During your baby’s first week of life they need to work towards eating at least 8 times in 24 hours to be gaining weight. That is roughly every 2-3 hours, but no one has told your baby this. This will only be until the first weight check confirms your baby is gaining weight, and then you can usually let the baby decide when they want to eat.
This first week is the time to establish your milk supply and for your baby to learn not to sleep through their dinner bell. Often, if a baby goes longer between feedings, they are so hungry they have difficulty latching on to the breast at the next feeding. You might be more engorged in the early days, and the breast is harder to latch on to if baby goes longer than a 2-3 hours between feedings. If this is happening to you, try to wake or encourage your baby to eat a little sooner to help them latch on with less difficulty. Until you have a weight check for your baby with your healthcare provider, try to wake your baby to feed if they go 4 hours without eating.
A typical newborn takes 20-40 minutes for one feeding. (1) Count from the beginning of one feeding to the beginning of the next. Your baby may seem like they inhale their feedings in a matter of minutes others take up to 40-60 minutes for a feeding. Taking longer to feed is often because your baby stops and starts during a feeding. As they get more efficient, the time it takes them to eat will decrease. So realize if your baby eats every 2 hours and takes one hour to feed, it may only be one hour between finishing a feeding and starting another one. Realize this is only temporary and not all babies do it this way. No two babies will be alike in their patterns of eating—sometimes your baby’s eating patterns are not even the same from feeding to feeding. Try to let your baby be your guide and feed on demand.
The demands will lessen as your milk supply is established and baby learns to regulate things. Also, remember some babies will only take one side per feeding and eat closer together because of that. Expect variety.
Breastmilk is easily digested and the stomach is usually emptied within 60 to 90 minutes after each feeding. (2) The size of your baby’s stomach is about the size of their closed fist by the end of the first week of life. (3) Since it is not a very big place, it is normal for it to need frequent filling.
Just remember they need to eat at least 8 times in 24 hours to be gaining weight. If you are having difficulty latching your baby on to the breast or you are having trouble with your baby waking to feed, have someone with breastfeeding knowledge watch you feed your baby.
You want to hear swallowing when your baby is eating. This tells you milk is going in. If you are having difficulty hearing your baby swallow, find a quiet place with no radio, TV or people noise, to listen for it during a feeding. It may be “glug” “glug”–like gulping, at the start of the feeding or a more of a rhythmic “ca, ca” sound.
When your baby starts to suck, it sends a signal for the milk producing area of the breast to move the milk towards the nipple. This is called a let-down reflex. As your let-down reflex becomes established, you will have multiple let-downs in a feeding.
You may notice bursts of sucking in the feeding when the flow of milk is great–this is a let-down of milk. If you feel a let-down, it will usually only be the first one. Some women describe it as a burning or tingling sensation. (4) It is also normal, not to feel the let-down sensation The important thing is to hear your baby swallowing. As the baby’s sucking starts to slow down and there a several sucks before you hear a swallow, they are most likely finishing their feeding. Let them break the suction with the breast themselves if possible. Sometimes stimulating them by rubbing their feet or stroking their head as they slow down helps them decide if they are finished with the side or not. See 7 Ways to Stimulate or Wake Your Baby
Your baby will gain weight better if they are allowed to breastfeed as long as they want on the first side before you offer the second side. (2)(5)(6) If they are falling asleep as they finish on the first side, you can burp them, and then try changing their diapers to help wake them up before offering them the second side. Always offer the second side. Your baby may eat about the same amount of time on each breast; they may eat most of the time on the first side and very little on the second or just take one side at a feeding. All are normal.
It helps to start on the side you left off on for the next feeding. You will know which side you left off on from the previous feeding because it will be fuller or firmer than the other breast at the next feeding. The key is to try and give both breasts equal stimulation. You may notice one breast seems to produce more milk than the other. This is because most women do not come as a matched set; we have one breast that is larger than the other (often it is your left breast)thus we have one side that makes more milk than the other. (7) This is normal. It is just something that maybe more noticeable when you are breastfeeding.
Often people will ask how long they should be nursing or breastfeeding on each side. If everyone were told to breastfeed the same amount of time, one baby may just be getting started and another may be finished. Again, in the early weeks it will probably take 20-60 minutes for a feeding. You are encouraged to have your baby eat at least 8 times in 24 hours and remember: It is best to watch your baby and not the clock.
- Mannel, R, Marten, PJ, Walker, M, Core Curriculum for Lactation Consultant Practice, 3rd edition, Burlington, MA, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2013, p 595.
- Wambach, K, Riordan, J, Breastfeeding & Human Lactation, 5th edition, Burlington, MA, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2016, pp 274, 395. Note: publishing date does say 2016.
- La Leche League International, What is colostrum? How does it benefit my baby? Stomach size of a newborn. Available at http://www.llli.org/faq/colostrum.html Accessed on Sept. 14, 2015.
- Mohrbacher, N, Stock, J, La Leche League International The Breastfeeding Answer Book, 3rd Revised Edition, Schaumburg, IL, La Leche League International, Jan 2003, p 41.
- Woolridge, MW, The physiology of suckling and milk transfer, Conference of International Lactation Consultant Association, 1989.
- Lawrence, RA, Lawrence, RM, Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Professional, 7th edition, Maryland Heights, MO, Elsevier Mosby, 2011, p 264.
- Black, RF, Jarman, L, Simpson, JB, Lactation Specialist Self-Study Series Module 2: The Process of Breastfeeding, Sudbury, MA, Jones & Bartlett Publishing International, 1998, p 18.