Heads up, this post may contain affiliate links and any sales made through such links will reward me a small commission – check my Disclosure Policy to learn more
Should you put your baby on a schedule? It’s one of the great debates of being a mom. When we talk about a schedule for a baby, we are thinking in terms of how often the baby eats, and are usually think of scheduled vs demand feeding. This would imply that schedules are primarily about feeding. However, they are also, often, very much about sleeping. People discuss the pros and cons of schedules. There was a time though, that scheduled feeding was not even a thing.
History of Schedules
For most of time babies were fed when they were hungry. Scheduled feedings for babies was first introduced in the 19th century. This approach was in vogue for quite some time. While it worked for some babies, and worked better for babies who were bottle-fed formula, it was a fast road to frustration for moms who wanted to breastfeed. One of my nursing school classmates shared that she was told by the hospital nurses how disruptive it was to bring her baby to her in the middle of the night to breastfeed. Her baby was born about 50 years ago.
Another woman recounted sleeping past the scheduled feeding time, because her baby had too, and she was terrified something terrible would happen as a result of disrupting his schedule.
When Should You Feed Your Baby?
Today, most mothers will be counseled to feed their baby when it is hungry. Instead of demand feeding, you might hear the term “cue based feeding,” which means you feed your baby when you see physical cues that he is interested in feeding. These cues include baby smacking his lips, sticking out his tongue, rooting, sucking on his hands, and the latest sign of a baby wanting to eat, which is crying. When a baby has reached the crying stage, they have usually become disorganized and the feeding may not go well. Moms are encouraged not to wait for crying before feeding their baby.
Who exactly is doing this counseling? Cue-based feeding is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the International Academy of Lactation Consultants, Baby Friendly USA, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and just about any other professional organization that is making recommendations about infant feeding. The reasons for support of cue-based feeding is that it results in the best outcomes for babies in terms of early weight loss, followed by optimal weight gain, as well as breastfeeding outcomes.
Proponents of Schedules
Your next question is probably going to be, who the heck recommends schedules?
In the early days moms are counseled to feed at least eight times a day. Once a baby is demanding frequently enough to result in good weight gain they can usually go to what is generally known as demand feeding. You might have read this paragraph and said, What the heck did she just say?
The frequency that a baby will want to eat will change, often. That change will be very frequent in the first week. I tell parents when I see them in the first one or two days after the baby has arrived that it’s like they get a new baby every 12-24 hours, at least in terms of feedings. Breastfeeding is going to get off to the best start if the baby goes skin to skin right after birth. This doesn’t just help with breastfeeding. Many important things can happen as a result of skin to skin. But that could be a while blog post in itself. If a mom keeps her baby skin to skin they do tend to feed frequently right from the start. The second night they will probably go through what is known as second night syndrome. This is when babies have periods of time when they want to breastfeed constantly. These feedings may be very short, with very short naps in between. If your milk doesn’t start to come in after the second night, which is very common, there may be a third night of this frequent feeding. All this feeding is normal, healthy behavior and helps the milk come in and encourages an abundant milk supply. After the milk comes in babies will usually start to go longer periods of time between feedings. By the end of the first week your baby may have established something of a predictable routine.
The Non-Demanding Baby
You can see that there will be lots of changes in the first week. Try to follow your baby’s lead and with a healthy, demanding baby most mothers will end up with a good milk supply and a baby who is gaining weight at a normal rate. Some people have used schedules and it has worked well for them and the baby. Other people find that they go from a happy baby who is gaining weight well to a fussy baby who is not gaining weight well. That said, some babies are not very demanding in the early days and may be happy to go hungry. A mom with a baby who is eating infrequently enough to result in poor weight gain may be instructed by her pediatrician to feed the baby more frequently until the baby is gaining weight adequately.
Routines vs Schedules
Once a baby has established a more predictable routine, it’s important to remember that there are many things that can affect this routine. Growth spurts are going to result in more frequent feeding. Other things that can change a routine are vacations, visitors, a baby who is experiencing illness or even just teething. Even a busy day of errands can disrupt a routine or schedule. If you are trying to follow a rigid schedule, you will end up with an unhappy, frustrated baby, and an unhappy, frustrated mama.
This may be a term that you’ve heard before. Even for babies who are fairly predictable, most babies go through a period where they want to feed frequently. This is called cluster-feeding. It often happens in the late afternoon or early evening. There can be a variety of reasons for it. The main thing to remember is that it’s common and normal and as babies get older, it usually goes away. Although, I confess, I still do a lot of cluster-feeding myself in the late afternoon.
What Exactly is a Schedule?
Scheduled feedings go by different names. In the interests of not wanting any lawsuits brought against me, I’m not going to mention any here by name. Some are just looking at a baby’s natural routine and following that. Some are all about manipulating or controlling that routine by ensuring your baby has awake time before sleeping. Some recommend playing with baby after feedings. I have yet to figure out how you play with a milk drunk newborn, but that’s just me. Some schedules are created by only feeding the baby at certain intervals.
In my opinion, feeding a baby when they are hungry is just respectful. I think of it this way. Say you were hungry and someone had a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies they kept waving in front of your face. They were telling you that you couldn’t have them because it wasn’t time. How would that make you feel? I can’t imagine that someone who was formula feeding would take out a bottle and put it in front of a baby and then try to distract a baby from wanting to eat.
Eating or Sleeping? Goals of Schedules
Many feeding schedule have the goal of the baby sleeping long, especially at night. It’s important to distinguish the goal of feeding by the clock. Is it weight gain, or sleeping? When books or friends or sleep consultants talk about the baby sleeping longer, what they really are talking about is the parents sleeping longer. I’ll have a whole blog specifically about sleep.
While predictable routines are nice, they can also be restricting, not only to a hungry baby, but to a busy mom. Imagine that you are at the mall and you have finished your shopping and your baby is awake, but you’d like him to eat before the half hour car ride home. You know the car ride will put him to sleep. However, the schedule says that he shouldn’t eat until you arrive home. It would be more convenient to feed him now and he’s showing some feeding cues. Doesn’t it make more sense to just feed him now and let him fall asleep in the car? It does to me, but that’s just worked for me and my three kids.
One last thought. If you are convinced that schedules will work best for you, but your baby is clearly hungry and your instincts are telling you to feed your baby, listen to your instincts. They know your baby, the proponents of schedules don’t. At the end of the day, you’ll all be happier if you listen to your baby and your heart.
Andrea Tran RN, MA, IBCLC
Andrea has been working with new families as an RN for over 35 years and a Lactation Consultant for over 25 years.
She has her MA in Health and Wellness with a focus in Lactation.