Common Parenting Advice That Can Hijack Breastfeeding
As a new mama, you are picking your way through an avalanche of parenting tips and cultural mothering norms. It's hard. I find mamas who want to breastfeed often agonize and struggle navigating these five common parenting ideas as they are building their mothering wisdom and power:
1) Nurse Your Baby Every 3 Hours
Whenever I get a call from a breastfeeding mama sharing her worries about her baby not gaining enough weight, most often the advice she left the hospital with was “nurse your baby every three hours” (sometimes hospital staff say every 2 – 3 hours, but many new mamas just hear the “every three hours” part). If you divide that up over a 24-hour clock, then your baby is only nursing 8 times a day. This is not enough for a newborn either to prevent jaundice or ensure a good milk supply. When my child was one year old she nursed more than eight times a day, so you can bet that number is way too low for a new baby.
For breastfeeding success, your new baby usually needs to nurse a minimum of 10 – 12 times in a 24-hour period. Within each 24-hour period, your baby can have one long stretch of sleep (which may be about 3 -5 hours). ONE long stretch. Otherwise your baby should be nursing frequently. Be flexible with nursing frequency. Look at your baby, not the clock (unless your baby is sleepy because of jaundice, working out any medications from the birth or is just a passive baby who has a hard time figuring out what they need – in which case you really do need to keep an eye on the clock to make sure not too much time is going by).
How do you know your baby needs to nurse? Look for your baby's feeding cues. Your baby needs to nurse frequently. You cannot breastfeed your baby too much. Babies sometimes cluster feed (many little sessions in a several hour period). Remember your baby is born par-cooked. Nursing and staying close to mama helps your baby’s brain and body to develop properly. Babies like to breastfeed because they are hungry, but also because it keeps them in close contact with you, which is essential for their development.
2) Don't Let Your Baby Use You as a Pacifier
Okay, mamas - which came first? The pacifier or the boob? Ya' know it’s the boob! So, a pacifier is simply a breast substitute without all the benefits of your amazing breast: milk and the ability to comfort and regulate your little one. In England they call a pacifier a “dummy.” I think that’s an accurate description of what a pacifier offers in comparison to the breast.
Here’s the thing - your baby really is smart. Your baby knows what they need. Your baby is hardwired to seek you out. To want to be close, to be in your arms, to find comfort in contact with your body – this is where your baby can experience deep feelings of well-being and, yes, even bliss. What I really love about breastfeeding is the non-verbal communication and deep knowing that arises from this relationship. There is an incredible power that comes from listening to your baby and being in relationship with him/her.
So, it really bothers me when others (relatives, professionals, authors/bloggers, commercial and marketing interests – whomever feels the need to try to override your mothering instincts) admonish you to not let your baby use you as a pacifier. I wonder – have they even taken into consideration your baby’s point of view? What your baby really needs? Nope. When you nurse your baby this is what you let your baby know:
When you are hungry, I am here to nourish you
When you are lonely, I am here to be with you
When you are scared, I am here to comfort you
When you are dis-regulated, I am here
to help you know how to regulate your body and mind
I trust you to know what you need and I will honor those needs
Breastfeeding is about so much more than your milk -- although your breast milk is pretty dang amazing in and of itself!
3) Don’t Let Your Baby Nurse to Sleep – It’s a Bad Habit
This one just falls, again, under the “you just can’t trust your baby” line of advice. This is a major load of crock. It’s simply trying to stoke fear in you about your baby and their needs. It seeks to take away your mama power and interferes in your relationship with your child.
Nursing to sleep is normal primate behavior. Mamas all around the world nurse their babies to sleep. Westernized mamas often agonize over the advice, “Put your baby down to sleep drowsy but awake, so they can learn to put themselves to sleep.” Hello? As an experience mother, this sounds absolutely insane to me.
Here’s why I think it’s a load of crock: Your baby needs help getting to sleep. Your baby is born not done. They are still developing – with massive brain development ensuing over the next several years. Your child is unable to self-regulate and is learning the skills of self-regulation, which takes a long time to learn and is done via interactions with their primary caregiver (that’s probably you, Mama). If your child were to come into the world similar to development of other mammals, you would need to pregnant for 20 – 22 months. Any takers?
So, basically, your baby is a baby for a very extended period of time. Wanting to nurse to sleep is normal and beneficial. Pathologizing it is not – it’s a cultural idea not based in science. Your baby’s need and desire to be held and breastfeed to sleep is normal, it’s our culture that’s not. I can assure you, your child is not going to ask you to share their dorm room in college so that you can nurse them to sleep. Needing you is never a bad habit – it’s called “being in relationship.”
4) Don’t Sleep with Your Baby
Is this because it’s another “bad habit”? “Dangerous?” Or because society wants to keep the economy going by selling cribs (which often up being a total waste of our hard earned money; for our family, the crib society and marketing encouraged us to purchase ended up holding loads of clean laundry that would have been better invested in a college fund.)
Just like with nursing to sleep, babies all around the world sleep with their parents. I love the Japanese thought of the parents being two energetic banks around the new spirit – as sort of a grounding and protective presence. I really love the book, "Our Babies, Ourselves: How Culture and Biology Shape Parenting" by Meredith Small. It's a wonderful little volume that intersects different areas of science to see what babies need and also takes a look a different cultures to compare how those needs are meet (or not.)
It is important to understand what is "safe sleep" and you can find more information here. If you are worried about ruining your kids psychologically, you can take comfort in knowing that kids who parents meet their need for contact and closeness, later show more independence. Frankly, my husband and I have many good memories of our children in the family bed and have no regrets (we will admit there were many times in the toddler and preschooler years we were hanging off either edge of the bed - lol!)
Your baby needs to nurse at night. They can get up to a third of their intake during this time. It’s also important for maintaining your milk supply. In order to meet the needs of baby for contact and nursing at night AND to meet the needs of mamas to have the least amount of disruption at night (getting up to go to a crib, hauling out a crying baby, sitting in a rocker trying not to fall asleep and then trying to get baby back in the crib – a ticking time bomb of a movement – that’s a lot of disruption at night for weary mamas). A co-sleeper or sleeping in the same bed is a completely reasonable option – it’s a lifesaver for mamas and babies. Yes, know what you can do to keep everything safe if you are co-sleeping AND also feel confident in your choice because mamas and babies have been sleeping together for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s cribs and other baby paraphernalia you are being relentless marketed to buy that are new. I come back to - you can trust your baby. Your baby’s needs and wants are the SAME the whole first year of life.
5) Your Baby Should Sleep Through the Night
First, let’s define “sleep through the night. ” For newborns, their longest stretch (which might not be at night initially) may be around 3 - 5 hours. Remember they get ONE of those in a 24-hour period. If your newborn or infant is sleeping 5 hours – congratulations! Your baby is “sleeping through the night.” My understanding (as well as personal experience as a breastfeeding mama) is that an infant sleeping 5 – 6 hours at a stretch is perfectly normal and constitutes "sleeping through the night." However, each baby is an individual and when they will accomplish this stretch varies greatly (and can change over time). Babies will sleep differently depending on their nervous system, their stage of development and whether they are going through a milestone, teething or are ill.
There exists an (annoying) plethora of different books and other sources that advocate for sleep “training” and suggest that babies should be sleeping long stretches in a block (like 12 hours). I don’t know any breastfeeding babies that sleep like that on their own. Seriously. That’s not how human infants are designed. They are designed to wake frequently to nurse – which helps them grow and develop AND protects against SIDS. There is nothing wrong with your baby waking up to nurse a night; this is a good baby -- a smart baby who knows what they need to thrive.
Sometimes babies wake super frequently (like every hour, or startle easily, or are not gaining weight well even though nursing frequently.) This is a different situation in which forcing “sleep” will not solve the problem. The underlying issue needs to be addressed. Please seek out care from cranial sacral therapist or an osteopath who provides cranial sacral care for babies and definitely an IBCLC if there are weight gain issues. If you’ve find someone who provides cranial sacral therapy and lacatation services – you’ve found a real gem!
Advice like the “parenting tips” above might make you feel like your baby is not normal. That you are already doing mothering "wrong." It undermines your intuitive knowing and understanding of your baby. It encourages you to ignore your baby's communication with you and to deny meeting your child's expressed needs. Here’s what you need to know:
Waking up at night is normal.
Wanting to nurse frequently is normal.
Breastfeeding to sleep is normal.
Sleeping with mama is normal.
Wanting to be close to you is normal.
When on the receiving end of common parenting advice – ask if the suggestions you are getting are building up YOUR intuition and power and authority as a mother. Is it bringing you and your baby closer, or it setting up a divide or stress between you and your child? Is it in anyway seeking to understand who your child is and what they need? The answer to the 5 common parenting tips outlined above is a resounding “No.”
Breastfeeding gives you maternal power and wisdom because it fosters your relationship with your baby. It provides a conduit to a deep sense of knowing and understanding. It builds up trust between you and your baby. It’s an amazing form of communication. And you know what? You can trust your baby.