Normal feeding patterns
In my work as a breastfeeding specialist and infant feeding lead in the NHS, I have supported thousands of breastfeeding women over many years.
Before this time, I also had the experience of breastfeeding my own three babies, and I am all too aware of how easy it is to start to lose confidence at various stages of breastfeeding.
This confidence drop usually happens because the breastfeeding pattern has perhaps changed unexpectedly, or there is some other unexplained change that has occurred.
Also, one of the most common concerns that many of you have is whether or not you are producing enough milk for your baby.
I want to talk about eight changes that can happen during your breastfeeding journey that very often cause concern, but which are normal.
I also want to assure you that if your baby is gaining weight on your breast milk alone, then you certainly don’t have an issue with your milk supply.
So what are these false alarms?
The first one I would like to talk to you about is that you may notice that your breasts don’t feel full anymore, especially when you compare with how they felt in the first week or the second week after you gave birth.
Fear not; it is perfectly normal. Your supply will adjust to the needs of your baby over time. So please be assured that this is ok.
The second false alarm which causes unnecessary concern is when your baby goes through a growth spurt. Suddenly you may be aware that your baby is feeding a lot more frequently than usual.
No sooner have you fed your baby, settled him, then he is hungry again! This pattern of feeding seems relentless and is happening day and night.
Most mothers find this very disconcerting and a cause for significant concern, but this is normal. During a growth spurt, babies feed in this frequent way for two to four days, sometimes up to a week, to boost the milk supply. It’s thought to occur during brain development.
Reassuringly we know that these growth and developmental spurts that happen are a normal phenomenon, and your body will boost your milk accordingly.
Another common concern is when your baby suddenly starts to be very fussy at the breast towards the end of the day and appears to need frequent feeding at the breast.
It usually begins around the second week after birth and can go on for up to nine or ten weeks altogether.
Some babies may do this from 4 pm right up to midnight, with a lot of frequent feeding.
Other babies may have a 7 pm till 9 pm fussy period! Babies have to work that little bit harder towards the end of the day to access the milk.
All the milk is available, but the flow is slower, and some babies do get a little bit flustered with the extra effort needed.
It’s also important to do skin to skin at that time of the day if you can. It can also be useful to learn how to do breast compressions, which can help your baby to get more milk at that time.
Your supply will also get a real boost just by enabling your baby to feed as often and as frequently as he wants with effortless unlimited access to the breast.
Some breastfeeding mothers are concerned that they may not feel the let-down of milk.
When babies come to the breast, they do fast sucks initially which sends impulses to the brain, the brain then releases hormones, and the hormones cause milk to let-down on both breasts at the same time, and the milk will come down to your baby who is attached to one breast.
Some women feel this let-down very strongly, some don’t feel it at all. Some women feel it more strongly in the first couple of weeks after birth, but don’t feel it now.
None of this is relevant. It isn’t a sign of your decreasing milk supply and is NO indication of how your milk supply is doing. So to reiterate, it’s perfectly normal to feel the let-down, or not to feel the let-down.
Another common concern that I come across while talking with breastfeeding mothers is concerns about leakage of milk.
Milk leakage becomes a concern, especially if you leaked milk initially after the birth or in the first week or so, but as the weeks have progressed, you have noticed that there is no leakage at all!
You may have never leaked milk, or you may leak lots of milk! It’s very variable from person to person because of the individual interplay of hormones.
Also, as time goes on, generally, your body adapts to the needs of your baby. Many women often stop leaking milk as the weeks go on, and some don’t. It’s just not a reliable sign, so please be reassured about that.
Mothers often come to me with concerns about pumping their milk.
One of the everyday worries is that when pumping breast milk, they don’t seem to be able to express much!
It can be tempting to think that what you get from the pump is the same as your baby gets at the breast, and the truth is that at different times of the day, if you use the pump, you are likely to get different amounts of milk.
Using different pumps can produce different amounts of milk, and different women using the same pump may produce different amounts as well.
So everything is very variable, and the amount you get with the pump is not a good indication of what your baby gets at the breast. Babies are usually far more efficient at being able to access milk from the breast than the pump.
Another false alarm is if you have pumped your milk and then given it to your baby from a bottle – noticing your baby had guzzled that expressed milk or formula milk so fast, even after feeding at the breast.
Many women express concern about this and feel that it’s an indication that their baby hasn’t been getting enough at the breast.
Please be assured that the mechanics of bottle feeding are very different from feeding on the breast, and it’s important to know that studies have shown that babies can override their feelings of fullness while feeding from a bottle.
When feeding from a bottle, babies try to control sucking, swallowing, and breathing, which is hard to do. Consequently, they tend to gulp down milk quite rapidly.
I would encourage you to have a look at the videos relating to offering bottles in a safer and more biologically natural way that can replicate more closely how babies feed at the breast.
Please note that as your baby gets older, into their third month particularly, the pattern of feeding is very likely to change, and it can often be another concern.
I get a lot of telephone calls from breastfeeding mothers who tell me that the feeding pattern has changed.
The baby may be unusually unsettled at the breast and is very distractible, and the feeds are much shorter than usual.
Again, this is all normal.
Babies become more efficient at extracting the milk in a shorter space of time. They have gone through rapid growth and the mouth shape and size is different.
However, they are also very interested in their surroundings and therefore very distractible because of major brain development, so this is all perfectly normal behaviour.
It’s important to mention that babies often do reverse cycling, which means that your baby may start to wake up more at night. (Your baby may already be waking up at night at this stage, but even if he has been starting to sleep a little bit longer, he may begin to wake up more at night again) which is normal.
Your baby is just trying to get his intake of milk at a time of the day when everything is more boring and quiet and when he can concentrate on getting more milk!
So if you are experiencing any of the above, please rest assured that if your baby’s weight gain is fine, then this is all completely normal.
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Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022
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