Nursing on demand and parental authority

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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.

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.” 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 figure 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 this blog 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 cakes, of course, but about an apple before dinner or a slice of 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 snack. 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, nurse 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 baby will be able to go to the bathroom without your help. Some day, she will open the fridge and make herself a sandwich. But babies need their parents to provide those primary needs, and it is the parents’ job to do so.
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11 thoughts on “Nursing on demand and parental authority

  1. You are so right!! In every aspect!! Been there…old grandma of 65 speaking here…and some ideas DO make it more likely one will not succeed at breast feeding etc. We were told plenty of things that were IDEAS…not proven facts…our generation was experimented upon…however you want to look at it. Sadly, this generation of babies is too…such as the exceedingly high amount of immunizations required these days. We have watched our youngest grandchildren even loose some of their mental edge…and have other issues, which we feel are directly connected to those shots. And our youngest child, now 35, will NEVER be able to eat normally. Due to those shots (a doctor finally connected those dots for me) she had CONTINUAL ear and throat infections…and antibiotics, until it ruined her stomach. She exists on mainly apples, nuts, seeds, some veggies and at times some meat, mostly chicken. Otherwise, her list is very limited. We took the advice of the “experts” too well and she is paying for it, the rest of her life. There is a reason I am very reluctant to take medical advice now for myself and hubby…one’s trust is gone!! Go ahead and follow your own instincts…you certainly have some experience now and a good idea of what works!!

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    • Yes, one must never blindly trust every recommendation! Always ask for a second opinion. When I was a child doctors would hand out antibiotics like candy. Now we have to beg for antibiotics even when they are badly needed.

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      • Yes, we have noticed that too…the pendulum swings yet again another direction…our 5 yr old granddaughter here has had a fairly high temp for about a week now…and no one thought to test her for strep…as if just by LOOKING one can tell. A good lady doc I had for a number of years told me you can never really know if it is strep unless you do the swab in the throat test with even at least 24 hours culture. Getting someone to actually do that seems difficult in this area…

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  2. You certainly hit a hot button here, Anna. Even though I never had the chance to try my ideas about child-raising out on babies, as a young child I instinctively felt as you do about feeding schedules because I knew then that babies, particularly straight out of the womb, have no idea of manipulating, or demanding of, their parents. That goes for other aspects of accompanying a baby out of babyhood, as well. Parental authority has to be earned first by taking care of the baby’s needs while s/he is still helpless.

    As for vaccines, while the polio one has worked out well for the most part (just ask someone who uses an “iron lung” machine whether they wish they’d had the vaccine! plus, I have an aunt who was successfully treated for it), the more recent addition of multiple vaccinations in one dose to the mix seems (I’m not a medical professional, so I’m qualifying my statement) about as sensible as shoving a whole bottle of aspirin down a person’s throat, for whatever reason. (To prevent headaches and other aches and pains for life? I can’t imagine what else at the moment. I’m sure there’s a lot. But the ensuing massive internal bleeding is why we don’t do that, right? Have “they” figured out the corresponding effect of their current vaccination protocol(s)?)

    The more, the merrier, right? I don’t think so. The thought experiment precludes it.

    Thank you, Anna, for speaking out on this. Your fellow Israeli writer seems to be following a badly mistaken aspect of America with regard to child rearing and vaccination, as many do here. Maybe we ought to be thinking about the trend to disregard our Creator that also began there in earnest about the same time (and blaming the Jews for it – a whole other topic) and its effect on how much worse off the current generation is than we were (Like Elizabeth above, I’m in my 60s too. And my mother didn’t put me on a feeding schedule from birth, fortunately for me.).

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    • Thanks for your input, Hava. As to vaccinations, we refuse to give a whole bunch at once, but instead do them separately, so that we can track any side effects if any appear.

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  3. I totally agree with you Anna . I am near 60 and no one I knew growing up ever breastfed , and women in our family thought badly of it ( my Grandmother nearly starving her first baby to death , following the 4 hour schedule the Dr put her on , and then yelled at her over the babies lack of health ) She was still distraught 50 years later . But I had such a biological desire to nurse , I just chucked all the information and followed what I saw my cat do with kittens, they all seemed healthy enough . So when baby cried for milk she was fed, until done. Seemed simple enough , and after about 3 months she seemed to put herself on a schedule anyway. My neighbor later found out and told me my tiny baby was “manipulating” me by demanding to ” be fed whenever it felt hungry” . WHAT?????????? She actually took a class on child care to learn that….HA HA HA HA HA !!!! I nursed for a year with only a few minor problems along the way , most of which were solved by nursing more for awhile.

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    • Mmm… yup. I’d rather be “manipulated” by my baby’s hunger cues than by all sorts of newfangled parenting theories that go against basic biology.

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  4. I’m so glad you wrote about this! My husband and I were breastfed following the 4 hour schedule and surprise surprise: the milk supplies mysteriously dried out pretty quickly (lasting only a couple of months). My mother-in-law still remembers that the advice was to “sanitize your breasts” before every feeding. That lead to some serious problems with the delicate skin of the breasts. Just craziness. I’m glad we have come a long way. But bad breastfeeding advice can actually lead into devastating results in developing countries: we can afford to give formula and have access to clean water if breastfeeding doesn’t work out. Many people don’t.

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    • My mom was advised to pump after every feeding to make sure “no milk is left”. This caused terrible oversupply and constant engorgement.
      Breastfeeding is supposed to be very low-tech and straightforward. Wish more people would remember that.

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  5. I think much of the bad press about demand feeding is that novice mothers tend to, or are told to, nurse in response to nearly all baby’s cries, regardless of whether they’re hungry, tired, wet, or whatever. Then baby is snacking instead of full meals and problems ensue, surprise surprise. If they empty the breasts entirely they won’t be hungry for 2 or 3 hours anyway, so done with common sense it’s really more of a middle ground – hunger cues (and sleep and play etc.) follow a predictable pattern / flexible routine as opposed to a rigid schedule or total random chaos. See the book The Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg. Very sensible and easily doable. Pity so many have forgotten of this.

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    • Sherri, I had read The Baby Whisperer, and am sorry to say that Mrs. Hogg gives some advice that might completely ruin breastfeeding for an inexperienced mother. For instance, she recommends nursing on one side only at one feeding. She does not seem to be at all aware of breast storage capacity being different for each woman (women with smaller storage capacity will have to nurse more frequently, and certainly on both sides). Finally, feeding patterns of a baby are not consistent over 24 hours. I often snack during the day, so how can I expect my baby not to?

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