Guest Author - Nicki Heskin
New nursing mothers tend to worry about whether their baby is getting enough milk, nursing too little and even nursing too much. Frequent nursing, sometimes known as snack nursing, is usually a normal, healthy variation on nursing behavior. As long as the baby is gaining weight in a healthy way, and nursing is comfortable, frequent nursing does not represent any cause for concern and can actually be associated with several related benefits.
So much of American life revolves around managing a schedule. Rather than fixating on how often a baby is eating, what is more important is to focus on how the baby is developing and how the mother is feeling. Once a mother lets go of the notion that the baby might be eating “too often” it might surprise her just how easy and enjoyable the nursing relationship has become. A baby, especially a newborn, has their own patterns and cycles that bear little resemblance to the way in which we are used to managing meals, sleep, toileting, and more. This is why nursing on cue is key – make the breast available and the baby will let you know how often they need to nurse!
The very name, “snack nursing” is a misunderstanding of how breastfeeding works. A snack is often seen as something insubstantial and not filling, something to tide you over when you are hungry, that still leaves you hungry. Many women worry that if their babies nurse frequently that it is because their milk is not filling or otherwise insufficient. But because babies’ stomachs are so small (the size of their fist – picture it!) and breast milk is so easily digestible, breast milk is both completely filling and nutritionally perfect, and yet they may still be ready for more in short order! There is nothing “wrong” with the milk, that’s just how babies work. When your stomach is the size of a ping pong ball, a “snack” is a complete meal.
My second daughter probably nursed 20 times a day from the time she was born. The funny thing is, because I knew not to schedule her feedings, I didn’t even notice it for a while. I simply kept her near me, usually in a sling, and whenever she stirred or fussed, I would offer the breast. If she was ready, she took it, if not she didn’t (you can’t overfeed a breastfed baby). It was so natural and easy. And as an added bonus, starting on about day 3, she slept a 6-8 hour stretch at night since her nutritional needs were met during the day. In some cultures, babies are worn close to their mothers and nurse a hundred or more times a day! Frequent nursing is also sometimes associated with a lower incidence of crying in babies because suckling is such a soothing, organizing state for a newborn.
As long as babies continue to gain weight at a healthy rate, and mothers are comfortable, frequent nursing is no cause for alarm, but many simply be the natural pattern for that baby. There is no need to “restrict” the baby’s nursing, and others’ advice that babies do not “need” to nurse so often may not be true – different babies have different needs, and in most western schedule –crazed cultures, this sort of feed-on-cue pattern has become uncommon.
Note that some babies may nurse on a longer pattern, but may have a few fussy hours each day where they seem to want to nurse non-stop, or on and off for hours. This is called cluster feeding. See my article on this phenomenon in related links at the end of this article. Babies who nurse frequently may also cluster feed one or more times a day, or may skip cluster feeds because their needs are met throughout the day.
Take heart that frequent nursers will, of course, not continue in this pattern forever. Soon enough, they will discover the world around them and over time nursings will start to space out. Enjoy this special time, when you can continue, just a bit longer, to provide literally everything your baby needs with your own magical body.
My baby spent most of her early days in my cozy peanut shell sling and her nights next to me in the Arm's Reach Mini CoSleeper. Both do a wonderful job supporting the needs of frequent nursers!
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