I was not a schedule-type person when I was younger. I’ve had to get better about this in recent years, but when I was a child I was the one who wanted to take my nap because I was tired, not because it was afternoon, and I wanted to eat when I was hungry, not when the clock said it was a certain time. This is why I felt for my nephew when I heard his mother describe the strict schedule she had created for him from the day he was born.

The day after he came into the world, my nephew was expected to wake up at a certain time, nap at a certain time and eat at specific intervals throughout the day before being tucked into his bassinet promptly at bed time. There was no flexibility, and even when the baby was obviously having none of it, my sister-in-law wouldn’t deviate from the plan. This was in stark contrast to my cousin who lived her entire life around the whims of her newborn. Her daughter ate when she showed signs of hunger, napped in her mother’s arms or her sling and co-slept with her parents at night. Was this a healthier approach? It is really healthy to keep a newborn on a strict schedule for eating and sleeping?

Even with the increase of breastfeeding in today’s society, many mothers still follow the “traditional” concept of scheduling feedings for every three to four hours throughout the day. For formula-fed babies this is an acceptable practice, as formula is difficult to digest and takes a longer time to process through the baby’s body. Most exclusively formula-fed babies are satisfied eating on this timetable and will rarely show signs of hunger.

Breastfed babies, however, need to eat much more frequently. Breast milk processes through a baby’s body very quickly, meaning the baby will need to eat more frequently in order to keep up with his body’s growth and functioning demands. Practitioners recommend exclusively breastfed babies not be permitted to go more than two hours without feeding, and that they should be encouraged to suckle for at least twenty minutes at each feeding. Babies who fall asleep during feedings without reaching this twenty minute threshold should be wakened and stimulated to continue eating. This will ensure they get enough nutrition on an ongoing basis.

Researchers have done extensive exploration of the eating and sleeping patterns of newborns, coming to the conclusion that, like adults, babies have their own internal compulsions when it comes to these behaviors. Because babies grow at different rates, it is unrealistic to think every baby can be put on the same schedule and expected to thrive. Instead, parents should learn to identify hunger and sleepiness cues in their babies and allow them to eat and rest when their bodies need to. Fulfilling their needs as they arise will not only ensure these babies are thriving, but this strategy has been linked to greater independence and self-confidence as they get older.

Source: Dykes, Fiona. “Supply” and “Demand”: breastfeeding as labour, Social Science and Medicine, Volume 60, Issue 10, May 2005, pp 2283-2293.