New mom-hood comes with a lot of questions that involve numbers, like how many hours between feedings and how many minutes of sleep you can get each night. I remember visiting the pediatrician’s office for our newborn checkup and my doctor asking, “How many wet and dirty diapers?” I looked at her, my vision blurred with exhaustion, like, “You’ve gotta be flipping kidding me.” That's because during a time when finding a clean shirt is difficult, math is next to impossible. But it doesn’t stop you from wondering things like, “How long does it take a newborn to breastfeed?” Especially when you just want to wrap up that midnight feeding already.
Unfortunately, there's no definite time limit. “The length of a breastfeeding session varies,” Karen Meade, a registered nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in Pennsylvania, tells Romper in an email interview. “There is no magic number of minutes that signals a ‘good’ feeding. This is why we encourage parents to watch their baby and not the clock.” She adds that signs of an adequate feeding occur after a period of strong, rhythmic sucking that might include pauses during which swallows are heard, but your baby does not release the breast. When they do let go of the breast, you will notice they are either asleep or calm and relaxed. At that time, Meade says, you can be assured they have had a solid breastfeeding session.
“Newborns know when they are full and will release the breast on their own when they are satisfied,” she says. “Some feedings may be as short as five minutes, while other may be as long as 30 to 40 minutes or more.”
Meade says you also shouldn’t be surprised if your newborn becomes full after feeding on just one breast. Even so, make sure to take a moment and burp your baby, then at least offer the second breast. But if your baby’s actions indicate a strong "no thank you," then Meade says to be sure and offer the second breast first at the next feeding.
Candy Campbell, a registered labor and delivery nurse and assistant professor in the nursing department at the University of San Francisco, says recognizing your baby’s hunger signals — like licking lips, looking around, and becoming fidgety — will help you to begin a breastfeeding session before your baby starts to actually cry. “If you wait until crying begins, then you need to calm your baby before he or she will settle down to accept the feeding,” she tells Romper in an email interview.
But don’t be surprised if your baby takes a bit longer to engage with breastfeeding, says Kaylie Groenhout, a birth and postpartum doula and the owner of Doulas of Northern Virginia. “It is important to remember that a newborn is learning this coordinated activity and shouldn't be boxed into a strict window for a feeding,” she tells Romper. “The same is true for mothers who are learning to feed this baby.”
Groenhout says that just like there are a number of reasons a feed may last longer or shorter than average, a newborn may also stop nursing after only a few minutes for a variety of reasons. “A baby may become impatient if she's been sucking for a while and the mother's milk hasn't let down,” she says, adding that you can reduce frustration by watching for those earliest cues of hunger that Campbell pointed out.
Other reasons your baby might stop short after starting to breastfeed include a forceful let-down reflex. Groenhout says your baby may become overwhelmed by the rush of milk and feel unable to keep up, “becoming upset and pulling away from the breast for relief.” Counter this by breastfeeding in an upright position to reduce the effects of gravity, Groenhout recommends. “She can also let the baby come off and apply a burp cloth, washcloth, or cup to catch the letdown, and then let baby latch again afterward,” she says.
Although much less common, it is possible for your baby to experience a food sensitivity or allergy to something in your breast milk, Groenhout says. If your baby becomes frustrated with breastfeeding and shows symptoms such as excessive spitting up, gas, a rash, and/or periods of inconsolable crying for long periods after feeding, then it might be time to visit your pediatrician and consult with a lactation consultant.
Once your milk supply is established, then your baby may nurse for shorter sessions, says Leigh Anne O’Connor, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and parenting coach, adding that you might notice this between one and three weeks. “There are two really big shifts in which the baby nurses in shorter bursts — around six weeks and around 12 weeks,” she tells Romper in an email interview. “This comes after a growth spurt that is often coupled with a few days of cluster feeding.”
Like any parenting challenge, try not to hold yourself to a strict standard with breastfeeding because you think it's how things are "supposed to be." Take it easy on yourself and learn things on your own agenda — you'll be glad you did.
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