You may have heard about "feeding on demand," but what does it mean, what does it look like, and what do the experts say about it? You'll find a variety of opinions and schools of thought on how to feed your baby, from newborn stage through to her first table foods and beyond. One of the most prevalent -- and outdated -- pieces of advice still circulating among parents is to feed your baby on a schedule. The belief is that it's easier for parents and caregivers, and helps encourage baby to sleep through the night at an earlier age.
There's just one (big) problem: Human babies are not designed to eat on a schedule.
First, their stomachs are very small. Second, breast milk is designed to digest quickly. And finally -- babies' needs vary!
Current research-backed practices reveal that babies should be fed on cue and fed until they are satisfied. Following this practice helps ensure that baby will get the nutrients that he needs in order to grow and develop appropriately and healthily. It also helps babies form secure attachment, which aids in forming a healthy physical, social, mental, emotional, and intellectual development.
And that's not all -- according to child public health professor and expert, Dr. Amy Brown, "Responding to a baby’s feeding cues (both of hunger and satiation), whether they are breast or bottle fed is an important step to helping a baby develop not only a secure attachment relationship, but in establishing longer term positive eating behaviours." Some research has also pointed to a relationship between feeding on demand and higher IQ later in children.
On demand feeding also helps establish and maintain a healthy breastmilk supply, for parents who breastfeed. Artificially limiting or lengthening time in between feeds can reduce milk supply.
On the flip side, scheduled or spaced out feedings can be harmful to babies because it can prevent them from eating enough to sustain the proper development of their brain and bodily growth. Due to the variables involved with feeding -- the differences in what each baby needs, how much each baby takes in at each feeding, and the differences in breast milk from person to person -- it's impossible to know when imposing an artificial feeding schedule (every 3 hours, every 4 hours, for example) if you are feeding baby enough for growth and nourishment. Responding to feeding and hunger cues by feeding on demand, as well as tracking baby's growth and weight, solves that problem.
What Does Feeding on Demand Look Like
Feeding on demand means that you feed your baby in response to her hunger signs and cues like sucking on fingers, smacking lips, and rooting (early hunger cues) to fussing and crying (late hunger cues). It means that instead of watching the clock, you watch your baby for signs that he's hungry or signs that he's full and satisfied. This may mean that you have a baby who eats 45 minutes after the last feeding ended. Or, it could mean that you have a baby who breastfeeds for only 15 minutes on one breast, or sits and suckles for 40 minutes at a time. It may mean that your baby routinely does not finish the amount of formula in the bottle, or conversely, finishes it all and is not yet full!
How to Feed on Demand
The how-tos of feeding on demand are actually quite simple -- learn baby's hunger cues and respond by feeding. Hunger cues include:
- "Rooting" - moving head from side to side, with mouth open
- Sucking on fingers/fist
- Smacking lips
- Licking lips
- Acting restless, fidgeting, squirming
- Fussing (late)
- Crying (late)
When feeding on demand, it's also important to know baby's signs of fullness or satisfaction, like:
- Getting drowsy and relaxing her body
- Slowing down of suckling
- Stopping sucking
- Releasing the breast
- Falling asleep
- Turning her head away
When fullness cues are observed, it's a good sign that baby is done eating. If you are concerned about baby's growth and whether she is taking in enough milk, you can take her in for a visit to the doctor to track weight, or purchase a scale for at-home use in order to track. A baby should gain between 4-7 ounces each week in the first month, whether breastfed or formula fed.
The only time where you may want to keep an eye on the clock is in the first few days and weeks. If baby is not waking naturally to feed every 2-3 hours in the first month, and has not yet established a good weight pattern, you will want to wake to feed.