Feeding: Schedule or Demand?

As a mom of four children under 5yrs old, I have recently re-reflected on this issue and found it funny that this one question practically dominates the pregnancy literature on child-raising. If I could do it all over again and talk to my pre-mommy self who was furiously researching babies and motherhood, the one thing I would tell myself is: THERE ARE BIGGER QUESTIONS OUT THERE THAT YOU SHOULD BE STUDYING!

I say this partly tongue-in-cheek.  Obviously I know how important properly feeding a baby is, and it definitely seems for the first couple months that all you do with a newborn is feed it! (Especially if you nurse.) There are lots of sleepless nights and crying times where the first natural question that pops in your mind is, “Did I feed him enough? Is she getting what she needs?” And of course, lots of times you don’t really know.

So I wrote a review for the controversial “Babywise” book on Amazon and I have put some feeding points  below. But just so you know, the demand versus schedule feeding question truly is one of a larger parenting philosophy choice.  It is not solely about what you do in the feeding arena.  Thus the passionate controversy.

The reason why the feeding question is so heated is because people are pushing an entire parenting approach: child-centered or parent-centered. Enter the vehemence. On one side of the debate are Dr. Sears, the AAP, neo-Spock, and the most widely read baby literature from your bookstore.  They recommend “attachment” parenting which includes a whole range of practices designed to make your babies feel more secure.  Actually, I think they make the parent feel more secure, not the baby!  But they basically want your parenting to revolve around the child, as policy-maker.  On the other side of the debate are Ezzo, Ferber, Hogg, and many old-school writers.  They recommend the parents be the policy-makers.  So the question is not so much how often you feed your baby (or whether you bottle-feed or nurse) as much as it is: How much will you allow your children to decide what they need for themselves in life?

Since I have just raised four toddlers back to back, I would submit to you that you as a parent better become comfortable being in charge and deciding what your children need.  Even as babies.  Eventually they will know what they need and communicate this to you, but for now you are teaching them to recognize and communicate these needs.  I promise you they do not already know this themselves. If they knew how to parent themselves, they would “up and leave” like the entire animal kingdom babies do after a short observation period of the adults. You have a bigger brain, more experience, more love, and more intuition to understand your little creature.  You shouldn’t ignore the communication coming from your child, but you as the adult will have to do the interpreting.  Starting with hungry cries.

So back to feeding. What’s funny is, I would submit that 95% of new moms, whether they are child- or parenting-centered advocates, probably still feed their tiny babies pretty much the same… A lot!!!  Only 5%, the real radicals who still feed by the old 4hr by-the-clock routine or idolize the La Leche attached-to-your-chest routine, probably cause significant differences in the amounts that go into their babies’ tummies. And, if you have a good pediatrician who watches these things, as well as some good ol’ common sense yourself (as the main diaper changer), you can avoid extreme over- or under-feeding.

So here’s what I’ve learned so far about feeding:

  • Nursing does make a baby need to eat more frequently than a bottle-fed baby (Ezzo is wrong). Nursing babies, in the beginning, tend to eat every 2.5-3.5 hrs. A bottle-fed baby tends to eat more like every 3-4hrs.
  • If nursing goes well, it tends to create the ultimate bonding experience between mom and baby (La Leche is right). If it doesn’t go well, it can create some of the worst feelings ever (La Leche doesn’t tell you this).  It is probably best to stop so bitterness/frustration doesn’t work itself into the early stages of the mom-baby relationship.  There is no need to be super-mom around the nursing issue if it is causing stress–it’s not worth it!
  • Nursing tends to make babies more attached to their moms than their dads. Bottle-fed babies should take advantage of being mommy-free to eat with Dad for more bonding time.
  • Nursing is cleaner but harder for many, at least to get started.  If your baby is not a great nurser in the beginning, he or she will usually get it by six weeks old.  Try not to give up before this point if you’re wanting it to work out.
  • Breast pumps can be really helpful to regulate high or low milk supply.  Especially if the baby prefers one breast over the other or doesn’t finish feedings a lot.  Very common.
  • It is impossible to keep most newborns awake during a feeding. Try, try, try. This will prevent you going back to the bottle/breast every single time he or she cries because you think he’s hungry.  Sometimes I had to unlatch my babies and lay them on the floor to wake them back up.
  • The first week or two of a newborn’s life is crazy. Do whatever you want in the feeding/sleeping territory–you can’t ruin anything for the future this young.
  • Most eating issues stabilize around 9-12months when the child is more clearly able to express his needs/desires concerning food.  This is also when the digestive system stabilizes to be more like that of an adult.  They still need formula or breastmilk because they can’t absorb nutrition from solid food like an adult can.  But being able to eat some applesauce and a graham cracker a day makes a baby’s tummy much easier to deal with =)

The above points are just guides, not gospel. My main point is, that most moms probably end up feeding their babies an ok amount with either a demand- or scheduled approach.  Just know that demand-feeding can quickly become demand-parenting which is why it is a more perilous path.



One thought on “Feeding: Schedule or Demand?

  1. Good points honey. My perspective of the situation was that ultimately what worked was: “doing whatever” in the first couple of weeks, and then “working toward” the schedule after that. Then you built up from the schedule to start stretching the night longer and longer. Until they are comfortably over 10 lbs and start sleeping through the night. By a couple months in everything to the observer is looking pretty stable.

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