The longer I nurse my son, the more I think that the term "breastfeeding on demand" might be suffering from a bit of a branding problem. Though breastfeeding on demand simply means nursing your child when they ask, and letting them decide when to stop the nursing session ("eat when you're hungry, stop when your full," the same food advice all people should follow), in the parenting world, the word "demand" is apparently more loaded than I thought. That's just one of several things I wish I'd known about breastfeeding on demand, because there are a lot of misunderstandings about it. As a result, people make a lot of assumptions about breastfeeding, and about the parenting styles of people who choose to do it, that aren't necessarily true.
In a probably pointless attempt to quiet the, "You're gonna spoil that child!" crowd, nursing on demand does not mean letting your child run your life or being overly indulgent. To use a possibly clunky analogy: when a baby or toddler eats on demand at Mama's Milk Diner, they're not forced to wait an hour or more to eat after ordering, and they won't have their food abruptly snatched from their mouths or their plates cleared away before they're done eating. Just like we'd be really pissed if we ate anywhere where people did that to us, so are babies and toddlers. (And unlike those of us who've become a bit more civilized over the years, babies and toddlers have no qualms whatsoever about screaming until they get what they need.)
Nursing your kid on demand doesn't mean that they'll be nursing forever, or that they're calling too many of the shots in the parent-child relationship. It just means they get a chance to get all the nourishment and comfort nursing is supposed to provide, and give your body a chance to make however much milk they need. Something else I've learned (or really, internalized) on the course of this journey, is that "on demand" changes a lot over time. When they're really small and having a growth spurt, "on demand" might mean every 45 minutes. Later on, "on demand" might just be when they first wake up and right before they go to sleep. When they're sick, it might be a lot more often than their normal, and when they get back to 100 percent, it might be less.
My big takeaway, though? If you let them latch when they first ask (and all children "ask," even if that just means rooting or mouthing their fists), and let them nurse until they're done, it's a lot simpler than trying to time or calculate if they're getting enough. Unless there's an identified problem, you really can just trust that your baby knows how to baby, and your boobs know how to boob. Now, if only I could get back the days I spent doubting myself needlessly...
There Are A Lot Of Misunderstandings About What It Means To Breastfeed On Demand...
Misunderstandings? About breastfeeding? But no one's ever been confused about breastfeeding!
Yeah, of course I'm kidding. Chances are, even if you're surrounded by people who say they're supportive of breastfeeding, at least some of those people don't actually know how lactation works, or that moms need to breastfeed our kids when they ask, until they stop actively suckling, in order for our bodies to make enough milk for them. A lot of people think that something is wrong if a baby asks to nurse frequently (that's actually normal), or may tell you other myths about breastfeeding. Be really selective about who you listen to, especially when it comes to nursing.
...So You Might Find Yourself Explaining Your Breastfeeding Needs To Unexpected People
I've even heard from some mom friends that their own doctors and pediatricians did not understand what it means to breastfeed on demand, and thus didn't know they needed to accommodate nursing moms. If even medical professionals are struggling, it's no wonder so many other folks struggle to understand why it's sometimes necessary for moms to stop and nurse while out in public.
You should never feel obligated to explain yourself to some random person if you don't want to, but you may find yourself needing to educate your friends and extended family about your needs (whether it's just letting them know they might see your boobs more than they're used to whenever your child is hungry, or asking for a quiet spot if your little one is easily distracted, or anything else).
Everyone Has Their Own “Normal”
The first time I ever nursed next to another nursing mama, her baby was making loud gulping noises. "Haha! Yeah, I'm basically waterboarding him," she quipped, referring to her fast letdown and all the milk that followed. Naturally, I immediately looked down at my quiet little nursling and wondered if I was making enough milk for him. (The amount of time and money we spent on diapers, plus the speed with which he outgrew his adorable little clothes, said hell yes.)
Whatever you do, don't compare yourselves to others. Every baby is different, every mom is different, and milk is always changing to suit their needs. As long as you're not in pain, and your little is gaining weight and wetting enough diapers, they are getting what they need. As they get older, if they don't follow the same pattern as another kid, that's OK as long as they're still growing and meeting milestones. Some kids nurse more, some kids nurse less, some wean themselves sooner and some take their time. It's all OK.
You’ll Fall Into Your Own Daily Groove…
Even though you shouldn't put an exclusively breastfed baby on a feeding schedule, that doesn't mean that you'll never be able to predict when or how long they'll nurse. They'll probably never go right along with the clock, but you'll start to fall into a groove after a little while.
Pro-tip: if you want to plan your day in line with the way your baby eats, keep track of their patterns and estimate based on that, rather than trying to force them onto a schedule that could leave them hungry or dehydrated, and hurt your milk supply.
...But That Rhythm Can And Will Change For Lots Of Reasons
Growth spurts, developmental shifts, or getting sick or hurt will all affect how often they nurse. Breastfeeding on demand is essentially how I finally figured out how to "go with the flow" (breastfeeding pun not intended, but I'm leaving it) instead of obsessively controlling as much of my life as possible.
If You Try To Pump Between Feedings, You Probably Won’t Get Very Much Milk...
Breast pumps will hurt your feelings if you let them. Never, ever judge your milk supply based on how much you pump (and please ignore anyone who asks you to pump to demonstrate how much milk you make). In addition to all of the little things that affect how well your breast pump works, if your baby is nursing on demand around the clock, your body is probably making enough for them. By pumping, you're asking your body to make extra, which will take some time for your body to adjust to.
...But If You Do That Often Enough, You Can Develop An Oversupply
If you're not regularly separated from your baby, but try to pump between feedings every once in a while, you'll probably just get bottles that take forever to fill (if they ever do) because your body isn't used to having to feed a baby and a machine. But if you do it often enough, your body gets the message to produce more milk, which can lead to oversupply.
There Is Such A Thing As Oversupply
And no, it's not a good thing. Having an oversupply can affect a baby's growth, and be super painful for mom. It can also increase your risk of plugged ducts and mastitis, something I wouldn't wish on even my worst enemy.
Basically, breastfeeding on demand so your body learns to make exactly what your child needs is the simplest way to go, so just don't mess with what works if it's working, you know?
You’ll Probably Have To Re-Teach Your Kid How To Latch At Some Point
I'm so glad I kept my gel packs from my early nursing days. Turns out, as little ones get bigger and more mobile, they can start to get a bit of a lazy latch, which can lead to sore nipples. When that happens, just give them a little refresher on Latching 101: how to get a big mouthful of areola, instead of a shallow latch. Fortunately, since they're older, they usually catch on way quicker than they did the first time around.
It’s A Good Idea To Verify That An Older Baby/Toddler Actually Wants/Needs To Nurse When They Ask
It's easy, once you've gotten into a groove of responding to your little one's particular "I need milk!" call, to just keep doing that every time they ask. But once they start eating solid foods and drinking things besides milk, they sometimes need other kinds of food or water, but they don't know to ask for that, so they ask for the thing they know has always made them feel all better in the past: mama's milk.
It took me a while to catch onto this, but now when my son asks to nurse, I always offer him a snack or some water or juice first. If none of those are what he needs, then I let him latch. He's still getting what he needs on his own timeline, but he's also learning that he actually needs other things sometimes. Because, no: breastfeeding your kid on demand does not mean they'll be nursing all the time, forever.