How to Survive Temporary Increases in Feedings
By Felicia Hodges
When Emily Fischer decided to breastfeed her first child, the idea of nursing whenever her little bundle of joy demanded made her more than a bit apprehensive. But she was pleasantly surprised when she and her newborn daughter, Lyndsay, settled into a pretty regular nursing pattern once they arrived home from the hospital.
“We would relax together in her nursery about every four hours or so for the first few weeks,” she says. “That was about as often as she seemed to want to be fed.” Sometimes, Lyndsay would even sleep for five hours between feedings.
A lot of mothers don’t realize that it is the baby’s job to determine how much milk is needed.
But as soon as Lyndsay turned about 3 weeks old, the predictability of her feeding routine went haywire. Suddenly, the quiet, leisurely nursing sessions Mom and Baby shared began to come at more frequent intervals.
“She was waking up and needing to be fed about every two hours or so,” Fischer says. “I was asking myself, ‘What happened to our schedule?’ It was puzzling because she was so easy-going and had such an even temperament at first. But I was beginning to feel like an ‘Open All Night’ diner.”
Most medical experts say that this experience isn’t all that uncommon, citing growth spurts as the reason for the increased feeding demand. According to La Leche League International (LLLI, http://www.llli.org/), “Increases in the frequency [of nursing] usually show up in relation to growth spurts.” In their book The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (Plume Books, 1997), it’s made clear that, “Like the rest of us, babies are hungrier at some times than others. Rather than check out the refrigerator, Baby looks to Mom.”
What’s Going On?
According to Board Certified Lactation Consultant Ellen Mahoney, growth spurts (which are sometimes referred to as “appetite spurts”) commonly occur when infants are between 2 to 3 weeks old and again when Baby is 6 weeks, then 6 months of age – although every baby is different. The increased demand for the breast is usually the signal that Baby’s growing body is in need of more food.
Because breast milk is produced on an “as-needed” basis, a baby’s demand for more milk during a growth spurt may get temporarily ahead of the mother’s milk supply. In order to get Mom and Baby back in sync, it is important to let Baby nurse as often as he wants to.
“It takes between 48 to 72 hours for Mom’s milk supply to adjust to Baby’s increased demand,” says Lactation Consultant Debbie Strelevitz. “Because during the two to three days the growth spurt is happening a baby seems to want to nurse almost non-stop, it usually takes a bit for Mom to catch up with her milk supply.”
Unfortunately, many moms who may be breastfeeding for the first time mistakenly think that they just aren’t producing enough milk to keep their infants adequately fed. “They might start thinking that their bodies aren’t making enough milk or that their milk supply is decreasing,” Strelevitz says. “Some may even be ready to give up nursing at that point.”
Dr. Christina Smillie, a pediatrician who specializes in breastfeeding, says that it is not really possible for a mother’s milk supply to get smaller unless she is weaning her child. Therefore, when Baby enters a growth spurt, more frequent nursing is actually the solution.
“Only in our [society] do we have a whole culture of women who were taught to only feed at 10, 2 and 6 o’clock – every four hours,” Dr. Smillie says. “The result is a whole generation that passed on the concept of not making enough milk. A lot of mothers don’t realize that it is the baby’s job to determine how much milk is needed. Milk is made on demand; when Baby needs more, Mom will make more.”
Dr. Smillie often uses the analogy of how tears are produced to better illustrate this point to her patients. “The body makes plenty of tears,” she says. “If you suddenly find yourself crying over some sad or happy time in your life, you don’t suddenly worry that you won’t have enough tears left over for the funeral. Milk production works much the same. This is how a mother of twins has enough milk to feed both babies. She doesn’t wait until she has stored up enough milk before she feeds them, but it is there just the same.”
Dr. Smillie reminds her patients that the “let-down reflex” that stimulates the milk flow is very psychological. “If a mother thinks that there may be problems, she could end up creating the very problem [she's] worried about,” Dr. Smillie says. She adds that you can use the guideline of “a comfortable, happy baby that goes from being kind of hungry to being a bit floppy and content” as the best indicator to making sure your child is being adequately fed.
The Bottom Line
Many women may be tempted to reach for formula or supplement nursing with bottles because of the confusion they may experience from natural occurrences like growth spurts. How can moms be encouraged to stick with breastfeeding when growth spurts occur?
“The thing to do is keep doing it,” Strelevitz says. “Feeding your baby as often as she wants to be fed is the key. Your body will take care of the rest.” She advises moms who have questions about their child’s appetite spurts to call a lactation consultant.
Strelevitz adds one final bit of wisdom: “I think we need to trust our babies and our own bodies more than we already do.”