Breastfeeding: Why Minutes Are Not an Effective Way to Measure and What to Look For Instead

This article was written by:

La Terra Jackson | NCS, CLC, CIMT, BA Psychology and Human Development and

Laura Shiff | Copywriter

Published on September 11, 2019


 

Having a newborn can be an extremely stressful time period in anyone’s life, especially given the endless amount of resources that are available to new parents. While having all of this information at your fingertips can be highly beneficial, it can also quickly prove to be overwhelming, full of conflicting advice and opposing viewpoints.

One of the most common concerns new moms have is breastfeeding. Whether it be about the best ways to increase milk supply, the latest gadgets, and accessories available, or how often the baby should nurse, all questions are extremely important yet completely individual to each mom and baby. With this topic always comes about the question of how long a nursing session should last.

While the opinions on this matter are endless, I have put together a culmination of my years of experience along with the most highly qualified research available on the topic in order to help you better understand why minutes are actually not an effective way to measure breastfeeding sessions and what to look for instead.

The Problem with Watching the Clock…

If you look at any well-meaning advice, it might mention how important it is to ensure that newborns eat for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, sometimes even mentioning this amount on each side is adequate for slow eaters. The problem with only watching the clock for every nursing session is that it can quickly create insufficient feedings, decreased milk supply, and exhausted parents, especially throughout nighttime sessions. When these feedings go from 20 minutes to an hour, mom is having to wake up again almost as soon as the next session needs to begin, slowing her recovery and only further exacerbating any supply issues.

Why Minutes Can Be Misleading

Another reason why minutes can be so misleading when it comes to breastfeeding is that all babies are different and, just like adults, some are fast eaters and others are simply slow eaters. With this in mind, watching the clock does not indicate at all how much milk was actually consumed but rather how quickly they were able to consume whatever they took. That doesn’t really help us, does it?

According to leading health professionals, newborn babies take anywhere between 10 and 50 minutes to finish a nursing session. If your baby is more efficient at getting milk, their feedings will probably err on the shorter side. This is also true if your baby is hungrier at one feed compared to another. As they grow and further develop, even slow eaters can become more productive feeders that shorten the length of time it takes to finish a session.

For example, a baby born small may only take one breast for 5-10 minutes before falling asleep, refusing the other breast completely. While this could be concerning, she may actually be taking 2-3 oz in this short amount of time, more milk than most babies can consume at this age (remember, newborn’s stomachs are the size of a marble!).

On the contrary, another baby who is a few days older may spend around an hour at each feeding while consuming the same volume of 2-3 oz. Even though both babies are consuming the same amount of milk at each session, their eating habits make them seem entirely different, often causing unnecessary concern for mom!

How Do You Know if Breastfeeding Baby is Getting Enough Milk?

One of the best ways to determine if your newborn is getting enough breastmilk is to watch their sucking and swallowing habits. A baby that is getting a good volume of milk sucks in a very specific way. When the baby is nutritive sucking (instead of just sucking for comfort), you will notice that there is a distinct movement of their chin. They will first open their mouth wide with their chin moving all the way down, and then there is a pause before the chin moves back to the original position.

A good way to understand this better is to put your index fingertip inside your mouth and pretend to suck. You will notice that as you suck, your chin drops and stays down as long as you are drawing in. Once you stop sucking, your chin comes back up. The pause in between represents the amount of breastmilk that the baby got, with a longer pause indicating more milk. As you become more familiar with this pause, you can begin to better measure how long your baby is taking breastmilk in.

As briefly mentioned, these nutritive sucks will be followed by a swallow and will repeat quickly and continuously as long as the milk is available and the baby is awake and hungry. Non-nutritive sucking, on the other hand (as often referred to as comfort nursing), is typically much slower with longer periods of rest. During this slow type of sucking, the baby would have to suck numerous times before getting enough milk to swallow, and at times, no swallowing may even occur.

There are great breastfeeding videos available that showcase the differences between types of sucking (gulping versus grazing), as well as how babies’ nursing habits change as they get older.

Other Signs to Look for That Baby is Getting Enough Breastmilk

There are many other tangible signs you can look for that baby is getting enough milk:

Weight Gain

If your baby is gaining the proper amount of weight on breastmilk alone, then you can be confident that they are getting enough. During the first 3-4 days following birth, a 5-7% drop in weight is highly common, with baby getting back to their birth weight within two weeks. After the first week, an average amount of weight gain is between 0.5 and 1 oz a day. If you should have any concerns, there are many clinics and other supports for new moms that offer free weight check-ins with extremely accurate scales.

Wet Diapers

Another strong indicator of a newborn getting enough milk is by counting the number of wet diapers they have each day. Although it changes throughout the first week of life (about one wet diaper on day one, two wet diapers on day two…), by day four you can expect six or more wet diapers in a day from a baby that is getting enough milk at each nursing session. The urine should be pale and have little to no smell. Depending on how often your baby pees, the amount in each diaper will be about three tablespoons (pour this amount of water in a clean diaper to get an idea of what it feels like).

Dirty Diapers

We couldn’t have a list of physical signs that a newborn is getting enough milk without including bowel movements.

In the first few days of life, newborns have stools that are called meconium: thick, tar-like bowel movements that are a byproduct of all of the amniotic fluid your baby has been ingesting for the past 24 weeks in the womb. For a breastfed infant, these sticky black stools will change to dark green and then brown within a few days. Once the breastmilk comes in, they should start to resemble Dijon mustard- yellow, seedy, and the consistency of cottage cheese.

After this first week and up until the end of the first month, most babies will have between 2-3 of these seedy stools a day. Thanks to breastmilk’s natural laxative effects, some babies may even have bowel movements after each nursing session. Both of these patterns are normal and are a good sign that baby is getting enough of the thick hindmilk needed for development.

Other Signs

There are a few other signs that can help you be confident your breastfed baby is getting enough milk:

  • Breast feels softer after a feeding
  • Baby seems content when they are finished
  • Baby is meeting developmental milestones

Conclusion

When it comes to successfully breastfeeding, there are many other things to look at besides the clock. By becoming familiar with the types of sucks and swallows your baby should have, making sure they are gaining a healthy amount of weight for their size, counting their wet and dirty diapers, as well as making sure they are happy and content after a nursing session, you will have all the information you need to know.

Timing how long nursing sessions take really only gives you one more thing to worry about when in reality, there are so many other things that we can use our thoughts on! So in the end, don’t be distracted by the clock. Instead, watch, and trust, your baby.

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