Mothering is about building relationships and nurturing the love and trust that enables babies and children to thrive. And mothering through breastfeeding is a normal, natural and effective way of doing this. Breastfeeding helps you nurture your relationship with your baby and meet their individual needs. It’s nature’s way of satisfying a baby’s need for food, love, comfort and connection.
It can take time to learn what a baby needs. Some childcare experts promote strict routines for babies and young children. They claim that if a mother follows their rulebook, her baby will be perfectly content. But every baby is different. While we may feel reassured if our day follows a predictable pattern, strict routines for feeding and sleeping often fail to meet the needs of individual babies.
Difficulties with routines
Full breasts slow down their rate of milk production, which may lead to:
Problems caused by expressing
Breastmilk: a balanced meal, a drink, a snack
Breastfeeding: comfort and connection too
Frequent breastfeeds: day and night
One breast or two
Breastfeeding patterns adjust
Finding your own rhythms: a sense of freedom
Think of breastfeeds as minor events
Expect the unexpected
Establishing helpful patterns
Babies are little for such a short time
Some babies will object strongly to an imposed routine that doesn’t meet their needs. Others are easy going, and give only subtle signals that a particular routine isn’t right for them. Early feeding cues include hand sucking, lip smacking, turning their head towards you, or fussing. Don’t wait until they are desperate—crying is a late sign of hunger. Trying to ‘stretch’ the gaps between feeds is hard work and stressful for you both and can reduce your baby’s overall intake of milk.
A well-drained breast makes milk faster than a full one. Encourage your baby to nurse frequently enough to keep your breasts soft and comfortable.
- A baby gaining weight slowly or needing supplements to maintain adequate weight gain.
- A sleepy baby who needs to be roused and encouraged to breastfeed actively to get the food they need.
- Lengthy feeds.
- A fussy baby.
- Engorgement, blocked ducts or mastitis.
Some childcare experts advise pumping to keep milk supply one step ahead of a baby’s needs. However, expressing can interfere with the delicate balance that happens when your baby and body are in tune with each other. Making more milk than your baby needs increases your risk of mastitis. You may experience fast flow and/or oversupply causing your baby to gag, splutter or come on and off the breast. Your baby might also have colic or be fussy.
Just like adults, babies feed irregularly—none of us eats the same amount at every meal, nor do we always follow a set timetable for eating and drinking. With easy access to the breast, babies will balance their intake of fluids, calories, proteins, fats and other nutrients so they receive exactly what they need. All that is usually needed is the confidence to let your baby take the lead.
Breastfeeding isn’t just food and drink. It also helps you and your baby maintain that connection and closeness with each other. So when your baby is tired or unhappy or upset, theyinstinctively ask to nurse because it helps them regain a sense of rightness with the world. Many breastfeeding mothers say that the ability to calm and comfort a baby just by nursing is one of the main reasons for carrying on. It makes life easier and more peaceful for everyone.
Your baby needs to nurse frequently to establish and maintain your milk production, especially in the early weeks. While breastfeeds may be further apart in the morning, it’s very common for babies to nurse frequently (or ‘cluster feed’) in the evening. Babies receive fattier milk when they nurse more often. Your baby is stocking up for the night and putting in their order for tomorrow! (See here for more on coping with Fussy evenings with a newborn.)
Sometimes your baby will want one breast, at other times both. Your baby knows what they need—let them nurse actively from the first breast until they come off looking satisfied or sleepy. Then offer the second breast. After the first few months babies often become really efficient feeders—so don’t be surprised if they’ve finished in 10 minutes or so! Their nappy output and continuing weight gain will reassure you they are getting enough. (Is my baby getting enough milk?)
A baby’s growth rate and mother’s breast storage capacity will affect their nursing pattern. Even the weather can make a difference—a thirsty baby will probably nurse more in hot weather. When babies have growth spurts and seem extra hungry, most mothers find there’s no need to pump to keep up milk production—more frequent feeds will do the trick. Milk production quickly adapts to meet your baby’s needs and feeding patterns settle down within a few days.
Combining some predictability with flexibility can give you a sense of freedom and stop you feeling tied down. At first, life with a new baby can seem quite chaotic, but if you relax and observe your baby you will find gentle patterns emerging. You can build on these patterns, creating a daily rhythm to suit you both.
Strict routines don’t necessarily make life easier for you. Being tied to particular routines, nap-times and sleep places can make getting out and about, visiting friends or taking holidays more complicated.
Your needs and those of your baby will change with time and from day to day. Following your baby’s rhythms will help you meet their needs when they have has growth spurts or are ill. It will also give you confidence to adapt when necessary, for example for a doctor’s appointment or holiday travel arrangements. When your baby is attached to you, rather than their routine, problems are less likely and you may feel more relaxed about managing the day.
Just as with your own tea-breaks, try thinking of feeds as minor and flexible events that fit in with everyday life rather than major events which have to be planned for.
Whatever your baby’s usual pattern is, there will always be times when they surprise you. They might sleep at a different time, sleep longer, or not at all. They might go longer between feeds, or suddenly want to feed more frequently. But there’s no need to panic—this is how babies are! We may never know the reason for such changes. Life will either settle back into the original pattern or a new one will establish itself. Your baby will continue to grow and surprise you over the coming years.
Morning – Having a reasonably regular time and pattern for getting up and dressed can be a springboard for your day.
Going out – Going out can help structure your day, entertain your baby and give you a sense of purpose. You can develop a routine for getting everyone fed, ready, and out of the house. Prepare what you’ll need the evening before if you need to get out early.
Afternoon – Babies are often ready to have a sleep somewhere around the middle of the day. Babies are all different and patterns change as they grow and develop. Try to tune in to your own baby’s natural rhythms of feeding, alertness and sleep and adjust your activities to match them. A nap or a rest for yourself, too, can help boost your energy for the rest of the day.
Night-time – A gentle evening routine, eg bath, rocking, singing and nursing can help a tired baby wind down to sleep. Watch for fussing, yawning and rubbing of eyes and start your wind down pattern promptly. Some babies are natural ‘night owls’, taking a late afternoon nap and being alert during the evening.
Household tasks – Developing the ability to be ‘interruptible’ is a real help. Completing housework in small ‘bites’ while being prepared to pause and attend to children can be a successful way to meet everyone’s needs. Seeing the world through your baby’s eyes can help you slow down and enjoy the present rather than rushing to get things done. Mothering babies and young children is a full-time job—it’s ambitious to expect to be a cleaner, cook and gardener at the same time. Concentrate on essentials. Do those things you can do with a baby around and save really tricky jobs for times when you have help. It’s unlikely you’ll look back in years to come and wish you had done more housework!
You can’t spoil a baby with love and attention. The easiest way to care for a baby is to accept and meet their need for closeness. Remember, you know your baby best; take the information, advice and the ideas that are helpful to you and ignore those suggestions that don’t feel right. You can develop rhythms and routines that are in tune with your needs, and those of your baby and family.
For support in meeting your baby’s needs contact an LLL Leader by calling our Helpline or visiting our website. It can be helpful to share experiences with others at your local LLL group where you can exchange practical tips.
Written by Karen Butler, Sue Upstone and mothers of LLLGB.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. LLLI. London: Pinter & Martin, 2010.
How Mothers Love and How Relationships Are Born. Stadlen, N. London: Piatkus Books, 2011.
What Mothers Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing. Stadlen, N. London: Piatkus Books, 2005.
Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. Gerhardt, S. London: Routledge, 2004.
Kiss me! How to raise your children with love. Carlos Gonzalez. London: Pinter & March 2020
The information sheet is available to buy in printed format from our shop.
Rhythms & Routines is dedicated to all LLL Leaders who have given their time generously to support breastfeeding mothers and families over the past sixty years and continue to do so.
Copyright LLLGB 2020
Updated June 2022