Should I Put My Baby On A Schedule? How Does Breastfeeding Fit In?

Early parenthood is a challenging time for most parents. They are bombarded with advice and suggestions about how to cope and get through that first year. The advice comes from everywhere: family members, friends, neighbors, healthcare providers, books, websites and random people at the grocery store to name just a few. Much of the advice is conflicting. Some suggest putting baby on a feeding and sleeping schedule from an early age. Others say to follow baby’s cues for everything. One of the most important skills a new parent can learn is how to distinguish between necessary medical advice and parenting opinions (both are everywhere), and to choose what will work for you and leave the rest.

I am about to give you yet more advice for early parenthood, but I give it with a couple of disclaimers: My attempt will be to give new parents information they need about scheduling in terms of breastfeeding, and I am a breastfeeding advocate. I don’t claim to know you, your baby or your situation, so please have a look at my thoughts, and then take what works for you and leave the rest.

When new parents are considering putting their baby on a feeding or sleeping schedule, there are normally a couple of goals they are hoping to accomplish. They want to be sure they are meeting their baby’s needs for food and sleep. They want to be raising a happy, healthy, confident child and member of their family who knows what to expect and where he or she fits in. In fact these are the same things that every parent I have ever worked with hopes for, no matter what their parenting style.

Parents differ in exactly what it is they think will accomplish these goals. Some parents hope that putting their baby on a schedule will give them and their baby a consistent set of expectations and a sense of predictability during one of the most physically intense times of parenting. Others hope that by following their baby’s cues for food and sleep, their baby will learn that this world is a place where he can trust and love because his needs are consistently heard and met.

I truly believe that whatever style appeals to parents, everyone is approaching their own baby and situation from a place of love and striving to be the best parent they can be. There is no one approach that will fit every family, and the ways that parents raise their children are as unique and wonderful as each parent and baby.

If we look at breastfeeding anthropologically, we find many and varied approaches to infant feeding throughout the world. Putting babies on feeding and sleep schedules is a predominantly modern and mainly Western approach to infant care. Biologically speaking, normal healthy babies do not need any sort of set feeding or sleeping schedule to thrive. (Babies with special needs may need more structure to their feedings to make sure they get enough.) Babies in many cultures in the developing world spend most of their day close to their mothers in some kind of sling. Many of these babies breastfeed as frequently as three times every hour for five minutes at a time. They sleep next to their mothers and wake and breastfeed many times throughout the night.

But just because babies don’t have a biological need for scheduling doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea. For many parents, predictability in their lives with a new baby gives them confidence. My belief is that babies don’t need schedules, but that if parents want or need the predictability of a schedule, most babies can conform relatively easily to a schedule or routine if it is one that is developmentally appropriate. Some parents find schedules in books that they are hoping to follow, and as long as the advice has parents breastfeeding frequently enough to maintain the mother’s supply, these can work for many breastfeeding families.

For parents who are wondering about trying a schedule, but aren’t yet sure if it will be right for them, I offer the following in-between suggestion: For two or three days, keep a journal noting down as much as you can about your baby’s natural feeding, waking and sleeping times. After a few days, you will likely start to see some patterns emerging. Perhaps your baby nurses to sleep mid morning, then wakes up smiling and plays for a while, then disengages and wants to nurse...Whatever your baby’s natural rhythm throughout the day is, you may start to be able to make a routine for your baby, based on what you know his behavior is likely to be. If you know your baby often has a fussy period towards the end of the day, you may be able to pre-empt this by being prepared to breastfeed on the sofa or take a walk with baby in the sling at this time. If you notice that your baby tends to have a long sleep starting at a certain time of evening, you can start a bedtime routine with a bath, books, songs, etc. and finish off with nursing your baby to sleep at the time he naturally wants to.

Over time as your baby matures, you may need to repeat the journaling exercise a few times as his natural rhythms change. Most babies start to sleep less during the day and more at night. Most continue with frequent breastfeeding, but very often many of the feedings become shorter. If you design a routine around what your baby’s behavior tends to be anyway, then you and your baby will both know what to expect throughout the day, which can be comforting for both of you, and whatever routine you have for your baby will be developmentally appropriate.

The main issue I have seen with the schedules prescribed in a number of popular baby books, is that many of them have strict feeding schedules that don’t work well for many women’s milk supplies. If a schedule from a parenting book sounds most appealing to you, I offer the following guidelines which may help you modify a schedule slightly to make it more compatible with breastfeeding.

  • Most breastfed babies need to be fed at least 10-12 times in 24 hours. Less frequently than this may not be enough to maintain many mothers’ milk supplies or to support many babies’ weight gain. Some books advocate babies having fewer than 8 feedings per day, which is usually too few for the exclusively breastfed baby.
  • When babies sleep long stretches at night, mothers’ milk supplies go down and some mothers will find that they are not making enough to meet their babies’ needs. In the first 6 months of life, the longest stretch between breastfeeding sessions appropriate for most mother-baby pairs in my opinion is 5-6 hours. If your baby naturally sleeps longer stretches than 6 hours at night, I suggest pumping or hand expressing once in the middle of your baby’s long sleep, for a few weeks until you are sure that your baby is going to continue this sleep pattern, and that your milk supply remains sufficient.
  • Some babies are quick eaters - others take their time. Some babies will be finished after ten minutes on each side - others are not. Restricting baby’s time at the breast can mean restricting baby’s milk intake and can cause slow weight gain.
  • Some parenting books suggest that nursing a baby to sleep or for comfort sets a child up to use food as a comfort later in life. I do not believe this is the case. A baby nursing to sleep or when upset has nothing in common with a moody teenager eating a pan of brownies. The sucking reflex is an important source of comfort for babies, and remains strong for somewhere between 9 months and 4 years. Breastfeeding gives a baby the warmth and comfort of his mother’s loving arms, and the closeness he longs for. It meets much more than just his need for food.
  • Many books seem to portray breastfeeding and infant feeding as a chore to get done and be finished with. Breastfeeding is a complex relationship and a wonderful time of bonding for many mothers and babies. Thinking of it as a privilege and chance to bond and communicate with your baby, rather than a chore, helps many mothers feel more positive about the time they spend breastfeeding.

So should you put your baby on a schedule? You are the only one who knows what is likely to work for you and your baby. And even for you, the expert on your baby, it may take some trial and error to figure out the best way forward. Please know that all parents have questions and doubts and all are doing the best they can for their babies and themselves. Being unsure of what to do or deciding you need to change your approach doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong. All parents are just learning as they go.

I hope the information above will help you realize the spectrum of approaches out there, and realistically how breastfeeding fits in whether or not you decide a schedule will be best for you and your baby.