The Science of Breastfeeding
Both the baby and the breasts were designed for frequent feedings – breastfeeding frequently is important. Babies have tiny tummies and breast milk is digested rapidly – a combination that necessitates frequent feedings. New research also suggests that frequent feeding during the first three months enables the breasts to continue an adequate level of milk production until weaning. Breastfeeding specialists have long observed that mothers who nurse less frequently or tend to follow a restrictive feeding schedule may produce adequate milk during the first few months but then often wean their babies early because they “didn’t have enough milk.”
According to recent insights into milk production, here’s what seems to happen. In the first few months, frequent feedings keep the level of mother’s prolactin (the milk-making hormone) high. Because of frequent feedings, the milk glands mature, possibly by increasing the number and efficiency of receptor sites for prolactin within the breast. This makes the milk-making cells very sensitive to prolactin. Then, when prolactin levels diminish after the first few months of breastfeeding, these milk-producing glands can continue to produce sufficient quantities of milk, even with less hormonal stimulation. The breasts, in effect, become more efficient at making milk. If there was not enough nursing in the early weeks to increase the number of receptor sites for prolactin (that is, if there were scheduled feedings with the emphasis on longer sleep periods), the breasts become less efficient at making milk as time goes on.
Further support for the importance of frequent feedings comes from studies that show that the more frequently babies feed and the more thoroughly the breasts are drained, the higher the fat content (and therefore the calorie content) of the breast milk is. This accounts for the frequently inadequate weight gain of infants who are breastfed on a restrictive schedule. The longer a mother goes without nursing her baby, the lower the fat content of her milk.
Letting a baby cry until it’s “time for a feeding” upsets baby’s biorhythms. By the time the infant is put to the breast, she is either too upset to nurse efficiently or falls asleep before finishing a feeding. This can lead to breast infections in mother and poor weight gain in baby. With restrictive feeding schedules, too many babies don’t thrive, and all too often neither do their mothers. Remember, this beautiful biological system of cue feeding worked for millions of years before clocks were invented or the new age of “baby trainers” promised to make breastfeeding conform to mother’s busy schedule. Ignore the clock and go with the program that has been proven to work.