Breastfeeding: Until what month do you need to feed your baby every 3 hours?

Ask An Expert Question- Breastfeeding: Until what month do you need to feed your baby every 3 hours? Including throughout the night and then when is it okay to let them sleep longer than the 3-hour feed window?

This is a fantastic and commonly asked question! In the first three years of your child’s life, their eating habits, especially around breastfeeding are bound to change. Here’s what you need to know.

On-Demand Breastfeeding

On-demand breastfeeding allows for the mother to establish a milk supply specifically for her baby’s needs.  Breastfeeding on demand means the breast is offered when the baby presents feeding cues.  When breastfeeds are scheduled, we often have babies feeding when they are not ready to feed.  This is why scheduled feeds can lead to insufficient removal of milk which can ultimately affect milk supply, resulting in challenging feeds. That said, there are some babies who are very sleepy – during the first few days of life when the milk is not fully in or when they have high levels of bilirubin (jaundice). We also need to consider situations when the baby is swaddled, in a doc a tot, in a car seat, in a bouncer (reclined chair), or in a swing.  When babies are in these cozy situations, their early feeding cues are often suppressed to the point where they do not wake to feed until they are significantly hungry. 

 

Feeding Cues 

Early feeding cues are the following: 

  • Licking lips
  • Bringing hands to mouth
  • Rooting (moving their head around)  

A late feeding cue is crying. If families are able to catch their baby’s early feeding cues and offer the breast when these cues are noticed, latching and feeding, in general, is less stressful and more enjoyable for mom and baby, plus there is no need to wake up the baby.  When feeding on demand like this, there is lots of variability in terms of the frequency of feeds.  You might notice periods when the baby feeds every hour but then at other times, every four hours. This is fine, as long as babies are not feeding every hour for a majority of the time – if this is the case, it would be helpful to reach out to an IBCLC  to determine why the baby needs to feed so frequently. As babies get older, the early feeding cues become less obvious.  

Babies begin to have more awake time between feeds after the first couple of weeks.  They begin to explore their hands by bringing their hands to their mouth around 3-4 months to prepare and practice eating solid foods.  Because of these developmental changes, many families have a difficult time deciding when to offer the breast and fall into a schedule of offering the breast after naps or when the baby seems fussy or based on a schedule i.e. every 3 hours.  As babies get older, it’s important to consider how well the baby is feeding at the breast.  Is the baby draining the breast well (there are no blockages in the breast)? Is the baby feeding on both breasts at each feed? Is the baby drinking well at the breast? Is the baby satiated after feeding? All of these answers should be taken into consideration when considering how often a baby should feed. 

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Schedules and Developmental Changes 

Most of our lives as adults are very structured and formulaic.  As a result, we often feel comfortable with a predictable schedule.  Babies can sometimes very happily fall into a predictable schedule as well, but when the quality of feeds is not considered, there is a growth spurt or developmental change, and the feeding routine might need to change.  Every baby is different and will go through growth spurts and developmental changes at different times and in different ways, so it’s important to remain flexible and pay attention to our baby’s behaviour more than anything. If sleeping becomes challenging or the baby seems to be fussier, some adjustments to when and how often the breast is offered should be reconsidered.  That said, if your baby is feeding frequently, not sleeping well, and/or fussier than usual it would be helpful to see a qualified IBCLC to determine how best to adjust the breastfeeding routine. If this is something you’re experiencing, Oona has a team of qualified IBCLC available for in office and in house consultations to support you. 

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Rose Le Blanc (she/her)IBCLC Lactation Consultant

Rose is a graduate of Newman Breastfeeding Clinic Lactation Medicine Program and a CAPPA Certified Postpartum Doula. She also holds an honours degree in Anthropology from the University of Toronto...

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