When preparing for the birth of our child, we look through thousands of guides, we read about pregnancy, we listen to the stories told by more experienced moms – all of this to become more familiar with a situation that is totally new to us – a baby coming to this world.

Feeding on demand vs the daily rhythm method

Some things we cannot anticipate, but some other we can definitely plan in advance. It is worth considering and discussing with the partner the issues regarding rules to be applied at our home once the baby arrives. Issues regarding sleep, preferred toys, calming methods such as a pacifier, carrying, distribution of responsibilities, etc. should be touched upon even before the baby is born. Thanks to that, once we return home from the hospital we will feel more confident and be able to manage the new situation sooner. One of the topics worth mentioning regards feeding. Whether the baby should be breastfed or given formula is an important matter, but let us leave it for another time. Today’s question is: should I feed on demand or according to an established rhythm?

Two extreme approaches

These two standings appear to be opposite to each other and mutually exclusive, but what connects them is their purpose: providing the new-born, and later – the infant, with the necessary amount of nourishment. In case of both these approaches we want to avoid the consequences of insufficient feeding, such as crying, but also weight loss or insufficient weight gain of the baby. Obviously, when it comes to us, we usually prefer to have some control over how much our baby eats (feeding from a bottle makes such calculations easier) and, if we are breastfeeding, over how much milk we produce. In the end, breast fullness or inflammation are not the most pleasant of things and they can even effectively make it impossible for us to care for our new-born child. In case of both these philosophies we can either get perfect at feeding or get in trouble. So, if those two methods are so different then how can they lead to reaching the same goal? What do they consist in? What are the differences and similarities between them? What problems can we encounter? I will try to familiarise you a bit with both of these approaches.

Feeding on demand

Feeding on demand vs the daily rhythm method

This is the philosophy applied by the majority of our own moms. It is also recommended in hospitals by midwives, which is easily justifiable mostly because it demands little explanation. Briefly put, the main principle regarding new-borns can be described as consisting in giving the baby a breast/bottle when it expects it, that is, when it has a clean diaper, is well rested, lies comfortably and we can assume that nothing hurts it… and yet, it cries.

Advantages of feeding on demand

The main advantage of this approach is convenience. Seemingly (more on that in disadvantages), we do not have to think a lot about when to feed the baby, since the signal that means hunger is quite easily recognisable to us. If we feed our baby often and it drinks a lot of milk at once, we can also be sure that it stays full and receives the sufficient amount of all the nutrients it needs. Obviously, how much the baby ate precisely is established according to milk level decrease in the bottle or, if we breastfeed, by weighing the baby before and after feeding (if we are not satisfied with weighing it and determining weight gain once a week). The amount of food the baby eats, which is small at first, grows quickly, allowing us to make longer pauses between nursing. Another advantage of this approach is the freedom it provides. We have no time-related limitations and we always have the food with us (well, unless we use the formula – then we have to make sure we always have a couple of milk portions with us), so we can feed the baby in any situation and at any time. Plus, if we use the feeding on demand method, we also have an opportunity to learn our child better. We can get better at finding out why it cries and what it needs at the moment. An attentive mom is going to know quickly whether her baby cries because it is hungry, tired or feels pain. Clearly, you definitely need some time to develop such a degree of professionalism. Feeding on demand makes it easier to avoid breast fullness, because then we can give the baby a breast at any moment. In the beginning, when lactation is not stable yet, it may turn out that we produce more milk than our baby actually needs. By feeding it slightly more often we let it suckle excess milk without emptying the breast. Thanks to that, our body has a chance to adjust milk production to the child’s needs.

Disadvantages of feeding on demand

The main disadvantage of this approach to feeding is the possibility of becoming lost in our baby’s demands. Beginning moms often have no idea why their child cries. At that point we are not yet able to tell what a given type of crying means. This may result in us giving baby the breast much more often than necessary. There is a risk here that the baby, instead of associating the breast or bottle with food, starts associating it with means of calming down or putting to sleep and that is where the problem appears. The baby will no longer be able to either calm down or fall asleep without receiving some food. Some women may also be disturbed by the fact that they will never know what to expect. If they are unwilling to feed in public places, for example, they will stop going out at all out of fear of the baby wanting to be fed at the least convenient moment. Feeding that is too frequent may also have impact on the baby’s digestion process quality. If the baby keeps digesting practically all the time, it may become agitated and its immature digestive system bombarded by food can revolt, resulting in colic. An extremely important thing in feeding on demand is observing the baby and one’s own body. Taking shortcuts and feeding the baby every time it cries may result in unpleasant consequences.

Feeding according to an established rhythm

Also known as feeding according to the clock. It consists in feeding the baby at set times, maintaining set intervals between feedings. This philosophy had been more popular among our grandmas than it was among our moms. In the past, families were somewhat larger than now and handling seven children or so required some more meticulous organisation. Without set feeding times, a mother would have to devote her whole day to feeding – literally. Nowadays we have manuals that we can rely on when using this method. They include information on how to feed a baby to have it fed optimally, without hunger or overfeeding, depending on how many weeks or months old our baby is.

Feeding on demand vs the daily rhythm method

Advantages of feeding according to rhythm

This method is for people who are well organised. If someone feels more secure within a set framework, it is going to be quite a good choice. This approach may seem much simpler (more about that in disadvantages) since all it takes is to comply with the rules described in the guide. The set feeding times help organise the day and find some time for oneself. By sticking to specific rules, we can expect our baby to receive the right amount of food. Like I mentioned before, we check this in detail by weighing the baby. This method usually encompasses also adjustment of lactation through milk pumping (which can be used to increase or decrease milk production, depending on how much milk we pump and what we want to achieve). Thanks to that, it is possible to introduce novelties such as the baby being fed by its dad from a bottle with previously pumped milk, for example every day in the evening. It also lets us build a reserve of our own milk in case of someone else having to take care of the baby. Introducing a baby into a specific rhythm provides it with a feeling of stability. Thanks to that the baby knows exactly what to expect at a given time. The stable digestion process enables avoiding colic symptoms and the sufficient amount of food eaten by the baby during the whole day makes it easier to gradually stop feeding it at night. Once a baby adjusts to its daily rhythm, it is possible that it may even stop signalling hunger by crying at all, since such hunger will be satiated even before the baby truly starts feeling it.

Disadvantages of feeding according to rhythm

The obvious disadvantage of this approach is its rigid rules. First of all, some people do not like the fact that from the very beginning they have to squeeze their child into a set framework. Secondly, the precisely specified feeding times may create a sense of pressure and stress. If, for some reason, we fail to proceed according to plan, we have a feeling that everything falls apart, we become more nervous and the whole method starts being pointless. Longer intervals between feedings introduced at the very beginning, when lactation is not stabilised yet, may also result in occurrence of breast fullness. Due to health reasons, the plan has to be adjusted then by using the breast pump to relieve breasts or by giving a breast to the baby outside of schedule. Additionally, proceeding according to set rules requires a lot of self-discipline. If we are supposed to start morning feeding at 7 A.M. and our baby is still sleeping sweetly at that time, we may be tempted very strongly to stay in bed and postpone the feeding. However, we should not do that, since the whole plan is arranged optimally in time and by making changes with regard to one feeding we disturb the rhythm of the whole day.

Is it possible to forge a compromise between these two opposite methods?

Feeding on demand vs the daily rhythm method

There does exist an approach that, in a way, combines the two mentioned above, however impossible this might seem. It consists in the mother feeding the baby on demand, but at the same time maintaining a nursing journal, trying to establish whether there exists any repeatability, a certain routine that the baby sets for itself. This method requires a lot of work on part of the mom. However, it enables learning in detail the needs and expectations of one’s baby and leaves margin for using one’s own free will. And it also provides a lot of satisfaction once a pattern is discovered. Thanks to using this method, you gain more control over the feeding process. A mom can also learn quicker to recognise the signals sent by the baby. The only disadvantage of this approach is that we need to want to do it. It might seem a small problem, but the only thing you want do after giving birth is sleeping!

Every single of us prefers a different philosophy in her life. Let us remember that no matter which method we choose, we can find thousands of arguments for and against. However, the final choice belongs to us. The most important thing is to observe the baby and its behaviour and reactions, as well as our own body. There is no single right approach, because they all aim at providing the baby with everything it needs. Let us stick to the principle of “happy mother – happy baby” and choose the option that we find the most convenient.

Anna Czechowicz Tatała
Gina Ford "The Contented Baby's First Year"
Tracy Hogg, Melinda Blau “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer"