Helping to Get Breastfeeding Off to a Good Start: Frequent Access
Rita Brhel, Hastings, Nebraska
After years of supporting mothers at all stages of breastfeeding, I’ve learned that there are four key areas to focus on to help mothers get breastfeeding off to a good start: milk supply, latch, frequent access to the breast, and skin-to-skin contact. In this post, let’s explore access to the breast as it pertains to growth spurts and cluster feedings.
Cluster feeding usually occurs over the course of a few hours each day and can happen every day during the early newborn weeks, when baby wants to breastfeed—constantly. You may finish one nursing session, only to have baby cue you that she wants to latch again. This is normal and is a way for baby to build up your milk supply. It tended to happen with my babies in the evening when my—and many mothers’—milk supply was naturally lower. It also may happen overnight or any other time of the day.
Growth spurts are like cluster feedings, except that they may be a bit more predictable. Babies go through growth spurts at about seven to 10 days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, and nine months. From experience, those three and six-week growth spurts really sneak up on mothers! All of a sudden, baby starts nursing again like a newborn, wanting to latch very frequently and often being fussy. Even experienced breastfeeding mothers may be tricked into thinking their milk supply is insufficient.
But your milk supply is fine. What’s happening is normal. Cluster feedings during and outside of growth spurts signal to your breasts to make more milk—remember, how much milk you make depends on how much is removed—so when baby breastfeeds more frequently, this tells your body to make more milk, which is then able to sustain baby as she grows. It’s a great system.
You also may notice more frequent nursing when baby is sick or overstimulated or otherwise not feeling centered. Breastfeeding isn’t just nutrition, it also is comfort. The act of sucking is comforting, and so is being physically close to mother. Try not to worry about the idea of being used as a pacifier. Pacifiers were created to be a substitute for you: the mother. Babies need that closeness to you, that ability to suck, and to get breast milk at the same time, for healthy development.
The best way to make it through cluster feedings and growth spurts is to let baby breastfeed as much as he wants. This will help your milk supply be where it needs to be for baby and will ensure your baby is getting enough milk for his growth.
How do you know if baby is getting enough milk? A satisfied baby at the end of a feeding is a good indicator, but the gold standard—besides weight gain—is watching baby’s diapers. After the fourth day until about six weeks, you want to see at least three to four mustard-yellow, loose, seedy stools each day that are at least the size of a quarter, as well as at least five to six wet diapers.
Some babies, such as those who were born premature or early term or small for gestational age, need to play catch-up with their weight and it may seem like they are constantly cluster feeding, every day and night. This is normal, and you may wish to contact a La Leche League Leader or a lactation support professional for reassurance and perhaps some ideas for when it gets tiresome.
You can read more about growth spurts on the LLLI website at www.llli.org/faq/spurt.html.
The Tear-Sheet Toolkit, which is found in Chapter 20 of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (8th edition) and is available to download, also provides information about the early days of breastfeeding. You can find it at www.llli.org/toolkit.