Does your baby wake 1, 2, 3 hourly to feed? Does your peaceful daytime baby turn into an all night feeder who cannot be put down? And does your baby sleep contentedly in your arms, then cry as soon as they are placed in that expensive, carefully chosen, beautifully designed cot?
Firstly, don’t worry! You’re doing a great job – and a very important one! The good news is that your baby is doing exactly what he/she needs to do to thrive. Let me explain why:
Babies have two intrinsic needs – to be kept close to Mum and to be fed on demand. Social constructs often dictate expectations of babies having strict feeding routines, settling well in a cot, and sleeping through the night as early as possible. As a result, many parents become anxious and stressed over the pressure to make their babies live up to these unrealistic expectations and to what is deemed to be a ‘good baby.’ We need to start supporting mothers to trust in their maternal instincts, and to understand and respond to their baby’s primal needs.
Let us first look at normal feeding behaviours and the reasons behind them. Babies stomachs have small capacities, so they can only take a limited volume of milk at any one time. This capacity increases over time, hence feeds gradually become more spaced out. In the early weeks, babies feed little and often in order to meet the volume of milk they need each day. And let’s not forget that milk is a baby’s drink as well as food – think how many times a day adults reach for a drink, even just for a few sips. Particularly in hot weather, babies will often have very short, frequent feeds, interspersed with the longer feeds, in order to remain hydrated.
Babies also know how to perfectly regulate your milk supply. Babies often feed frequently or cluster feed when they want to increase your milk supply to match their need. This is a delicate supply-demand feedback loop. Refusing babies feeds or replacing breastfeeds with a bottle feed, will likely reduce your milk supply – this will mean that babies become less satisfied when they feed off the breast and will hence feed even more frequently. What may seem like a short term answer, may lead to longer term problems.
And let us address the big topic of night time feeding.
How often do you hear people asking if baby sleeps through the night yet, and the judgement parents sometimes feel when they are not living up to these societal expectations? It is very healthy, normal behaviour for babies to night feed. During the night, we all produce higher levels of a hormone called melatonin.
This melatonin increases the production of prolactin (milk-producing hormone) and oxytocin (milk ejection hormone). Therefore it is a very sensible time for babies to feed, particularly those who need to increase their weight or increase the available milk supply. Babies are clever! Melatonin is also a sleep inducing hormone, which has been found to help develop a baby’s circadian rhythm over time, as a newborn’s low level of melatonin, means that they cannot distinguish between day or night. Eventually these night time boosts of melatonin will mean that baby will settle for longer stretches over night – in simple terms, short term night feeding will likely lead to better night time sleeping!
And now let us look at those very important cuddles! Babies cannot be spoiled, they do not need to be ‘trained’, they do not demand more than they need. Purely and simply they are dependent on their mothers for survival, and that instinct to remain close to Mum and have their needs met, is strong. When a baby is left alone in a cot, it has no way of knowing that it is a safe place to be. Babies are completely vulnerable and defenceless, so in what babies perceive to be an unsafe situation, they will call out for Mum’s protection. If baby is left without reassurance, then baby’s stress levels will rise. If this occurs frequently or for extended periods, baby will see the cot as an unsafe, stressful place to be, and will begin to show more reluctance when put down. Over time, when baby feels reassured that Mum is always nearby, and will come when needed, the cot will become a safe place where baby can relax.
In the meantime, don’t stress – just provide the love and cuddles! We are, like all primates, ‘carrying mammals.’
So breastfeed unrestricted, on demand, and trust in those natural instincts, intrinsic in both you and your baby, which have kept the human race alive for thousands of years. Go to your baby – go to your baby a million times. Keep them close. This time will pass quickly and there will come a time when your little one will have developed into a confident, independent person, secure in themselves, people around them, and in their environment. And you may even consider doing it all again…
Written by Rachel Wilson, MAMA Midwife
Bouchet-Horwitz, J (2015) Ensuring Breastfeeding Success. ICAN: Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition, vol. 7, 4: pp. 208-211.
Doan T, Gardiner A, Gay CL, Lee KA. (2007) Breast-feeding increases sleep duration of new parents. J Perinat Neonatal Nurs., 21:200-206.
Dykes, F., Flacking, R. (2010) Encouraging breastfeeding: A relational perspective: Early Human Development, Vol. 86, Iss. 11, P. 733–736.
National Health and Medical Research Council (2012) Infant Feeding Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
Pickett, E (2011) The Dangerous Game of the Feeding Interval Obsession.
Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative (2016) Responsive Feeding: Supporting Close and Loving Relationships.