Feeding your baby – what is normal?

May 19

Feeding your baby – what is normal?

15 min read By Emma Ashworth, Doula and Author of AIMS Guide to Your Rights in Pregnancy and Birth

Babies need feeding. And they need feeding a lot! Gone are the days when we thought that feeding babies on a three or four hour schedule was ok. Science has clearly told us that this causes our babies to suffer from hunger when they could just be happy and fed, and, if we’re breastfeeding, it can reduce or, ultimately, even stop our milk supply.

How much milk does my baby need?

A newborn baby’s stomach is tiny. For the first day or two after birth a baby’s stomach will be filled with just 5mls of milk – a teaspoon – which is why our first breastmilk, called colostrum, only comes through in small amounts. We talk about our milk “coming in” after a few days, as though we didn’t have milk before, but we do! We have the perfect amount of very highly concentrated food and a massive immune system boost in the magical liquid that is colostrum, in just the right volume for a baby’s tiny stomach.

Of course, such a small amount of food will very quickly be absorbed, so baby will be hungry again quickly. This is normal, and all of the time that your baby spends on the breast helps your body to increase its milk supply and to start making a lot more milk, just as our baby’s stomach grows bigger. By the end of the first week, your baby’s stomach will comfortably take around ten times the amount from just a week ago – more like 50 or 60mls.

Babies can’t stop the milk flow from a bottle, whereas they have more control over the flow of breastmilk. This means that they may drink too much from a bottle which can make them sick, or it can stretch their stomach and cause pain. You can’t over-feed a breastfed baby, and offering the breast every time they ask is important for their well-being and for our milk supply, but how do we make sure that we don’t over-feed a bottle fed baby?

Responsive and paced bottle feeding

No matter how we feed our babies, feeding schedules can cause harm. However, it can be very frustrating to make up a bottle of formula or prepare some expressed breastmilk because your baby seems to want to feed earlier than expected, only to have much of it wasted. This doesn’t happen when directly breastfeeding as we can offer the breast and, if they’re not hungry, nothing’s gone to waste. But there are options for the bottle!

If you’re not sure whether your baby wants to eat, you can pour an ounce or two of breastmilk or freshly made formula into a bottle and offer it, storing the rest in the fridge in a different container.   If they finish that and are still hungry, you can top up the bottle. If not, you can safely leave the untouched milk until the next feed and just dispose of the small amount that you offered. This makes it easier to do responsive bottle feeding – meaning to respond to a baby’s feeding cues – while not wasting precious milk.

When feeding the milk in a bottle, remember that babies can’t control the flow, so paced bottle feeding means that you try to ensure that they aren’t overwhelmed with milk. 

To do paced bottle feeding:

  • Hold your baby in the cradle position, so that they benefit from your closeness and they’re sat just a little bit reclined. 
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and your body is well supported! 
  • Hold the bottle horizontally so that the milk doesn’t flow too fast. 
  • Tickle your baby’s lips and wait for a wide mouth, then let them latch onto the bottle. 
  • After 20-30 seconds, gently remove the bottle from baby’s mouth so that they can take a break for just a moment.
  • Offer the bottle again.

This better matches the way that breastfeeding works, which is a cycle of suckling for 20-30 seconds, then a break for a few seconds, and repeat.

What are normal signs that a baby is hungry?

Crying is a late sign of hunger. Before babies cry for food they can:

  1. Smack or lick their lips
  2. Root (turn their heads and open their mouths, especially if something touches their cheek)
  3. Suck their hands
  4. Start to be fussy or restless
  5. Clench their hands 

These signs don’t always mean that a baby is hungry, but it’s worth trying to see if offering the breast or a bottle is what they want before they get to the point where they’re crying. Crying babies can often find it harder to latch to the breast, so looking for these earlier cues can make breastfeeding a lot easier.

Summary

Whether breastfeeding or bottle feeding, looking for early feeding cues can lead to happier babies and easier feeding times. Feeding on a schedule can leave babies unhappy, hungry and in pain, whereas feeding babies when they’re hungry leads to happier babies and, if breastfeeding, a better milk supply. Feeding little and often is what their tiny tummies expect, especially in the early days. Paced bottle feeding can help to stop babies from over-feeding and reduce tummy aches and sickness.