Feeding on demand

We ask two baby experts if you should feed your baby whenever she cries
By Ruwaydah Harris

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The question of how to approach baby feeding has been a controversial conundrum and an emotive issue: is it okay to treat it like a 24-hour all-you-can-eat-buffet (feed on demand), or is it better to only feed at set times?
“Feeding on demand is entirely appropriate for the first three to four months of life when a baby’s brain and tummy are still very immature,” explains paediatrician Dr Claudia Gray. “This period has been dubbed the ‘fourth trimester’ and your baby is not yet able to manipulate you, so it’s not really possible to ‘spoil’ a baby during this time.” She adds that the first few months are vital for establishing a bond with your baby and a relationship of trust as the baby needs to know that warmth, food and cuddles will come his way when he needs them.
Sister Ann Richardson, a paediatric nurse and co-author of the Baby Sense and Toddler Sense books, says during the newborn phase “demand and frequent feeding stimulates milk supply and helps the uterus to contract to prevent postpartum bleeding”. She suggests, however, that once your baby has a clean bill of health and the milk supply is established, the idea of “separating calories from comfort” should apply, because babies who are always fed to comfort them do not learn the art of self-soothing, which is essential to grow contentment and healthy sleep. “Demand-feeding can lead to overfeeding, which can exacerbate colic or reflux,” Richardson says.
It is important to get the cues for hunger right, says Gray. “If milk is offered for every niggle, the baby may end up with a huge digestive load and a sore tummy (some niggles may in fact be a wind or tiredness rather than hunger). The hungry baby typically begins to fuss, puts the fists in the mouth, starts with a little moan, then crescendoes progressively into a full-blown cry. A baby in discomfort often grunts ‘eh-eh’ but does not crescendo steadily as in hunger,” explains Gray. She suggests you take note of the time between feeds to estimate when your baby may be ready for a feed. Regular weight checks are also important as a guide to whether or not the baby may be under- or overfeeding.
Feeding basics
Babies will always suck on their hands to soothe themselves – whether they are hungry or not, says Sister Ann Richardson. Although she cautions against overfeeding, she does not agree with a rigid feeding schedule either. Richardson suggests you keep feeding times flexible between two and four hours and separate calories from comfort from the get-go.
  • Work with a flexible timeframe. If it’s less than two hours since the last feed, it’s unlikely your baby is really hungry. She may just be looking for some comfort such as rocking, cuddling and some sucking to calm her.
  • If it’s more than two hours since the last feed, then feed. Never leave your baby longer than four hours without a feed.
  • Provided your baby is healthy and growing, the use of dummies (or even Mom or Dad’s finger), as a non-nutritive sucking measure to help calm, works well.
  • Never restrict feeds, nor force-feed.

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