On-Demand vs. Scheduled Feeding: Which is Best for Baby?

Written by Ashley Treadwell, IBCLC

Google can be an amazing resource - but it can also provide WAY too much information for a first-time mom.  One of the questions we get often from our clients is what is the best way to feed a breastfed baby - let the baby demand when to feed or try to shape their feedings into a structured schedule?  Moms hear a lot of differing information about when to feed their babies in the early weeks - every 2-3 hours, 8-12 times in a 24 hour period, etc.  It can be confusing to know what this means exactly - is it every 2 hours or every 3 hours?  What if baby goes longer than 3 hours?  What if baby seems hungry before 2 hours?  What if baby wants to feed 15 times a day, or maybe only 7?  How do you know when you should feed your baby?  

Here’s the short answer:



On-demand feeding is absolutely the *best* way to feed your baby in the early days, weeks, and months.  As time goes on, your baby is likely to start to shape his/her own behavior into a somewhat more-predictable schedule, but trying to make/force/help them to do that before he/she is ready only makes for a stressed out mama and a cranky baby.  


What is Demand Feeding and What Are the Benefits?

Feeding your baby “on-demand” simply means not worrying about the clock.  You feed your baby whenever he/she shows you that he/she is hungry.  Common ways your baby will show you this include licking his/her lips, sticking out his/her tongue, rooting around, sucking on his/her hands, etc.  Feeding your baby on-demand also means that you don’t “time” the feedings, (15 minutes per side, etc.) but that you allow your baby to feed until he/she is  satisfied.  It can be confusing to know when a baby’s had enough - some good cues are a baby who de-latches him/herself from the breast and doesn’t try to get back on, or falls asleep at the breast and feels very relaxed and loose when you lift his/her arm.

There are a LOT of benefits to on-demand feeding.  In the immediate days following birth, putting a baby to breast at any and all hunger cues is excellent for bringing in a full milk supply.  Simply, the more breast stimulation a brand-new mom gets, the better her milk supply will be.  On-demand feeding is also a good way to ensure that baby will get enough milk to grow properly.  Mothers have different storage capacities in their breasts, and all babies take in different amounts - even the same baby will take differing amounts throughout a day.  

We have no way of knowing exactly how much a baby takes at each feeding, so how can you be sure the baby took enough to sustain him/herself until the next scheduled feed?  Another thing to keep in mind is that there is so much more to breastfeeding than just the nutrition and calories your baby consumes.  Breastfeeding is warmth, comfort and nurturing - things that should never be withheld from our children.  In my opinion, the best benefit is one of the biggest pros to breastfeeding in general: once breastfeeding is going smoothly, you don’t have to time, track, measure, or log.  You just snuggle your baby and follow his/her lead.

*** There is ONE small parameter that we often recommend during the first few weeks postpartum with respect to on-demand feeding.  Some babies are very tired for the first few weeks and may not wake up on their own to feed 8 or more times in 24 hours.  This is most common for babies born prematurely, babies with jaundice, babies with tongue ties, and babies who are having a difficult time gaining weight.  Ineffective and infrequent feedings can cause slow weight gain and can possibly cause mom’s milk supply to not come in as fully as possible.  Therefore, to help babies get back to birth weight by 2 weeks of life, we recommend that parents wake their babies to feed at least every 3 hours during the day and at least every 4 hours at night for the first few weeks.  If your baby is back to birth weight by two weeks, then this parameter is lifted and on-demand feeding can commence!


What About Scheduled Feedings?

On the other hand, scheduled feeding can sometimes be sabotaging to a breastfeeding relationship, as well as to your baby’s overall health and growth pattern.  Scheduled feedings are when a parent chooses a timed feeding interval based on things like baby’s weight or age, and only feeds baby at these intervals, regardless of baby’s cues or readiness.  As pointed out above, when a baby feeds at the breast, we don’t know how much the baby is taking - so there is no way for us to know how long baby can go before he/she needs to feed again.  In the early days, if your baby is not put to the breast when hungry, it can have a negative impact on your milk supply.  Later on, it can affect baby’s sleep patterns, as well as their growth and development.  Scheduled feeding also doesn’t allow for growth spurts - a time when your baby will ask to feed much more often than normal, helping to increase your milk supply as your baby grows bigger.  If your baby isn’t allowed to feed more frequently during these times, your milk supply may not be able to meet your baby’s growing need.  Lastly, not putting your baby to breast when baby is asking to feed causes your baby to miss out on the non-nutritive benefits like the bonding and comfort your baby craves.

One of the biggest challenges we hear from mothers about on-demand feeding is that they feel overworked and tired from being available at all times.  This is a common stress for many moms in the early weeks, but be encouraged - it passes.  It will seem like your baby is feeding ALL.THE.TIME in those first 6 weeks or so, but it will pass. As time goes on, your baby will begin to form his/her own schedule - or at least you’ll grow better accustomed with his/her pattern and behaviors.   A great solution to this is to learn to breastfeed in a carrier as that will allow you to not be chained to the couch when your baby is hungry.  Check out how to do that on our YouTube Channel: DIY Breastfeeding.  Another great solution for the over-tired mom is to bring your baby into your bed at night.  This often helps all to get more rest.  If you have any concerns about safely co-sleeping with your baby - check out these guidelines here.  

When did you notice that your baby’s feeding schedule became more predictable?