Every once in awhile something breastfeeding related goes a bit viral and I start to get an influx of questions about a particular topic or start seeing it more in my newsfeed from sponsored posts. The latest topic that’s making the rounds is “digestive overload” of a baby. In other words, getting too much milk too frequently and the baby getting overfull, uncomfortable and refluxy (is that a word? 😊 ) or gassy. Now, I have written about this concept of overfeeding and how it’s actually not possible to feed your baby too much! In summary, the story goes like this…
Mother: “I was told I’m over-feeding my baby.”
Me: “It is not possible to over-feed a breastfed baby.”
And yup, it really is that simple. But while I’ve written about this in the past on why you cannot overfeed a baby, I wanted to specifically address this term, “digestive overload” as it sounds like it makes so much sense! However there are many different problems with this term. Talking about digestive overload is focusing on the wrong thing. Because even if a baby hasn’t actually “digested” every last bit of milk, it’s completely irrelevant anyway. Babies and toddlers breastfeed for MANY different reasons and having some milk left in their digest track is not a reason to withhold milk from them. A baby might want to breastfeed 10 minutes after their last breastfeed and that’s 100% normal! We also know that the gastric emptying time is faster for breastfed babies than formula fed babies . So not only does it move through their system quickly, they will also still ask for a breastfeed even if they are a bit “full” because its’ about so much more than food.
As we all know:
1. Babies need different amounts at different times for different reasons (growth spurt, thirst etc). Having a schedule does not take into account these changing needs as the days go on.
2. They breastfeed for many different reasons other than hunger (tired, bored, scared, happy etc). So even if your baby breastfed 20 minutes ago, they might need to breastfeed again…regardless if there might be milk in their stomach still.
3. Everyone has different storage capacities so their baby might need a very different feeding “schedule” to the next baby. While we will make about the same within a 24 hour period, what we can actually hold in our breasts (storage capacity) will be different . Some women will need to breastfeed much more frequently to keep up their supply than the next person.
4. Following your baby’s cues and breastfeeding on demand is the single most important way to help establish and protect your supply . So by trying to “hold out” and not feed your baby until it’s been an allocated time as suggested by an “expert” is going directly against what we know about supply and demand and the importance of following a baby’s cues rather than the clock.
4. Breastfeeding is not just about hunger.
5. Breastfeeding is not just about hunger.
6. Breastfeeding is not just about hunger.
…you get the point. 🙂
But what about gas and discomfort from a “full” belly? So here’s the thing. 99.9% of parents tell me their baby is really gassy. It’s normal. HOWEVER, if your baby is unsettled and appears to be in physical discomfort the majority of the time during a 24 hour period, then it’s time to investigate and seek help from an IBCLC. Here is my article on how to know if your baby’s gas is normal or not.
It’s possible that this frequent discomfort could be from the mother having a very fast flow, the baby being allergic or intolerant to something the mother is eating, or difficulty with the latch (suction and seal) that is affecting digestion. No matter what the reason though, it would never be appropriate to limit the amount of feeds your baby is getting.
It is never appropriate to do scheduled feeds where you’re stretching out the time between breastfeeds. It is never appropriate to withhold a breastfeed from a baby who is asking for it. It doesn’t matter what cry they are doing…it doesn’t matter what cue they are exhibiting. When in doubt, whip it out. Because 99.9% of the time a breastfeed will answer this cries. And remember…if you feel as though breastfeeding in making it worse then SEEK HELP and investigate why,
rather than withholding a breastfeed.
There is actually NO circumstance where I’d suggest a mother limit how often she is feeding her baby. Rather you can change HOW you are feeding your baby. You can stay on the same breast for longer so the baby is getting the side that’s less full. This can help keep your baby content and protect your supply, while also limiting a strong flow that might upset your baby. I speak more about that here.
If you try to space out your baby’s breastfeeds, decrease how long they are feeding or try to stick to a schedule rather than follow your baby’s cues, you are creating a great risk of negatively affecting your milk supply. As we know, research shows that frequent feeding and following your baby’s cues leads to building the perfect supply and demand system where your body will make just as much as your baby need.
Don’t worry about anything being overloaded…including the digestive system. If a baby doesn’t want to breastfeed they won’t!
If your baby is unsettled the majority of the time find out WHY instead of witholding breastfeeds or change HOW you are feeding (by staying a little bit longer on the one side before switching or only doing one side per breastfeed).
If you want to exclusively breastfeed the best way to establish your supply is by offering the breast whenever your baby is showing you cues that they want to breastfeed.
Babies breastfeed for many different reasons, hunger is just one of them. These different reasons don’t follow a schedule.
We all have different storage capacities and our babies and toddlers have different needs so will need to breastfeed at different intervals from hour to hour, day to day.
When in doubt, whip it out! Because you simply cannot overfeed a breastfeed baby.
1. CAVKLL, B.. (2008). Gastric emptying in infants fed human milk or formula. Acta Paediatrica. 70. 639 – 641. 10.1111/j.1651-2227.1981.tb05760.x.
2. Kent, JC, et al. (2006). Volume and frequency of breastfeedings and fat content of breast milk throughout the day. Pediatrics 117(3):387-395.
3. Australian Breastfeeding Association. (2018). Increasing supply. https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/common-concerns.