to get worried if the baby wants to nurse more often than that.
They worry that:
- They don’t have enough milk.
- The baby is “snacking” and developing bad habits.
- The baby is using them for a pacifier.
- Their milk is poor quality.
- The baby is going to continue nursing every hour for the full year they’d planned to breastfeed and they’ll never be able to get anything else done or even leave the house.
Fortunately, I’m usually able to give the mother good news. Most of the time, none of those things are true. Once in a while, a baby will be nursing very frequently because he or she isn’t getting enough milk, but a few questions about poopy diapers and weight gain usually lets us know if that’s the case.
For most mothers and babies, this is just normal. The “eight to 12 times a day” is meant as a MINIMUM, not a maximum. Once I counted the number of times my first baby went to the breast over 24 hours (counting each nursing at one breast as one time), and the total was not eight, not 12, but 35!
Your baby may not nurse quite that often, but many do. Why? It’s all part of the biology of breastfeeding. Babies start out with small stomachs, and they need to eat frequently because they are only able to take a small amount of milk at each feeding. But by eating frequently, they effectively stimulate the mother’s breasts to build up a good milk supply and to prepare for ongoing milk production. To get milk production going, it works better to nurse 16 times a day for 10 minutes at a time than eight times a day for 20 minutes at a time.
Babies are also able to adjust the fat levels in the milk by nursing more or less often. When the baby nurses frequently, there is more fat in the milk. Why does that matter? Well, your baby’s brain is growing more quickly now than at any other time in his life, and the nutrients needed for optimum brain development are contained in the fatty portion of your milk. Maybe your frequently-feeding baby just wants to be smarter than average.
And, of course, breastfeeding means more to a baby than just getting fed. Babies love the closeness, the skin-to-skin contact, the comfort of suckling, being able to hear your heartbeat and your familiar voice. The warm, sweet milk is just a bonus. Breastfeeding gives them all those things at once, so it’s the most complete form of comfort you can provide – no wonder babies seek it out whenever they feel stressed or tired or just in need of a little reassurance.
So most of the time, frequent nursing just means your healthy, normal baby is doing what he needs to support you in making plenty of milk, boost his brain development, grow as he’s supposed to, and feel happy and content. It also doesn’t go on forever. Once your milk production is well established, and your baby’s tummy has grown bigger, she won’t need to nurse as often – although there will still be “frequency days” when the baby steps up nursing for two or three days to increase your milk, get extra antibodies to fight off an illness or catch up if she’s been too distracted to nurse well recently.
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