The Clock and Early Breastfeeding

The clock looms large in the lives of many breastfeeding families. When a new baby is born, some parents are told or make assumptions about:

  • How many minutes their baby should breastfeed
  • How long their baby should be satisfied between feedings
  • The longest stretch of time their baby should sleep

Does it make sense to focus on time during the early weeks of breastfeeding? Let’s take a closer look.

What Do Number of Minutes Spent Breastfeeding Tell Us?

One common recommendation is to make sure newborns feed at least 10-15 minutes on each breast and take both breasts at each feeding. But that’s not always possible.

One mother and baby I saw in my private practice stand out in my mind. This mother called me with concerns about her 5-day-old daughter. The baby was born at just 5 pounds and she would only take one breast for 5 minutes before completely shutting down. She also refused one breast completely. I scheduled a home visit and brought my trusty scale. Unlike scales for sale at baby stores, this one was so accurate (to 2 grams) that it could reliably measure baby’s milk intake at the breast.

First I weighed her little girl with her clothes on for a “before” weight. With some small tweaks in positioning, we convinced her to take the breast she had previously refused. I watched her as she nursed. I didn’t see much jaw movement, and I didn’t hear any swallowing. Sure enough, after 5 minutes, she came off her mother’s breast and was unwilling to continue.

I put her back on the scale and to my amazement discovered she had taken 2 oz. (60 mL) of milk, way more milk than most babies this age take during a breastfeeding. (At 5 days, average milk intake per feeding is more like 1 oz., or 30 mL.) When this mother realized that her baby was such a fast, effective feeder, she relaxed. Her baby was doing fine.

Later that day, I saw another mother and her 10-day-old baby boy. This mother was worried because her little guy was spending more time nursing than she was told was normal, around 55 minutes at each feeding. This time my scale showed that he consumed the same amount of milk (2 oz. or 60 mL) in 55 minutes as the baby girl had taken earlier in the day in 5 minutes. Rather than being a fast eater, like the little girl, this baby boy was a slow eater.

How many minutes should a baby breastfeed? There’s not a simple answer. Just like adults, some babies are fast eaters and others are slow eaters. The number of minutes your baby feeds does not tell you anything about how much milk he consumed. On average, it takes most newborns somewhere between 5 and 55 minutes to finish a breastfeed. Both fast and slow nursers usually have periods of wide jaw movements along with some pauses. Over time, most babies get faster and more efficient at breastfeeding, so as they grow, the slow eaters usually speed up and get the same amount of milk (or even more milk) in less time.

Also like adults, your baby may be hungrier at one feed than another, so feeding longer or shorter at different feedings is not a cause for concern. This is perfectly normal. Being finished after one breast at some feedings and wanting both breasts at some feedings is also perfectly normal.

Does the Number of Minutes Between Feeds Mean Anything?

Not really. The most important thing to focus on is how many times each day your newborn breastfeeds. (Count one feeding as any amount of breastfeeding from one or both breasts followed by at least a 30-minute break.)

Most tiny babies need to breastfeed at least 8 to 12 times every 24 hours, but many parents do the math and assume this means they should expect their baby to be satisfied for 2 to 3 hours between feedings. Until your baby is a little older, usually after about the first 40 days or so, regular feeding times are uncommon. This 2-minute YouTube video from my YoutTube channel explains what to expect during the first 40 days.

As it describes, in the beginning, most breastfed newborns bunch their feedings together during wakeful times or “cluster nurse.” For this reason, it’s not helpful to focus on when baby fed last. Whenever baby shows feeding cues (increased activity, rooting, mouthing), assume it’s time to breastfeed again. Yes, even if it’s only been 10 minutes. If baby seems hungry again soon after feeding, don’t worry about overfeeding and don’t consider it a reflection of your milk production. It’s just what newborns do. This is how your baby helps you build a healthy milk supply.

There is no value whatsoever in trying to convince your baby to go for longer stretches between feeds. Newborns have no sense of time, and putting your baby off only adds stress to your life. If your baby seems interested in feeding or is fussy, try nursing first, and if that doesn’t help, move on to other comfort techniques. As your baby grows and matures (and his stomach grows and can hold more milk), he will naturally become more regular in his feeding patterns. You don’t have to do anything to make this happen.

How Long Is It Okay for a Newborn to Sleep?

Beginning on about second night after birth, don’t be surprised if your newborn goes into a feeding frenzy just about the time you’re thinking about going to bed. Most babies are born with their days and nights mixed up. That’s why it’s best for the sake of your own rest and recovery to sleep when your baby sleeps so that you’re rested and ready for more feedings at night.

It’s not uncommon for a brand-new baby to have one 4- to 5-hour sleep stretch, but it is often during the day. As long as your baby fits in at least 8 feedings every 24 hours and is gaining weight well (after Day 4, an average of about 1 oz. or 30 g per day), there’s no reason to wake your baby to feed.

It usually takes a few weeks for your baby’s body clock to get closer to yours. To speed up this process, try keeping stimulation to a minimum at night (lights low, sounds low, no diaper changes unless baby has a stool). Make daytimes full of light, sound, diaper changes, and before you know it, baby will be taking her longer sleep stretch at night.

Gaining Confidence in your Milk Production

Your baby’s feeding patterns are not a reflection of your milk production. But there are other ways you will know that your baby is getting the milk she needs. Her stool color is one sign. If breastfeeding is going well, your baby’s stool will turn from black to green by about Day 3 and green to yellow by Day 4 or 5. Weight gain is the best way to gauge your baby’s milk intake and your supply. Once baby reaches her low weight on Day 3 or 4, expect a weight gain of about 1 oz. or 30 g per day. Weight gain is the gold standard of healthy milk intake and milk production.

When it comes to breastfeeding and the clock, keep in mind that breastfeeding has been around much longer than clocks. In other words, you don’t need a clock to make breastfeeding work. Sometimes too much focus on the clock can even cause problems by shifting your focus away from what really matters.

Your baby will tell you everything you need to know. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding babies on cue rather than on a schedule. (See its 2012 policy statement HERE). Don’t be distracted by the clock. Instead, watch (and trust) your baby.