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My first baby fed frequently. I mean every 40 minutes or so and as he got older, every time he cried, I offered him the boob. It worked, he settled and he wasn’t a fan of a dummy. My boob was the dummy!
He was a big bouncing baby boy and I couldn’t help wonder whether I was overfeeding him.
If you’re anything like me, you may worry that you are feeding your baby too much because they feed often, or are gaining weight fast, or are possetting milk (spitting up) frequently or are coming off the breast regularly (12).
In this blog, I hope to talk you through the complex mechanisms involved in breastfeeding and reassure you that you’re unlikely to be overfeeding your breastfed baby.
How babies breastfeed – the mechanics
So first, the technical part.
When your baby latches on, the nipple is stretched and your baby’s tongue creates a ‘rigid plate’ which moves with the jaw. This allows the action of suction which allows milk to flow into your baby’s mouth (1).
Your baby will control how long they feed for, showing signs of drowsiness and content when they are finished. If you note your baby’s ‘full’ signals, you won’t overfeed your breastfed baby.
How often does my baby need to breastfeed?
As a newborn, your baby will not require a lot of milk to feel full with each feed. To begin with, they may want to feed every 1 to 3 hours. The amount of milk taken at each feed will gradually increase as your baby grows and the time between feeds may begin to get longer (2).
Is it normal for your baby to want to breastfeed all the time?
First of all, every baby is different, so while some may want to feed more regularly, others may not.
The term used to describe when your baby wants to feed all the time is ‘cluster feeding’. This is a normal behaviour which could indicate ‘growth spurts or teething’ and may be linked to a ‘developmental leap’ which will eventually pass (3).
Cluster feeding is unlikely to cause overfeeding a breastfed baby.
Should I put my baby on a feeding schedule?
It is recommended that to begin with, babies feed on demand, meaning that they dictate feeding times. However, as they grow, your baby will naturally begin to fall into a feeding pattern (5). By 7 months or so, a routine for food and milk feeds becomes more important so that weaning progresses and nutritional needs are met.
Babies have a built in ability to let you know when they are hungry. They’ll usually let you know by using cues such as being more active or sucking their fingers. Some babies cry when they get too hungry but there are many other hunger cues.
Each baby is different and over time you will learn the hunger signs exhibited by your own baby (4).
Formula vs. breast milk
While breastfeeding is considered the optimal first food for your baby, formula is manufactured to be as nutritionally close to breast milk as possible.
The composition of breast milk changes as the needs of your baby change. It also contains a huge volume of antibodies which assist in strengthening your baby’s immune system as well as probiotics for healthy digestion and further immunity.
Formula is also packed with nutrients, but does not deliver the same level of immunity against illness as breast milk does (6), even with the addition of probiotics.
Bottle fed babies are more likely to be overfed as we make up bottles with the intention of your baby finishing it. Often well meaning parents will encourage their baby to take a bit more or finish the bottle when their baby has stopped suckling.
I recommend mimicking breastfeeding when feeding from a bottle (expressed breast milk or formula) by ‘pace feeding’. This involves giving baby control over how much they feed rather than you being in charge.
If you follow the signs that your baby is finished (drowsy and content) whilst bottle feeding using the paced feeding method, you should find that overfeeding doesn’t happen.
So can you overfeed a breastfed baby?
Overfeeding your breastfed or formula fed baby is very rare (7). In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s not possible to overfeed a breastfed baby via the breast but if you need to bottle feed either expressed breast milk or formula, there is a possibility of overfeeding.
Possetting or spitting up after a feed (8), is a natural reflux and is not a sign of overfeeding. If you are unsure, it’s always best to check with a health professional.
Check your expectations for your baby
Check your expectations when bottle feeding. Babies don’t need a set number of ounces at each feed. That’s a myth and they certainly don’t need a target to get them sleeping through the night. Often these myths are what make parents feed past the point of fullness (9).
Tips to soothe your baby without overfeeding
If your baby is crying or fussy but you know that they are not hungry, you can avoid offering the breast if you wish. Use the following options to soothe them instead (10):
Be gentle and patient – use soft noises, sing songs and use a gentle rocking motion or sway to help calm them.
Move to a quiet room – loud environments may be overstimulating and a source of distress for your baby.
Try introducing a dummy (pacifier) as babies self soothe through sucking. A dummy can make a great alternative to the soothing suckling at the breast.
Signs that your baby may be full
Your baby may be full if they show any of the following signs:
Push away from your breast or bottle (if breast milk is expressed)
Move their head away from your breast or bottle
Fuss at your breast or bottle when you offer it
Show a lack of interest when being fed
Start falling asleep
Extend and relax their arms, fingers and legs (9).
What are the consequences if you overfeed your baby?
So, what happens if you do overfeed your baby?
In the short term, your baby may show signs of discomfort from a build up of wind and will cry frequently and intensely. They may also posset (spit up) more than usual (11).
In the long run, your baby’s relationship with food may be affected (10). They won’t recognise or understand feelings of hunger and fullness so won’t master appetite regulation.
Unfortunately in my practice, I see children who are fussy eaters, who graze rather than eat meals and often it’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to truly understand their appetite and hunger/fullness cues.
What is the takeaway message?
Although overfeeding your breastfed baby is rare, it can still happen if you feed expressed milk via a bottle. Overfeeding is more common in formula fed and combination fed babies for this reason.
Always pay attention to ‘finished’ cues and signals that your baby is giving you during feeding.
If you do think you have overfed your baby, don’t panic, just recognise what happened and know what to do next time.
With thanks to Meghan Mundkur, Lottie Harman and Catriona Lawson for their help writing this blog.