One of the biggest surprises of becoming a mom was how often, and for how long, a newborn would nurse. I’m someone that had rarely been around newborns, and I honestly can’t remember ever holding one until I held my own; I certainly had never seen a baby breastfeed. So what was my reference for what breastfeeding would look like on a practical basis? I didn’t have one at all.
So when our son was born, it felt like he wanted to nurse non-stop, around the clock. And well, he kind of did. He was a slow eater, and a baby that needed a lot of comfort, far more than the three babies I had after him. In the early days, he would nurse for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, fall asleep, and then want to nurse again soon after waking. Since he couldn’t be put down for naps, I would have maybe 10 or 15 minutes every few hours where I wasn’t pinned to a couch.
Shouldn’t I just make him wait to eat so we would have a schedule to follow and my life would be easier? Was I “spoiling” him by letting him dictate when and for how long he ate? Why was this happening?
Let’s start with infant stomach sizes. At birth, a newborn’s stomach is the size of a chickpea. SO SMALL! It stretches to the size of a small strawberry by one week, and at a month it’s about the size of a chicken egg. Imagine yourself really hungry and thirsty, and in order to fill that need, you were able to have about two shot glasses worth of nutrition. You’d want to be filling that belly all the time! That’s what it’s like for a one month old.
Couple the tiny stomach with the fact that human milk is quickly digested, with a lower protein and higher carbohydrate content than other mammalian milk. Take a moment and think about this and why it makes sense. Most other mammals need to leave their small babies to go off to hunt for food (fewer kitchens and pizza delivery in the wild). Their babies, though, are able to walk or swim from birth, while there’s a lot of learning left to do, they are definitely more developed than human babies. Our babies need to be kept close because they are 100% dependent upon their caregivers for survival. One of the ways our genetics ensures human babies remain close is by requiring them to eat frequently with tiny stomachs and quickly digested milk; they are physically unable to be left alone.
Finally, breastmilk is created on a supply and demand basis. Meaning the more milk is removed from the breast, the more milk your body will make. Especially in the first 6 weeks or so, it is essential for baby to nurse when they want to, because they are teaching your body how much milk they will need to grow and thrive, telling your body how much milk it will need to supply.
That’s the why a baby needs to eat frequently. But are there any other benefits to feeding when baby wants to eat? Absolutely!
Whenever baby has the urge to suck, whether it is because they are hungry or need it for comfort, offering them a breast helps them feel secure and taken care of. So on-cue nursing is another way to help build a secure attachment between baby and caregivers. For the family that isn’t nursing, a similar effect can be had by bottle feeding whenever baby is hungry, and then holding baby while they suck on a caregiver’s finger or a pacifier. This gives them the dual advantage of comfort not just from the sucking, but also from being held.
There is another great lifelong benefit of feeding on demand, which is that you help baby learn right from the start to eat what they need to eat, but stop when they are full. An easy temptation when feeding a baby is to make sure they finish whatever is left in the bottle or in a jar. This teaches baby, and later toddler, to override the sensation of having a full belly (“I ate so much I feel like I might burst!”) and can lead to overeating for the rest of their life. Instead, teach them to trust when they are full and then eat no more.
Knowing a bit about why my oldest wanted to nurse around the clock certainly helped from a mental standpoint, but I was still stuck pinned to the couch for hours on end nursing him. What could I do?
- I started by keeping important things in a feeding basket next to my favorite places to nurse. In the basket were a book or magazine, a granola bar and a water bottle. I would also throw in my cell phone charger, hair tie and chapstick. It always seemed like the second I found a good latch, I would be so thirsty and ravenous, with super chapped lips and hair that was driving me nuts. I’m sure you’ll find your own must haves, but use this as a jumping off spot.
- When my husband was home, I would nurse and then pass our son off, giving me a chance to be not stuck (and it gave the two of them a great chance to bond as well).
- I learned to spend some part of my day away from my house. So whether this was a coffee shop around the corner with a good book (this was before the days of smartphones and wifi everywhere) or a park bench, I found that even though I was still nursing for 30 minutes and then holding my son for another hour, at least I was in a different location which made my day seem brighter and less like I was on a hamster wheel day in and day out.
- I made sure that at least twice a week I would meet up with friends who had babies the same age as my son. It might be at one of our houses or out in the world, but being with other women going through the same thing as me made all the difference in the world. The constant nursing wasn’t unusual or a “problem”, it’s the biological norm; what a relief! Sidenote: As a new mom, finding friends can be really hard. Make sure you attend any new mom support groups in your area–and if there aren’t any, start one!
- When my son’s latch was finally consistent and I had gained confidence in us as a breastfeeding pair, I learned to nurse while wearing him in a sling. This gave me a chance to be out on a walk, in a grocery store, even chopping veggies in the kitchen. It gave me so much more freedom that I really loved, but I was still meeting my son’s needs 100%. When his younger siblings were born, I made nursing in a carrier a priority to master much earlier since I knew how great it was. As you practice this skill, try it when baby is a little hungry, not ravenous; any new nursing position is better off tried on a baby that isn’t filled with hunger rage!
- Finally, I gave myself patience and kindness. Sure there were “things I should be doing” but honestly, what’s more important than caring for our newborn? The laundry? The dishes? Nope!
In the end, this constant nursing was honestly only the first 6 or 8 weeks, though at the time it felt like it might last forever. By week six he had started to become a bit more efficient and was also awake for longer stretches, making it all a little easier. Then by three months it was a thing of the past that on lazy days, I really missed.
While it can be frustrating in the moment, maybe parking us on a couch for the first month or two is mother nature’s way of reminding us to take it easy, it allows our bodies to heal, giving ourselves time to bond with our baby and figure out this whole new mom thing.
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