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feeding patterns

Baby feeding patterns do change as they get older. Here we explore why feeding might change and whether to do something about it.

Although it's normal to worry, there is often a reason for changes to feeding patterns, such as feeding more or less, or refusing the breast. While you can’t always know exactly why your baby changes their feeding patterns, you can consider some of the reasons and strategies below.

My baby started feeding more often

Feeding more frequently is almost always linked with a baby’s normal increase in appetite. If you are breastfeeding, the more your baby feeds, the more milk you will make. A baby breastfeeding more frequently is their way of ensuring you make more milk (Daly and Hartmann, 1995).

My baby is feeding constantly

In the early days, there are many reasons why babies spend more time at the breast than their parents might have imagined. Primarily, it’s because newborn babies are used to being close to their mums while in the womb and recognise many of her rhythms when held close, in skin-to-skin contact or being breastfed. This behaviour is innate and fulfils baby’s need for contact, security, bonding and attachment, as well as the need to be fed.

The early months of a baby’s life, as they adapt to the world outside the womb, is often known as the fourth trimester. It's a time when close contact with the mother helps the baby to develop a secure attachment (Raff, 2017).

The security and emotional connection they have at the breast can be important for babies of all ages (Narvaez, 2011). All of this stimulus can be perceived as baby wanting to feed more or needing more food, when in fact it is normal infant behaviour.

Baby feeding and growth spurts

Traditionally, babies feeding more often can be explained as your baby having a growth spurt. A growth spurt is a term describing when a baby’s eating and growth increases or when they reach a developmental milestone (Kelly Mom, 2018).

Signs your baby might be having a growth spurt are:

  • A need to feed more often.
  • An increase in weight gain.
  • Tighter clothing or a feeling that they’re heavier when picked up.
  • Sleeping more, which helps them to grow.
  • Deeper, more intense feeds.
  • Being more fussy, or needing more comfort and cuddles.
  • They might also want to be at the breast more at times when they need reassurance and comfort.

(Kelly Mom, 2018)

We do know that babies don’t all grow predictably and at the same rate as each other, like you might imagine from looking at growth charts (Wright et al, 2010).

My baby is feeding less than before

If you feel that your baby is not feeding well, it’s important to realise that feeding less can be normal too. Older babies can often get what they need with shorter, and/or less frequent feeds.

Babies might reject the breast, by turning their heads away when it’s offered, and/or show clear signs they’re finished sooner than you’ve been used to. They may be satisfied with one breast, perhaps, or break off after just a few minutes and refuse to go back on.

If your baby is healthy, growing well, producing plenty of wet and dirty nappies and thriving in other respects, there’s normally no need for concern about this. Baby feeding patterns can vary over time.

Breast refusal

Sudden, but temporary, breast refusal can sometimes be referred to as a nursing strike (La Leche League, 2017). Your baby might refuse the breast entirely and be distressed or seem to reject it if you keep offering. 

Signs of breast refusal may include being unhappy at the breast, crying at the breast, not wanting to be held or pulling away from the breast, fighting your breast physically with their fists (Mohrbacher et al, 2003).

Why is my baby not feeding as well or refusing the breast?

There are many reasons why babies may not feed as well as previously or refuse the breast, including:

  • A sore or uncomfortable mouth.
  • Earache or another illness, such as chicken-pox or hand foot and mouth disease.
  • Discomfort of some other sort, such as teething.
  • A lack of energy due to mild illness.
  • Pain or tension associated with the birth.
  • Forceful ejection reflex, fast flow or oversupply of milk in the mother that causes the baby to cough, splutter or choke.
  • Breasts feel full or engorged, making it more difficult for baby to attach.
  • Older babies may become more distracted during a feed, and might not feed so well if there are other things going on around them.
  • Feeding from a bottle, which may interfere with breastfeeding.
  • Thrush inside a baby’s mouth, which can be painful for babies.
  • A number of factors can change the taste of breastmilk. Some food flavours can transfer to breastmilk. Strenuous exercise can alter breastmilk taste due to an increase in lactic acid. Occasionally, a particular medication, such as an antibiotic or combined pill, can affect the taste of breastmilk too.
  • Acid reflux and colic can both cause babies to want to feed little and often.
  • Babies sometimes refuse the breast when something upsetting or strange has happened to them.

(Mohrbacher et al, 2003; La Leche League, 2017; Kam, 2021)

Sometimes, it’s not possible to say what might have caused the ‘strike’. For more details, see our article Why is my baby refusing the breast?

What could I try if my baby is feeding less or refusing the breast?

There are many reasons why a baby may not be feeding well or refusing the breast. So there are as many different things you might try to encourage them to feed better or to return to the breast.

Trying to force a reluctant baby to feed is unlikely to work and can make your baby more upset. Patience, being calm, cuddles and close contact can often help

You could also try:

  • being vigilant for your baby’s feeding cues and responding to the earliest cues, or offering your baby the breast while they are sleepy
  • expressing a little at the beginning of a feed if the breasts are full or engorged, or if you have a very strong let-down
  • skin-to-skin contact, even when your baby doesn’t appear hungry
  • feeding in a quiet, calm place
  • holding your baby in a different position
  • if you are mixed feeding, try paced bottle feeding.

You may find it helpful to have a discussion with a breastfeeding counsellor, who might have other ideas she can share with you.

See our article about breast refusal for more tips to help your baby who’s refusing the breast to breastfeed and for tips to help lower your stress levels.

This page was last reviewed in January 2022.

Further information

NCT supports all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.

National Breastfeeding Line (government funded): 0300 100 021.

NHS information on mastitis

Best Beginnings - Bump to Breastfeeding DVD Chapter 7 'Overcoming Challenges'

Healthtalkonline.org: Managing Breastfeeding – dealing with difficult times
 

Daly SE, Hartmann PE. (1995) Infant demand and milk supply. Part 1: Infant demand and milk production in lactating women. J Hum Lact. 11(1):21-6. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/089033449501100119

Kam R. (2021) Breast refusal – 13 tips for a baby that refuses the breast. BellyBelly. Available at: https://www.bellybelly.com.au/breastfeeding/breast-refusal [Accessed 9th January 2022]

Kelly Mom. (2018) Growth spurts. Available at: https://kellymom.com/hot-topics/growth-spurts/ [Accessed 9th January 2022]

La Leche League. (2017) Nursing strikes. Available at: https://www.laleche.org.uk/nursing-strikes/ [Accessed 9th January 2022]

Mohrbacher N, Stock J; La Leche International. (2003) The Breastfeeding Answer Book, 3rd edition. Schamburg, Illinois

Narvaez DF.  (2011) The tremendous benefits of doing what is normal: breastfeeding. Psychology Today.  Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/moral-landscapes/201108/the-tre… [Accessed 9th January 2022]

Raff A. (2017) Promoting positive parent-infant relationships. Perspective. 29. Available at: https://www.nct.org.uk/sites/default/files/related_documents/Raff%20A%20Promoting%20positive%20parent-infant%20relationships.pdf [Accessed 9th January 2022]

Wright CM, Williams AF, Elliman D, Bedford H, Birks E, Butler G, et al. (2010) Using the new UK-WHO growth charts. BMJ. 340:c1140. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/340/bmj.c1140.full [Accessed 9th January 2022]

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