Alex Smith: “Are you feeding that baby again?!” – normal breastfed babies vs social expectations

If you’ve ever breastfed a baby, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve also heard someone – a friend, a family member, a work colleague, a random stranger in an equally random place – pipe up with an offhand comment seemingly designed to undermine your breastfeeding confidence and cast doubt on your intuition. Top of the list for many parents when it comes to unsolicited commentary is: “Are you feeding that baby again?

But why does it matter if the well-meaning neighbour just wants to make conversation? It matters because so many of these little conversation starters and social niceties actually highlight what is a pretty huge gap between, on the one hand, what normal breastfed babies do; and, on the other hand, social expectations of what those babies do. And that has big implications for us as parents, and it has big repercussions for our babies.

So, to some of my top “comments you might want to politely refute”:

Are you feeding that baby *again*? 

Chances are, yes, you are, and for good reason. It’s very normal for breastfed babies to establish feeding patterns which involve quite frequent feeds, especially in the early days – anywhere from 8 feeds and upwards (and upwards!) in 24 hours is standard. Frequent feeds help to signal to your body that it needs to initially kick-start, and then maintain, milk production – it does this through a supply-and-demand principle of breastfeeding, whereby the more milk is removed, the more milk is made. Striving for long periods – such as the commonly-mentioned ‘4 hours’ – between feeds can in many cases compromise a breastfeeding relationship.

If you feed them every time they make a noise, they’ll never learn to self-settle

Along with frequent feeding being a very common and normal element of establishing and maintaining milk supply – and being aware of your baby’s feeding cues is a big part of that, too – breastfeeding also provides much more than just nutrition and hydration. Babies derive comfort, closeness, regulation of temperature and heart rate, and often sleepiness, while at the breast. If it works for you, why deny your baby and yourself that option?

(And if you’re worried that they’ll never settle or go to sleep without your help – think about how many adults simply cannot calm themselves or settle to sleep without a breastfeed…!)

Are they sleeping through yet? 

Related to the above, extensive research and evidence tells us that it is physiologically, evolutionarily normal for babies to wake during the night – often multiple times – and to need a feed as well as often help resettling. The Infant Sleep Information Source is a wonderful collection of resources which discuss just what normal infant sleep looks like, and why – e.g. frequent stirring from light sleep cycles is a protective mechanism which appears to guard against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. James McKenna’s work on mother-infant sleep also helps to highlight that, in many cases, we’re caring for “stone age babies in a space age world” – they still need the same basic needs met, even if our lifestyles have changed in the last million years or so.

And when you’re up at 3am wondering whether all that waking and resettling would ease up if you just gave a bottle instead, this recent study may help you feel better (and there’s a nice summary here, if reading scholarly abstracts at 3am just isn’t going to happen).

There are many, many more examples of unsolicited advice and comments that are seemingly designed to make you feel like maybe, just maybe, you’re doing it all wrong. But trust your instincts and follow your baby’s cues, and do what feels right for you and your family! My favourite response? “It’s working for us now, so we’ll probably keep on doing this until it stops working.”

Next up: The why and how of induced lactation and shared breastfeeding

About Alex Smith

Alex Smith
Alex is a breastfeeding, babywearing, attachment parenting kind of mum to two gorgeous kids. She is also a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor, PhD student in anthropology, and treechanger in league with her partner, Tim. To fill all the spare time in between, she focusses her attention on coffee, reading good books, and daydreaming about planting out vast, productive gardens.