Responsive feeding is a very important concept to understand when thinking about feeding babies and something I wrote about during my breastfeeding counsellor training. It is language that overhauled previous terminology such as ‘demand feeding’ or ‘baby-led’.
What is responsive feeding?
Responsive feeding is about responding to your baby’s feeding cues (rooting, opening the mouth, stirring) and also to your own body and breasts/chest.
It is important not to worry about overfeeding your baby if they are being fed directly from the breast/chest. You simply cannot overfeed a breastfed baby in this way (1). Responsive feeding can also be achieved when using a bottle. You can use techniques such as paced bottle feeding which includes close contact with your baby, avoiding forcing your baby to take more milk than they want to, and to encourage pauses. It can help to have you as parents do most of the feeds and giving your baby skin- to skin contact can support responsive feeding. It is also a good idea not to cause too much delay between feeding cues and providing the milk (1 & 2).
It is important not to worry about overfeeding your baby if they are being fed directly from the breast/chest.
Why responsive feeding matters
Breastmilk is not a uniform product. This means that the composition changes over the course of the day and night. For example, the fat content is often higher during the latter part of the day, which can help to explain cluster feeding and the milk-making hormone, prolactin is highest at night. Milk also contains sleep- inducing hormones at particular times of the day, helping both you and your baby to sleep more easily.
Responding to your babies cues makes sure that they receive everything they need nutritionally and emotionally. Remember, sometimes your baby may come to the breast/chest for a snack or a three course meal. Your baby will not just come to the breast/ chest for nutrition alone, but for the security and warmth that being there brings. This can be particularly relevant when they are tired, overstimulated, experiencing illness and teething. Allowing your baby unrestricted time at the breast/chest can help them to feel safe and secure and contributes to a positive attachment between you and your baby (1, 2 & 3).
Your baby will not just come to the breast/ chest for nutrition alone, but for the security and warmth that being there brings. This can be particularly relevant when they are tired, overstimulated, experiencing illness and teething.
Responsive feeding and milk supply
Avoiding scheduling feeds and focusing on early feeding cues allows for more frequent nursing and this has a positive impact on your milk supply, especially in the early weeks when milk production is being established. In doing so, the risk of blocked ducts, mastitis and other breast issues can be greatly reduced (1).
You may have concerns that those around you may be feeding their babies less often than you but this may be caused by storage capacity, something that cannot be determined from the size of your breasts. A parent with a large breastmilk storage capacity may need to feed less often and perhaps only from one side at each feeding. Someone with a smaller storage capacity may need to feed more frequently and often use both breasts. Both of these parents are normal. As long as you are not experiencing pain when feeding and nappy output and weight gain is appropriate for your baby’s age, then this is perfectly fine (4).
If you have any concerns about breastfeeding, it can help to talk things over with a breastfeeding counsellor on the National Breastfeeding Helpline, or your local breastfeeding helpline/support service.
- UNICEF (2016) Responsive feeding: supporting close loving relationships. [Online] Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/12/Responsive-Feeding-Infosheet-Unicef-UK-Baby-Friendly-Initiative.pdf [Accessed 1 Oct 2021]
- Brown, A (2018) The Positive breastfeeding book. London: Printer and Martin Ltd
- La Leche League GB (2016) Rhythms and routines. Available from: https://www.laleche.org.uk/rhythms-and-routines/ [Accessed 12 November 19]
- Pickett (2019) Guest blog: Breastfeeding- The dangerous obsession with the infant feeding interval. Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/breastfeeding-the-dangerous-obsession-with-the-infant-feeding-interval/ [Accessed 11 November 19]