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It’s Totally Normal If Your Baby Breastfeeds Every Hour (Or Even More Frequently Than That!)

By Wendy Wisner, IBCLC

Like many moms, I had a ton of trouble breastfeeding the first time. My baby was super sleepy and wouldn’t wake up to nurse. Once I finally got him to wake up, latching was nearly impossible. Each latch felt like a puzzle I was desperately trying to figure out. I had to pump my milk for a while and feed him with a medicine dropper until we finally got into our groove.

The whole “breastfeed on demand” thing wasn’t happening for a while, because I was needing to wake him up to nurse. And so I followed the doctor’s orders of making sure he nursed “every 2 to 3 hours.”

The thing is, a few weeks after my son and I finally got the whole latching thing down, something unexpected began to happen. He started bobbing his little head against my chest, or fussing as though he was hungry much more often than every 2-3 hours.

Wendy Wisner, IBCLC breastfeeding on demand

At first, I didn’t really know what to do. Could he possibly be hungry again? Did his hunger mean that somehow I didn’t have enough milk for him? WTF was going on?

Luckily, I had a very supportive mother-in-law who told me that babies breastfeed pretty much all the time. “When in doubt, just feed the baby,” she said.

So that’s what I did. The first little peep or fuss out of him and I offered him the breast. Once in a while, he refused, but most of the time, he took it. Sometimes he would go as many as two hours between feedings, but usually it was every hour, or even more frequently than that.

For a few months, I felt self-conscious about the whole thing, especially when people asked how frequently he nursed, or when they seemed uncomfortable about the fact that I was nursing him again. But I also saw how happy and healthy he was, and how quickly was growing, so I knew whatever I was doing was working just right.

Now, having nursed two boys for several years each – and also having worked with hundreds of moms as a La Leche League leader and lactation consultant – I can say without a doubt that the whole “breastfeed every 2-3 hours thing” (or fill in the blank with whatever nursing frequency you were told) is bullshit.

Wendy Wisner, IBCLC breastfeeding on demand

Think about it for a second. Babies can’t tell time or do math. When they were in the womb, they were used to having continual nutrition. Why would they adapt to a very specific feeding schedule suddenly –  one that was essentially made up and actually not really even based on anything?

Speaking of which, where do the breastfeeding frequency suggestions come from anyway? I have pored through the research, and I haven’t seen any convincing evidence to back up the “breastfeed every 2-3 hours, or 8-12 times per day” standard advice that is usually doled out to moms.

In fact, if you look at any science on the subject, you’ll find that breastmilk is digested as quickly as every 48 minutes (as opposed to 78 minutes for formula fed babies) so if anything, telling a mom to offer the breast every hour might make more sense.

Honestly, though, I wouldn’t even want to tell a new mom to breastfeed at any specific interval. My best advice is to keep your baby close to you as much as possible, and to offer the breast anytime your baby shows signs of hunger (rooting, head bobbing, licking lips). Try to offer them the breast before they’ve gotten to the point of crying (that’s actually considered a late sign of hunger).

If your baby fusses, make breastfeeding be the first thing you try. Trust me, if you baby doesn’t want to nurse, they won’t! Then you can move on and figure out if maybe they need to be burped, need a diaper change, etc.

Don’t try to analyze it too much. In our culture, moms are taught to overthink way too much, and not go with our instincts. I find that most mothers know by instinct if their baby needs to nurse. Moms and babies have a symbiotic relationship like that. Your breasts sometimes respond to your baby’s hunger cues before you do! Go with that.

Babies have a need to suck and be in close human contact pretty much all the time. It’s normal. Yes, it can be really hard at first. But it gets better. Usually babies start to stretch the feedings out a few months in. But there is no magic date when that happens, and it ebbs and flows (growth spurts and all that good stuff). It’s also totally normal to have a toddler who breastfeeds every hour. My kids did that at times.

Wendy Wisner, IBCLC breastfeeding on demand

All of this doesn’t mean that the burden of feeding this frequently has to fall solely on your shoulders. You don’t have to be the only one holding them/feeding them 24/7! Ask for help. Use a baby carrier. If you can get away for an afternoon to be alone, pump and have someone feed your baby a bottle (everyone will survive, I promise). Use a baby swing or bouncy chair if there is no one around to hold your baby and you just need a break.

Lose the mommy guilt and go with what works for you and your baby. Period.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t think your baby is a freak if they really want to nurse all the freaking time. Nursing every hour – sometimes even more than that – is 1000% normal. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Wendy is the mom of two awesome boys, a freelance writer and editor, and a lactation consultant (IBCLC). Find her on the web at www.wendywisner.com.

For more on frequent breastfeeding listen to this episode of The Badass Breastfeeding Podcast!