Monday, August 4, 2014

Nursing on demand and parental authority

There is a lady who writes in an Israeli magazine, whose articles on parenting I always look forward to. She speaks a lot about parental authority, delegating responsibilities to children, resisting worldly influences and other subjects I find instructive. Her most recent article was no exception. She lamented the fact that so many parents are encouraged to choose the so-called "child-centered" lifestyle, becoming slaves to the child's choice of friends, clothes, toys, extra-curricular activities, and... nursing on demand. 

Are You Afraid of Your Child? How to Get Your Parental Authority Back

Nursing a newborn on demand? Why, yes. "In the past," she writes, "new mothers were told to breastfeed according to a schedule. Now it is recommended that you do it whenever the baby feels like it." 

I felt compelled to send this lady a personal email, in which I pointed out that all the examples she used in her article were good ones, except nursing on demand, which in no way "spoils" the baby or harms the mother's authority. Quite simply, the fact that the recommendations in hospitals changed is due to finding out that nursing on demand (or rather, on cue) is actually the easiest and most intuitive way to establish successful breastfeeding - which is important not only for the baby, but for the mother's health as well; try skipping a feeding for the sake of a schedule and you may end up with painful engorgement, complete with a plugged duct and high fever. 

She wrote back. Her response was polite but self-assured. "Our mothers breastfed on schedule," she said, "and we turned out a lot better brought up than the current generation of children." True? Perhaps. Cause and effect? Not in the least. 

I responded and said that, indeed, our mothers were told to breastfeed on schedule - and not coincidentally, it was a generation of formula-feeders. My mother-in-law, for example, was told to breastfeed her newborns every 4 hours. No more, no less. Baby is crying? Let him cry until the set hour. Baby is sleeping and you are thinking of taking a nap yourself? No way - wake him up to nurse. Unsurprisingly, her milk "just ran out" after 1 month, after which she had to give her children's cow's milk (as formula wasn't readily available), and  many years later told me how she "was one of those women who just couldn't produce enough". 

I also heartily recommended this lady to discuss the matter with a lactation consultant, and to consider all the facts. After all, it is a pity if a new mother who threw feeding schedules out of the window reads her article and thinks, "what if I'm spoiling the baby? What about my 'authority' as a parent?" 

Imagine the following situation. It's nearly evening, and I'm busy making dinner. A five-year-old is hanging around and says, "Mom, I'm hungry." "Dinner will be ready in an hour," I say. "But I'm still hungry," she insists. "Alright, then," I say, "if you feel you really need to eat something right now, you can get yourself an apple or a pear." She proceeds to do so, and settles down with her little snack while I continue making dinner in peace.

Does the exchange above make my household "child-centered"? No. Does it make me less of an authority as a parent? No. Would it be better if I barked at my little child, "wait for dinner!"? Again, no. By the way, those who have been reading for a while know I'm very much in favor of regular family meals. But if I get myself an unscheduled snack, sometimes before dinner or right before bedtime, and find it acceptable, why should I refuse when it comes to my children? I'm not speaking about things like sweets and treats, of course, but about an apple before dinner or a slice of bread and cheese before bedtime. 

So what is the difference when we're talking about a baby? A baby is completely dependent. She cannot get up and get her own snacks. She cannot communicate her needs in words or negotiate. All she can do is signal to me that she needs to be picked up and fed - which, if the baby is exclusively breastfed, can only be done by me. So there is no getting around the fact that I must, indeed, feed when the baby needs it, not when it is most convenient for me. This has nothing to do with authority, and everything with meeting the most basic need of a tiny human being. 

Think of a novel concept: scheduled diaper-changing. After all, why must we be slaves to the baby's whimsical schedule of bowel movements or wet diapers? Why must we hurry with a new diaper in hand every time? As parents, we are the leaders, and thus the baby must follow. She must learn that she is part of a family, and adapt to the family schedule. Thus, from now on, diapers will be changed - regardless of how wet or dirty they are - five times a day, at set intervals, and once at night. Try this for a few days, and you will see how your baby soon stops crying because of a messy diaper! 

Sounds ridiculous? Of course. But in my eyes, this concept really is no different from feeding on cue vs. feeding on schedule. Some day, your children will be able to go to the bathroom without your help. Some day, they will open the fridge and make themselves a sandwich. But babies need their parents to provide those primary needs, and it is the parents' job to do so. 

Image taken from


Renee said...

Thanks so much for this post. I had babies back in the 80s and
90s when the whole scheduled breastfeeding thing was how things were done in US hospitals. I was unsuccessful with nursing my first two. When I had my third baby I was older and meaner :) and basically ignored the nurses and nursed my daughter whenever she wanted. I had no problems nursing her. She is now grown up and married and just had her first baby a few days ago. The hospital staff was great and encourages on demand nursing and everything is going great. Her milk came in on the third day with no engorgement. The whole every 4 hours schedule was invented by doctors for bottle fed babies. I also think giving newborns formula right away is hard on their digestive system. If they were meant to have food (other than colostrum) that early, nature would have designed moms to have milk available at birth.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this post. I had my first child in 1979 and yes, the doctor stressed only feed every 4 hours. Our nursing lasted only 4 months.

Thankfully, by the time our second daughter was born I read a La Leche book and had great success, even though she was born a little early (because of doctor's unnecessary intervention!) and spent 2 weeks in the hospital.

I'm so glad there is so much more helpful information out now, but we still have to sift through it carefully. My oldest daughter is now nursing her second child who is almost a year old and has had a wonderful experience and both of her children are very healthy.

Blessings, Katherine M

Lisa Diane said...

You have written a wonderful article about this!! I totally agree with you, and I breastfed "on demand" for all of my children, and they have turned out just fine. I think it's the PARENTING you do outside of the breastfeeding that makes the difference in creating/maintaining your authority with your children.

Her equating breastfeeding "on cue" (LOVE that!) with giving in to a child about their clothes or friends/activities (when they are years older, I might add), is like comparing apples and oranges -- they are totally different issues. Nursing your child is in the realm of *MEETING YOUR CHILD'S NEEDS* (like you so clearly pointed out with your dirty diaper analogy) ..... and older child demanding certain privileges and dress styles is in the realm of *WHAT YOUR CHILD WANTS* -- like I said, totally different issues.

If you continually refuse to meet your child's needs, you will end up with a damaged connection to them because of the deep-rooted trust issues you have created in babyhood. This connection is valuable and necessary to have later in their lives when they can't have everything they want. A child with a strong connection to you will accept the "NO" more easily than the child with a weak/damaged connection to you.
I have seen this IN ACTION in our family -- I raised my children "child centered" with many things, but some things were non-negotiable. I have (still!) a strong connection to my now-older teens. They ALWAYS accept my authority. My sister, however, was very punitive and controlling, using the scheduled nursing and the "cry-it-out" method, among other things that damaged her connection to her kids. Now, they are secretive, sneaky, and throw childish tantrums when they can't have what they want. Once it was a bikini for her 15yr old girl - and it was an ALL DAY argument that the daughter WOULD NOT end! She didn't get the bikini, but she sulked over it for DAYS.

So let's make sure that we aren't neglecting our child's NEEDS in the pursuit of creating/maintaining parental authority. Or else you may end up creating a "spoiled" child who you never actually spoiled in the traditional way!

SORRY I kind-of hijacked the comments -- I just wanted to provide examples of why I believe the way I do, instead of leaving it ambiguous! I hope you don't mind...! :-)

THANK YOU for this wonderful post!!!


Aunt Mae (~Mrs. R) said...

There are also new studies showing how damaging it is to a baby to make it cry unnecessarily without being comforted. A newborn's need of sustenance is onva differing schedule than that of a 1 month or 6 month old. It cannot be a *one size fits all* feeding schedule for the baby's well being and the bonding of the two of them!

Anonymous said...

My mom was told to nurse me every four hours, no more, no less. And not any four hours either - I was to be fed at 6, 10, and 2; am and pm. I was content for about two hours, fussed for an hour or so, then screamed until feeding time rolled around again, every four hours. As a brand new mother, forcefully instructed by the hospital staff, my mom just thought this had to be endured.
As a child, I was very fearful of anything new. As a teenager I remained fearful and untrusting, preferring to stick with situations I felt I could control. I noticed I was much more fearful than any of my peers, and often wondered why. I was only after my first child was born, and nursed every couple of hours as he "demanded", that my mom told me about my infancy, and how incredibly hard it had been on her.
I realized that those strictly scheduled feedings had taught me that the world is a terrible place, where no-one can be trusted, and no-one will help, no matter how desperately you ask. My response was fear. As an adult, it's still a problem I have to deal with every single day, because it seems to form the very core of my being, and I don't know how to break free of it.
My poor mom, she was doing the best she knew, but following utterly barbaric advice. Thank you so much for speaking out against it.