I get tons of questions every month regarding the ins and outs of breastfeeding. To make it simpler for people to find the answers they’re looking for, I’ll be doing a series of Breastfeeding FAQs. First off: waking baby to breastfeed. If you have any questions you’d like me to answer as part of this series, just leave me a comment and I’ll add it to my list!
All too often, new breastfeeding moms are sent home from the hospital with these overly simple directions: “feed every 2-3 hours.”
If you’re like most new moms, that instruction gives you more questions than answers. Am I not supposed to feed if it’s been less than 2-3 hours? If the baby sleeps a long stretch, do I need to wake them up to eat every 2-3 hours? What if it is time to eat but the baby is too tired or not interested in feeding? At what point can they go longer than 2-3 hours?
I’m here to break down this question in great detail.
Birth to 2 weeks of age
Let’s start at the beginning. When your little one is first born, frequent feeding is both necessary and expected.
First of all, their stomachs are tiny so they can’t take much at each feeding. They must do small, frequent feedings to stay full.
Secondly, the newborn removing colostrum is what encourages your milk to come in. So those frustrating cluster feedings have a great purpose! Once your milk comes in around day 3-5, your baby will likely still want to breastfeeding often as they are working on their most rapid period of growth. You want to encourage these nursing sessions to help baby regain the weight they lost following birth and continue to grow and gain.
(For more on starting out on the right foot with breastfeeding, read 5 Tips For Breastfeeding Success.)
For those first couple weeks, those feedings are so crucial you don’t want to let your baby sleep through them. You want to feed on demand, but try to stay in the 2-3 hours between feeding range 24 hours per day. That means you feed when baby demands, but also offer the breast if it has been 3 hours since the last feeding.
The goal is to not go longer than 3 hours between feeding while you’re still establishing your supply.
One common problem? Newborns are SO sleepy! They make wake to eat but then can’t manage to stay away long enough to complete a feeding.
Sidenote: How to keep your newborn awake when they fall asleep at the breast
Night feedings are probably the least fun part of new mom life, so the last thing you want is a sleepy baby waking you over and over again because they can’t stay awake long enough to get a full feeding. Here is where the difference between foremilk and hindmilk matters!
Here are some simple tips to gentle encourage your newborn to stay awake for their feeding:
- change their diaper before the feeding instead of after
- keep baby undressed during the feeding
- stroke under the baby’s chin or start to pull your breast away to stimulate sucking
- rub baby’s skin with a cold wipe if necessary
So when can I stop waking baby to breastfeed?
Somewhere around 10 days to 14 days of age you should have a pediatrician appointment. At this time, the doctor will weigh your baby and the goal is that baby has returned to (or surpassed) their birth weight.
If he or she has regained their weight loss, has no medical concerns and is not a preemie, you are in the clear to let baby sleep longer stretches at night. Now you can truly feed on demand.
But it’s been longer than that and I’m still waking baby up. What do I do now?
Sometimes parents get in the trap of waking baby to feed for much longer than is necessary. Remember the goal is to have baby sleep progressively longer stretches in the night, resulting in better quality sleep for both of you.
If you continue to wake your baby to breastfeed, he will get used to frequent night feedings and will consume fewer calories in the daytime hours. You want to break this habit as soon as possible to get baby eating more during the day and sleeping longer stretches at night.
(Note: this does not mean eliminating night feedings. It is normal and appropriate for breastfeed babies to continue feeding during the night for up to six months and beyond.)
The first step is to stop setting any alarms you have that wake you up to breastfeed. The only noise that should wake you in the night to feed should be the sound of your baby crying (this is the definition of feeding on demand!)
For the first few nights, you might find that your baby wakes up right on the schedule you were previously waking him on. This just means the habit was a strong one. Give it some time and the feedings should begin to space out.
Normal baby sleep typically starts with the longest stretch and then resumes normal eating pattern. For example, baby might do one five hour stretch and then wake to feed every 2.5 hours, something like this:
- sleep 10pm-3am
- 3am feeding
- sleep until 5:30
- 5:30 feeding
- sleep until 8am
- feed and wake for the day
Won’t my breasts get engorged?
Sometimes breastfeeding mothers don’t want to space out night feedings for fear that they will wake up engorged and potentially develop clogged ducts or mastitis. They may want to continue pumping on the same schedule to avoid this possibility.
I would urge to avoid getting into this cycle. Remember that breast milk supply functions on supply and demand, so if you continue to pump, your body will continue to produce this amount. Getting into a cycle of oversupply will create more problems than it will fix.
If you must pump in the night, only pump enough to relieve engorgement and do not empty the breast. Gradually reduce pumping sessions until you are in sync with your baby’s longer sleep stretch.
Remember that it is completely normal to wake up with very full breasts in the morning. After the first feeding of the morning is a great time to pump if you want to build up a stash. This is a far better method than pumping throughout the night, which will also give you a stash but at the expense of your night sleep.
Still pregnant? Want to be as prepared as possible for breastfeeding?
The Ultimate Breastfeeding Class from Milkology covers it ALL. If you want to take a breastfeeding class but don’t have one near you or can’t work it into your schedule, this is perfect. The video format feels like you’re learning from a guru in person, but you can do it at home in your sweats whenever works for you.
The course is extremely thorough, and comes with some amazing bonuses like the Common Breastfeeding Issues Troubleshooting Guide, and Tips From Pumping Moms in the Trenches. It costs $19 and at the end you will be that breastfeeding expert that all your friends call when they have problems.
Do you have more questions about waking baby to breastfeed?
Always check with your doctor or lactation consultant if you have specific concerns. For general questions, feel free to leave me a comment!