Sample FAQ: How babies breastfeed
How do babies breastfeed?
A baby’s behaviour changes during a breastfeed. It also changes from feed to feed and as the baby gets older. When babies are under one month of age, they typically feed in three sucking stages, moving from intense hunger to being more settled and finally to being fed and happy or asleep. Recognizing these stages helps mothers understand when their baby is done and ensures the baby is getting enough milk. Older than one month, babies become more efficient at the breast and feed more quickly. They also become distracted more easily and are often awake at the end of the feed.
A) Describing differences in breastfeeding patterns
Each time a baby breastfeeds, the baby will latch, suck, and finish. If breastfeeding is effective, the baby will not be hungry afterwards. However, babies will change how they suck at each feed, between different feeds, and over time. Recognizing these patterns will help you understand when the baby is done breastfeeding and ensure your baby is getting enough milk.
Feeds can be on one or both breasts. Newborn and younger babies have the most predictable feeds; the feeds of older babies will vary a little more and show more of the baby's personality.
1) Differences during a feed
Breastfeeding changes as the feed progresses. As the baby's tummy fills and hunger settles, their sucking pattern and body language changes.
2) Differences between feeds
Babies may be more or less hungry at different feeds and the breast may hold slightly different amounts of milk depending on when the baby last breastfed. Babies may have different reasons for breastfeeding such as hunger, thirst, fear and so forth and these will affect how the baby breastfeeds.
3) Differences over time
B) Breastfeeding babies under one month of age; breastfeeding stages
Most babies under one month of age breastfeed in fairly typical patterns described below. Babies change their sucking behaviour as they breastfeed as they go from being very hungry to more settled and finally to being very contented and sleepy. This sucking behaviour can be described in stages.
We have named these three sucking stages:
- “I’m starving.”
- “I really like this.”
- “I’m done.”
C) First stage: “I’m starving”
During this stage, the baby is taking in large amounts of milk. Studies have shown that healthy breastfeeding infants take in 80% of the total amount of milk from that side in the first five minutes (Howie 1981; Lucas 1979).
You will notice:
- The eyes are open.
- The baby is focused on breastfeeding.
- There are many sucks and only short pauses.
The following sounds and behaviours are normal:
The video below shows the first stage of breastfeeding. This baby is sucking very actively with very few pauses. He is very alert.
D) Second stage: “I really like this”
During this stage, the baby is still taking in milk but the amounts are smaller.
You will notice:
- The eyes are closed.
- The baby is relaxed and is breastfeeding in a pattern of “suck-suck-suck-suck-rest-rest-rest-rest-suck-suck-suck-suck” and so on.
- The breathing is more relaxed.
As the baby moves through the second stage:
- The rests get longer and the sucking periods get shorter.
- The sucks become weaker.
- The swallow sounds are more widely spaced.
The video below shows the second stage of breastfeeding: This baby is sucking actively but taking regular pauses between sucking periods. Her eyes are closed.
E) Third stage: “I’m done”
During this time, the baby is taking in minimal amounts of milk.
You will notice:
- The baby is completely relaxed and possibly milk drunk.
- If sucking:
- The suck is weak.
- The baby is using a “suck-rest-suck”pattern or a “suck-suck-suck-long rest” pattern.
- If not sucking, the baby will only suck when you tickle them or when the breast moves.
The video below shows the third stage of breastfeeding. This baby will only suck when the mother tries to pull the breast out of the baby's mouth.
F) After the first breast
Once the baby is done feeding, the baby will either:
- Let go of the breast.
- Let go of the breast while squeezing their lips together and turning their head.
- Choke, let go of the breast, and no longer be hungry. This is more likely if the mother has a large milk supply.
- Stop actively sucking and need to be taken off the breast.
The video below shows a baby letting go of the breast at the end of a breastfeed. She sucks weakly, pauses, and then releases the breast. She is using a nipple shield effectively and it has no impact on breastfeeding behaviour.
Some babies will stop sucking but not let go. When you begin to take a baby off the breast or even move the breast, the baby often starts sucking again. This is only for a few sucks and then they go back to not sucking. At this point, they really are done and you can take them off.
After the first breast the baby, may:
- Be happy when held.
- Be asleep and stay asleep when held but wake up when put down.
- Show hunger signs within a few minutes.
- Be asleep but wake up within a few minutes, stretch, and then give hunger signs.
G) The second breast
Most babies under one month of age will show hunger signs within ten minutes of finishing the first side and will need to breastfeed on the second side. If you have a large milk, supply the baby may not want the second side.
If the baby has hunger signs after the first breast, give the baby the other breast. Babies will again breastfeed in three stages but they may suck a little less vigorously and for a shorter period on the second side, when compared to the first side, as they already have taken in milk from the first breast.
The baby should not show any hunger signs after the second side. The baby may happily hand suck; this is not a hunger sign.
H) Other breastfeeds
1) The evening fussies
Babies under five months, tend to have one fussy period in the evening that lasts no more than three hours. During the “fussies,” the times spent at the breast are short (five minutes, for example) and frequent and the babies can be unsettled when not breastfeeding. Babies will not generally have the usual three breastfeeding stages during this time. This is normal.
2) Breastfeed to sleep
Babies often ask to breastfeed in order to go to sleep. Such feeds are faster than regular breastfeeds and once latched they will be in the “I’m done” stage within 5-10 minutes and come off the breast asleep.
Howie PW, Houston MJ, Cook A, et al. How long should a breast feed last? Early Hum Dev. 1981 Feb;5(1):71-7
Lucas A, Lucas PJ, Baum JD. Pattern of milk flow in breast-fed infants. Lancet. 1979;2(8133):57–58
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