by Melissa Clark Vickers
December 20, 2011
The short answer: You don’t have to.
Babies are smart, and sometimes we don’t give them enough credit. Your baby knows the difference and will adjust his suck accordingly.
It isn’t so very different from adults and their feeding patterns. Think about all the reasons that an adult might eat or drink: hunger, thirst, boredom, etc. The adult who is truly hungry will eat more, faster, and with fewer pauses to chat or look around. That same adult who is having a snack with friends is more likely to nibble and interact with others. The total number of calories is likely to be much less for the social snacker than the ravenous eater.
A baby who is hungry will nurse with a suck, swallow, pause pattern that allows his mouth to fill with milk before he swallows. When your milk is flowing well, he may suck once for every swallow and breath, but that suck will have enough of a pause to get a mouthful of milk. If he’s at the breast for a reason other than hunger, he may suck a little and he’ll no doubt get some milk, but not the kind of mouthful that comes from earnest eating.
However, there are some obvious hunger signs all parents should learn. A baby may smack his lips, bring his hands to his mouth, squirm, and even make attempts to find the breast by lurching downward if he’s being held upright. If he doesn’t get what he’s looking for, he will eventually resort to crying. Ideally, mothers will recognize a hunger sign and feed their babies before a baby cries for food.
Just as there are hunger signs, there are signs of fullness too. He may fall asleep at the breast after a good feed, or slide off the breast with an unmistakable “drunken sailor” look. He’ll relax noticeably as well. Look at his hands—at the beginning of a feed, they are likely clenched in a tiny fist. As he gets full, he’ll relax, starting with his facial muscles and then his shoulders, and finally his hands.
Learn these cues that tell you when your baby is hungry (or full), but understand that your baby may seek the breast for comfort too. There are many reasons a baby might need comforting—a wet diaper, undivided attention, illness, and so forth. Offering the breast can provide the comfort your baby seeks. Ultimately, listen to your baby and trust that he’ll get whatever it is he needs from the breast.
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