By Elizabeth N.
I nursed my first child every 45 minutes--big
deal. Boy, was it!
I never expected a child of mine to be so
demanding. He had to nurse every 45 minutes or else ... else he'd scream
till the end of time. Or so I thought; I never found out. After all, if
I let him nurse every 45 minutes, he was in seventh heaven, so who was I
Hmmm ... complain. What about all those baby books
bedecked with lovely charts and graphs of when babies sleep, eat, and
have alert periods? Reading them as a pregnant lawyer, I was sure I
could fit my work into the designated "sleep" intervals. The
books never mentioned a baby who wanted to nurse every 45 minutes, then
sleep blissfully in mother's arms.
Was this my fault? Wasn't the fact that my son
slept through the night a sign that I was doing something right? Ha! He
only slept through the night until I wrote it down in my journal. Then
he began walking every two hours! Now, I'm not a superstitious person,
yet I must confess that I promptly crossed out that entry and wrote that
he did not sleep through the night. It didn't work; he still woke up
every two hours to nurse.
Oh, help, I thought, am I causing him to wake up
so often? Tempting him with the equivalent of hot chocolate chip cookies
in the middle of the night? Should I be depriving him to encourage some
compliance with proper schedules? Letting him suffer so he will fall
into the norm described in all those books?
Luckily, for my son's sake, I trusted those darn
instincts I didn't think I had, and I let him just nurse and nap in my
arms whenever he wanted to by day, and nurse and sleep beside me
whenever he wanted to at night. Those instincts, however, were not easy
to distinguish from messages I had carried since childhood. These were
ingrained so deeply that they felt like instincts, yet they were really
more like old tapes running over and over, criticizing, judging, and
blaming at every provocation. My instincts told me to keep my thoughts
to myself. And I learned to do just that, and to let my instincts guide
My instincts told me that my precious little baby
needed to nurse whenever he wanted to. After all, he had spent nine
months inside me, and I was all he knew. Whenever I looked at the
peaceful, happy expression on his face as he nursed, I could imagine him
feeling as though he were back in the womb--hearing my heart beating, my
stomach gurgling, the sound of my breathing, and feeling attached to me!
Yes, my instincts told me that if he was happy in my arms, then that is
where he needed to be.
After I figured out what my instincts were, I came
upon a greater challenge: learning to trust them. How hard this was amid
the advice I was getting from family and friends, even from hospital
staff and doctors. "That baby couldn't be hungry again--you must
not have enough milk!" I was told, and "Maybe he wouldn't be
so needy if you'd go longer between feedings." Nearly all their
counsel went against my instincts, and suggested that I was doing
Why, I wondered, does society push mothers to
ignore their instincts? (1) Why, when developmental researchers
emphasize how important it is to be responsive to our babies,(2) are
mothers still encouraged to disregard the instincts that help them
respond? Is it because we as human beings are programmed to repeat what
was done to us?(3) Were the "reasons" I was given by family,
friends, and professionals mere justifications for the lack of
responsive nurturing they received?
Well-meaning folks told me that I was harming my
baby by nursing him whenever he wanted, especially since he nursed so
often. As a matter of fact, my baby's doctor said that frequent nursing
was causing him to be colicky, and that if I would only wait three or
four hours and give water between feedings, he would calm down and be a
I, meantime, was coming upon discoveries of my
own. I learned that breastmilk is digested in two hours, not three or
four like formula.(4) I learned that many babies want to nurse more
frequently than every two hours, (5) and that babies who nurse a lot
tend to get plenty of milk because their mothers' milk supplies have
been boosted by the frequent nursing. (6) Research now shows that
restricting the amount of time at the breast and extending the time
between feedings can reduce not only a mother's milk supply, but also
the fat content of her milk (7) --resulting in a hungry, crying baby.
Sadly, I also learned that babies who are nursed
at four-hour intervals may fail to thrive. One infant, who had been
breastfed for 15 minutes on each breast only six or seven times a day,
cut back on her nursing and died of starvation a few days later. Her
parents were convicted of manslaughter. Fortunately, the conviction was
reversed because these parents had no idea they were doing anything
wrong. (9) They were simply following the recommendations of a culture
that knows little about breastfed babies.
My baby, I concluded, knows what he is up to. He
knows what he needs, when he needs it, and how to get it. Any arbitrary
decision on my part--even when to switch sides--seemed
counterproductive. How could I possibly know what his body needed?
Indeed, as I later learned, breastfed babies regulate themselves; they
take what they need, not just at each feeding, but from each breast.
(10) Moreover, many breastfeeding problems--including those attributed
to "too much milk" or "not enough milk"--are
resolved with more frequent nursing. (11) So I continued to follow my
baby's cues. And I soon found out that his "colic" was
directly related to my hidden food allergies and overconsumption of
dairy products. (12)
A well-meaning friend suggested that I was
depriving my baby of a good night's sleep, and that I "owe it to
him" to teach him to sleep alone through the night. Now, by my
calculations, sleeping beside him was depriving him of far less sleep
than he would have lost had he been left to cry his eyes out only to
realize that I was not there for him. Little did I know that our
nighttime rituals were decreasing his susceptibility to SIDS (Sudden
Infant Death Syndrome), (13) and were exactly what his developing system
expected. (14) What I did know was that mothers have slept with their
babies since time began. How could something that felt so natural to a
mother be bad for her child?
Relatives said that I was teaching my baby to cry.
"If you go to them every time they cry," said one,
"they'll learn that is the only way to get you to come, and you'll
be manipulated." Right off, this made very little sense to me. If
in fact my baby is crying to get me to come, I reasoned, then isn't that
what crying is for? Besides, my son has already learned that he does not
have to cry to evoke a response; he only has to go, "Eh, eh,"
and I will be there in a flash, or awake in an instant. While I knew
that my baby had learned to communicate nonverbally through cues and, in
times of upset, through tears, I did not yet know that as a toddler he
would be asking for things rather than yelling for them.
The accusations continued. My father-in-law banned
us from his house for three months because I had been jumping up too
often during dinner to take care of my little one. He said that my son
was learning zero about delayed gratification, becoming too dependent on
me, and likely to grow up a "mama's boy" tied to my apron
strings. Yet, my instincts told me that he was too young to learn
delayed gratification, and that if I met his dependency needs now, he
would blossom into independence all on his own.
Relieved to find expert opinions that validated my
instincts, (15) I concluded that my son was dependent on me because he
was supposed to be. Only a caring, predictable environment could help
him experience the world as a warm, loving place. The notion of pushing
children into independence, I found, stemmed from an age-old belief that
babies are born wicked and a parent's job is to break their will and
turn them into well-behaved children. I, on the other hand, believe that
babies are born precious and learn to behave by the ways in which they
Several critics cast doubt on my own well-being.
Some said that remaining constantly available to my son would make me
nervous and anxious, and would stop my milk from letting down. Others
suggested that if I didn't allow someone else to take care of my baby
from time to time, I would get stressed out or depressed, which would
"mess up" my hormones. Yet, for me, depression would result
from not responding the way my "hormones" were telling me to;
it seemed as though nature was screaming at me to listen to my baby. I
felt much less stress as soon as I realized that it was OK for him to be
needy, and OK for me to be responsive. If anything was making me anxious
and nervous, it was their words. Being responsive felt right--more right
than anything I had ever done in my life.
And yes, I was even accused of being a martyr, of
suffering for my child. This one amused me as I watched non-nursing
friends sterilizing bottles, preparing formula, carting around small
kitchens in their diaper bags, and treating constipation, diarrhea, and
other common side effects of formula. On the flip side, I was accused of
taking the easy way out, as if something so effortless for a mother
could not be good for her child! The insinuation was that because my son
fell asleep at the breast in 30 seconds, I was breastfeeding because I
Many people suggested that I was depriving my
husband of an involved role in childrearing. Admittedly, I was
indispensable to our son, and hardly able to leave for the bathroom if
he was hungry or upset. However, when all was going well, he loved being
with Daddy. He enjoyed lying on Daddy's chest, exploring the cabinets
while perched in his arms, going for backpack walks and drives past the
transmission towers, all the while assured that Daddy would bring him
back in a flash if he needed me. As he grew, his relationship with Daddy
grew. Shrieks of delight that greeted his return from work evolved into
requests for so many things, including his presence at bedtime. (Daddy
told better space stories than Mommy!) Surely, one reason they became so
close was because their relationship was rooted in a secure
I did not know all this at the time, of course.
Nursing every 45 minutes leaves a mother with little opportunity to
evaluate her methods, much less defend herself against criticism. That
In due course, I realized that if I did not
respond immediately to my son's cries for my attention, he would not cry
his little head off forever. No, he would eventually give up, convinced
that communication is not effective. He would sense that he has no
rights, and no idea of what is good for him. He would conclude that he
should not be hungry when his body tells him he is, and that he is wrong
to feel what he feels.
I also realized that our society has little
understanding of newborns, and does not sanction compassion for their
needs or feelings. Demand nursing, as I saw it, was no different from
caring for a family member who has been rendered powerless. Would we
refuse an incapacitated father a meal because it was "not
time"? Or leave a paralyzed spouse alone in a room to "cry it
out"--checking in every 10 minutes to say, "It's
Ok"--without trying to find out what is wrong and doing something
about it? If he or she only wanted to be held, would we refuse, for fear
of spoiling someone we love? How can anyone claim that legal or
religious tenets require us to deny babies sustenance and comfort
"in their best interests"?
Even the medical profession has been insensitive
to the suffering of babies. Until recently, many doctors thought it
unnecessary to give infants pain medication for surgery; only paralyzing
agents were given, to keep them from moving. The belief was that babies
do not feel pain. (16) Surely someday, our society will recognize that
babies are people--with rights, feelings, and most importantly, needs.
At that point, communities will advocate for these needs, with the
knowledge that nursing-on-demand mothers are not spoiling their little
ones, creating bad habits, letting their babies dictate their every
move, or getting wrapped around little fingers, but rather doing exactly
what nature intended. Mothers are designed to be available to their
babies--to help them make the transition into this big, wide world. To
teach them to trust, and love, and feel good about being alive.
Until then, I decided, a mother has one of two
paths to travel. She can adhere to the advice of others, and give her
child this message: "Suffer, kid, I've got more important things to
do, and I don't care that you can't satisfy your hunger (thirst, desire
for contact)--I've got a life, you know." Or she can listen to her
instincts, and convey an altogether different message: "I am here
to let you know that your needs can be safely met."
As for me, I continued to listen to my instincts.
I let the dishes, work, and social times slide, knowing that they would
always be there whereas my baby would not. I let the nights go by with
varying amounts of sleep, and the days roll on with little sense of
accomplishment. And looking back, I want to shout with joy that I did.
My precious infant who nursed every 45 minutes grew and grew--into an
independent, happy, intelligent, and confident nine year old with
compassion in his heart and affection in his acts.
Father's Perspective on Demand Nursing
By Kenneth A.
I wanted only the best for my child. Yet
then, as now, the issue seemed to be: who will control?
It didn't make any difference to me whether
or not he needed to nurse every 45 minutes. It wasn't I who had to
be available constantly, day and night. In the morning before
leaving for work, I would set my wife and child up for
"nursing and napping" in the rocking chair. I'd put the
phone, books, notebooks, a glass of juice, clean diapers, and
other necessities within reach. At night, I was useless, and soon
learned not even to wake up.
The pressure to control my child, however,
was dramatic. Friends, acquaintances, relatives, and even people I
didn't know required that our baby be controlled. The implication
was that if we did not regulate his demands on our time and
energy, he might grow up to be spoiled rotten or become a second
For fathers, the control issue is
particularly difficult. Most of us were trained to exercise
self-restraint at every opportunity. As boys and young men, we
were told to be tough because it is a cruel world out there.
Similarly, as fathers, we feel charged with the duty of making
sure life is not too easy for our offspring so that they can learn
self-control, responsibility, and determination. Combined, these
factors can easily prevail over a father's desire to support
demand nursing, a practice that allows an infant to control the
process. After all, we would never let an infant take charge of
our armies and weapons of war, our diplomatic endeavors, or
anything else in life.
Not surprisingly, as my wife nursed our
firstborn on demand, I experienced this pressure to conform our
childrearing methods to some prescribed standard. The hardest part
was that I found little support for our efforts to do what we
thought was best for our child. Even my most "liberal"
friends felt compelled to direct their relationships with their
children, rather than let their children guide the way.
While my wife nursed our second child on
demand, I continued to struggle against the impulse to control my
offspring, not always successfully. Many times I longed for
someone to tell me that we were doing the right thing, that my
kids would not grow up to be "sissies."
As our children moved out of diapers and
away from the breast, I slowly realized that the control issue
extends beyond infancy and breastfeeding. Observing them closely,
I questioned the social norm of imposing rigid restraints until I
became convinced that controlling my children was not in their
best interest. I could see with my own eyes that they were not
"spoiled rotten" brats and certainly not sissies. I did
not need to manipulate them, or mold them into perfect human
beings; they already were perfect human beings, each with a unique
set of feelings and needs to be respected. Nor did I need to
impose suffering on my children "for their own good" in
order to feel like a good parent. (A) Now my children are older,
and my perspective has broadened. Taking an honest look at a world
rife with violence, hatred, and suffering, I cannot help but
question the common practice of imposing discipline on children to
toughen them for the cruel world. Could there be a fundamental
error in this type of thinking? Might the methods used to control
our children be an essential part of the problem? I wonder if
Saddam Hussein's mother engaged in demand nursing . . . I wonder
if career criminals or residents of death row got to nurse on
About the Authors
Elizabeth N. Baldwin, JD, is a practicing attorney
in Miami, Florida, and a consultant specializing in breastfeeding
matters. She is also a La Leche League Leader, director of La Leche
League International Legal Associates Program, and a member of LLLI's
Professional Advisory Board, Legal Advisory Council. Over the past two
years, she has assisted in over 200 legal case involving breastfeeding
issues. She and Kenneth A. Friedman, her husband and law partner, are
the parents of David (9) and Billy (5).
Kenneth A. Friedman, JD, is a Miami-based attorney
in practice with his wife, Elizabeth N. Baldwin.
(A.) The proposition that misguided childrearing
produces violent, unhappy and suffering children is addressed eloquently
in Alice Miller's book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in
Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, 2nd ed., trans. by Hildegarde
and Hunter Hannum (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984).
(1.) Cultural offshoots of the factory model of
breastfeeding may be one of the reasons the medical profession has
encouraged scheduled feedings. In the first decades of this century,
people new to factory work had difficulty obeying the strict schedules
required of them; the literature emphasized that teaching infants a
schedule would help them become responsible adults, and ultimately good
factory workers. Other factors contributing to scheduled feedings may be
the extension of professional advice into family matters, the changeover
in birth and breastfeeding management from lay midwives to physicians, a
general mistrust of women's body signals (such as the let-down reflex as
an indicator for nursing), and a mistrust of infants' signals. See A. V.
Millard, "The Place of the Clock in Pediatric Advice: Rationales,
Cultural Themes, and impediments to Breastfeeding," Soc Sci Med 31,
no. 2 (1990): 211-221, which suggests that breastfeeding problems in the
United States are culture-specific, and are a result of pediatric
(2.) Mothers of securely attached children--who do
better later in life--are more responsive to the feeding signals and
crying of their infants, and more likely to return their babies' smiles.
M. D. S. Ainsworth and S. M. Bell, "Attachment, Exploration, and
Separation: Illustrated by the Behavior of One-Year Olds in a Strange
Situation," Child Development 41 (1970): 49-67.
(3.) See Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware
(New York: Penguin Books, 1986).
(4.) Breastmilk is digested in 60 percent of the
time required for infant formula. See B. Cavell, "Gastric Emptying
in Infants Fed Human Milk or Infant Formula," Acta Paedia Scand 70
(5.) See William Sears, The Fussy Baby (Franklin
Park, IL: LLLI, 1985).
(6.) See La Leche League International, The
Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (Franklin Park, IL: LLLI, 1991); and S. E.
J. Daly et al., "The Short-Term Synthesis and Infant-Regulated
Removal of Milk in Lactating Women," Exp Physiol 78 (1993):
(7.) D. A. Jackson et al., "Circadian
Variation in Fat Concentration of Breast-Milk in a Rural Northern Thai
Population," Br J Nutr 59 (1988): 349-363.
(8.) See Note 1. Millard points out that
20th-century breastfeeding schedules have created hunger as a result of
long intervals between feedings. This hunger has been erroneously
attributed to an insufficient milk supply--the predominant reason given
by women for switching from breast- to bottle-feeding.
(9.) Commonwealth v. Carol A. Michaud, Normand R.
Michaud, 389 Mass. 491, 451 NE 2nd 396 (Mass., 1983).
(10.) See Note 6, Daly.
(11.) See Lactation Consultant Department of LLLI,
The Lactation Consultant Series, pub. no.288:1-17.
(12.) When mothers are mildly allergic to cow's
milk products (even without overt symptoms), overconsumption of dairy
products often causes a reaction in her breastfed baby. For an excellent
discussion of food intolerance in breastfed babies, see Maureen Minchin,
Food for Thought (North Sydney, NSW, Australia: Alma Publications,
(13.) James McKenna, "An Anthropological
Perspective on the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): The Role of
Parental Breathing Cues and Speech Breathing Adaptations," Med
Anthropol 10 (1986): 1; and J. McKenna et al., "Sleep and Arousal
Patterns among Co-Sleeping Mother-Infant Pairs: Implications for
SIDS," Am J Phys Anthropol 83 (1991): 331-347.
(14.) James McKenna, "Rethinking Healthy
Infant Sleep," Breastfeeding Abstracts 12, no. 3 (Feb 1993): 27-28.
(15.) See F. L. Ilg et al., Child Behavior (New
York: Harper & Row, 1981); and other books from the Gesell Institute
of Human Development.
(16.) Jill R. Lawson, "The Politics of
Newborn Pain," Mothering, no. 57 (Fall 1990): 40-47.
This article was first published in Mothering,
Spring 1994 and is reprinted here with permission from the authors and
First Internet appearance: parenting.ivillage.com