Watch your baby, not your iPhone timer

There are two schools of thought about how to prepare for breastfeeding (and, I suspect, to parenting as well). One is the read-everything, prepare-to-the-nth-degree approach. These folks read all they can get their hands on, take a bunch of classes, and ask their friends for advice in advance. The other school of thought is best summed up by “How hard can it really be? After all, if it didn’t work, the human race wouldn’t be here!”

So which approach is more successful?

You’ll be happy–or unhappy–to hear that moms in either group may have problems breastfeeding. I hear statements like:

  • It’s so much more difficult than I thought.
  • I thought it was a natural thing, why am I having so much trouble?
  • Why is my baby doing x or y; the book said…?

The reason both the well-read and the faith-in-nature types may have problems initially can be summed up in a single word: expectations.

Those who have read and studied everything in advance believe they know what to expect. When their baby deviates from the norm, they are perplexed and frustrated. Often, the numbers that stick with parents from classes and books are the averages. Of course, no baby is average! Yet parents then don’t know what to expect, especially in the first few weeks when they’re just figuring their babies out.

Those who haven’t educated themselves may not have any idea how often a newborn feeds. They may not understand that newborns (in the first week or two) may not wake themselves for feeding. So the parents blissfully let their “really good sleepers” snooze away for 5-6 hours, which means they won’t get adequate feedings and mom’s milk supply won’t develop. Lack of food makes these babies even sleepier and jaundice may be a problem (which itself causes sleepiness).

One of the most misleading pieces of misleading information is the advice to “feed your baby every 2-3 hours.”  I have tried to modify this advice; I usually say “feed your baby 8 to 12 times every 24 hours.” Looking at it this way makes it easier for parents to deal with cluster feedings, but even this description can lead parents astray.

What we often fail to point out is that the every 2-3 hours guideline is a bare minimum, the amount of feedings you need to ensure that your baby is not starving and you’re not sabotaging your milk supply in the early weeks. The truth is that babies may feed more frequently–sometimes MUCH more frequently. A baby may eat every hour for 8 hours, or non-stop for 3 hours. This is not necessarily a sign that something is wrong!

The best advice is to “watch the baby, not the clock.” If your baby is hungry, feed him or her. Yes, this does mean educating yourself. You need to be familiar with baby’s hunger cues and be able to respond before the baby resorts to full-blown wailing. And you need to understand the size of your newborn’s stomach and the fact that they digest breast milk quickly.

Beyond some familiarity with the basic biology of breastfeeding, devote your time and energy to becoming an expert on your baby, not reading what the experts have to say about the “average” baby. After all, your baby didn’t read any books, and he or she knows exactly what to do.

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