Most new mothers are left confused about how often their babies should nurse. Our formula feeding mothers can expect to feed their newborns every 2-4 hours in general (some babies more frequently, others less frequently).
Breastmilk is not like formula. Formula is usually made from cow’s milk, which has hard to digest proteins. Because these proteins digest more slowly, the formula fed baby tends to stay full for longer periods than a breastfed baby will. A breastfed baby’s tummy will usually empty more quickly. In fact, breastmilk is considered a clear fluid by most surgeons advising pre-operative fasting, and it is the only universally recommended liquid for babies suffering from diarrhea, since it not only helps rehydrate but battles the germs causing the disease. Kathryn Dettwyler, PhD, has an interesting article describing Frequency of Nursing in Other Species.
Based purely on the composition of the milk, it is thought that human babies are expected to nurse several times an hour for several minutes at a time. Babies in several cultures do just this (the average! Kung baby nurses every 13 minutes). In one culture, this frequent nursing is continued till age 3 and 4, and most mothers remain infertile while the frequent nursing continues.
Most cultures design their child rearing around mother’s lifestyle. If mother isn’t expected to carry or be near her baby most of the time, nursing is expected to happen less frequently. As a consequence, babies in these cultures tend to nurse much longer, for 20 minutes to 60 minutes at a time.
No matter the frequency of nursing, most babies nurse about the same overall number of minutes.
What we call demand nursing here in western culture is not offering to nurse as often as the baby might wish, but offering to nurse every time we notice that the baby appears to be showing signs of hunger (rooting, chewing fingers, light fussing). If we don’t expect our babies to be hungry yet, we often interpret these cues as something else – a need for diaper change, rocking, etc. And generally, once a nursing pattern is set, mother and child will keep that pattern without major variations except during times of illness, growth spurts, and baby milestones. Babies in western cultures quickly learn to nurse for long periods in order to get the quantity of milk they need.
Despite all I’ve described about frequent nursing, there is really no information showing that our standard 2-3 hour frequency is at all harmful in any way. Babies get the same quantity of milk, and as long as they aren’t crying for hunger in between, there seems no compelling reason to offer to nurse while you are busy with other things.
During the first month of life, however, nursing fewer than 8-12 times per 24 hours is associated with more jaundice and with lower weight gain.
Keep in mind that all babies are different, and what worked for one may not work for another. Breastfeeding is the most intimate and shared nurturing we do with our young, and there is a give and take implicit in this care. You will often find that your baby’s nursing personality will be a window into his future personality. Fussy and demanding nursers often turn into strong willed children and adults. Laissez faire nursers tend to get along well with others, and be flexible in scheduling and routine. Those babies who take forever to nurse tend to be affectionate and loving. Whatever their personality and your style, make it a time of sharing.