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Breastmilk, Ice Cream, and Infant Feeding Schedules: How Much Space is on YOUR Counter Top?

There is a question that ranks right up there with childbirth method, homeschooling, and whether or not you’ll let your children watch TV. Proponents of both sides promise you a happy, healthy child if you follow their advice, and a maladjusted, sickly child if you go with the other side. There’s been a lot of rhetoric spewed back and forth, along with condemnation, hurt feelings, and accusations. What am I talking about? The mother of all parenting questions: Are you going to feed your baby on a schedule (or “flexible routine”), or are you going to feed on demand (or “cue feed”)?

I used to find the debate frustrating and bewildering. I knew what I believed in my heart, but I was disturbed by so many other Christians who just as strongly believed something else. Then a couple of years ago, I stumbled across some information that finally helped me understand how people could have such enormously different experiences with feeding their babies.

Breastfeeding is a supply and demand process, and the way the “demand” is communicated to our bodies all depends on something near and dear to the hearts of countless women: storage space.

Think of it in terms of your kitchen counter. Imagine you and a friend are working in the kitchen serving up ice cream for a church party. You’re scooping out bowls of ice cream, and your friend is carrying the bowls to the hungry people. Well, imagine if every time you filled a bowl, it was instantly passed to someone, and maybe your friend was even standing there a moment, waiting for you while you scooped. You’d probably be working as fast as you could, dishing up ice cream at lightning speed. But what if your friend started walking around with a couple of bowls, and she couldn’t find anyone who needed any? You might notice that your filled bowls were starting to accumulate on the counter. In fact, you might be running out of space to put them, and by then, you certainly wouldn’t be feeling any pressure. You might look around, stretch, chat for a minute, etc., maybe even stop entirely, and have some ice cream yourself! Your “ice cream bowl production” slows to match the speed with which the bowls are removed from the counter.

It’s just the same with your breasts. It turns out that empty breasts “hurry” and make milk at a rate of about two ounces per hour, while full breasts slow way down and only make milk at a rate of 1/3 of an ounce per hour (and it’s a good thing they slow down production because otherwise we might explode). (Learn more here.) Put another way, empty breasts make six times as much milk in an hour as full breasts do. If your breasts are full, you have to empty them before you can make very much more milk. If healthy women are emptying their breasts regularly, they can have what is for all intents and purposes an unlimited supply (giving them the ability to nurse twins or even triplets).

Now, here’s where the storage space comes in. Imagine you’re back in the kitchen at your church party. How many bowls of ice cream are you going to fill before you give up on your friend and quit? It might depend on how much space you have on your counter. If you live in a farm house with acres of counter top spreading out before you, you might fill eight or ten more bowls before you decide to give up. But what if you live in a tiny newlywed apartment with barely enough space between the dish drainer and the coffee maker to cram in more than about two bowls? Are you going to fill ten? Not likely. You’ve got no place to put them.

Breasts are just the same. All women can make plenty of milk for their babies over a 24 hour period, but the amount that the breasts can hold without feeling uncomfortably full and needing to be emptied varies greatly. There is a 300% variation in milk storage capacity (counter top space) among women (Learn more here). We’ve all got a nice freezer, a Costco bag of plastic bowls, and a perfectly functional ice cream scoop, but how many bowls can sit on our counters before we stop filling them is not the same. If we don’t get the milk emptied out of our breasts, production will grind to a halt.

Now, think about something else. Chances are, all that “emptying” is going into your baby’s little tummy. That’s his food and drink for the day. So, that 300% variation also means something else. It means that when two babies nurse and take in almost all the milk each of their mothers has at any given time, the babies are actually getting different amounts of milk. Therefore, in order to take in exactly the same number of ounces of milk per day, two babies with different mommies are going to have to nurse two different numbers of times. It’s sort of like plate sizes at an all you can eat buffet. If your friend has a turkey platter for a plate, she’ll only need to go through the line once to get enough to fill her up. But if you have a salad plate, you’ll need to go through the line several times to get enough. And babies have different metabolic rates and activity levels, not to mention different sized little bodies! All these things have an effect on how many times they need to “go through the buffet line.”

OK, enter the schedule. Let’s say you buy a book that your friend said worked great for her, and the book says your baby should nurse every three hours or so, and that he shouldn’t need any more than that. You try your best to follow the book, but pretty soon, it appears that you’re not making enough milk. What happened? Storage space strikes again. Your breasts filled up, didn’t get emptied, and slowed production. If women have a 300% variation in milk storage capacity, then one schedule is not going to work for all of them.

This accounts for the wildly varying testimonies of different families trying to follow the same “book” schedules. I remember one father of a schedule fed baby who told me that the only problem he and his wife had was dealing with the jealousy of other parents when they heard how this dad’s baby slept through the night thanks to her wonderful schedule. But I have also read the words of other parents whose babies were on the exact same schedule who had very different experiences:

The reason why my baby was sleeping so long was her blood sugar was dropping so low she couldn’t wake up. She, in fact, was going into a coma. She may have had a pre-existing condition, but following Babywise (a scheduling book) reduced my milk supply and gave me a false picture of normal, healthy feeding and sleeping patterns, making her health problem truly dangerous. We almost lost our baby. –D.P.

After being admitted to the hospital, it took several specialists nearly 2 hours to insert an IV because his veins collapsed every time they inserted the needle due to his critical state of dehydration.

We can honestly say this was the hardest moment of our lives, knowing that our son was suffering and had been suffering for nearly three weeks because he had not been fed enough due to our foolish implementation of a feeding program taught by Prep (a scheduling program). –Jeremy, Lori & Son

We went to his 4-month appointment and he weighed in at 11 pounds, 6 ounces. He had lost nearly a pound in 2 months, where he should have gained at least 3.

I was horrified….

I still didn’t want to screw up my baby’s schedule. Mr. Ezzo (an author of scheduling books) promised me I’d have a demanding brat with “metabolic confusion” if I did. So I sadly sent my husband out for formula, and started pumping my milk to try and get my supply back up.

It didn’t work. Within a week I was feeding J. 75% formula. –K.M.

You can find links to more schedule feeding testimonies here. Of course, these are rather extreme cases, but they demonstrate graphically one end of the schedule response spectrum. And because there is such a spectrum, following a one size fits all schedule, no matter how well it worked for your friend, does involve risk. You have no idea whether your breasts will be able to store enough milk to continue to produce when feedings are spaced according to the schedule. You have no idea whether your baby will be like the daughter of the schedule feeding dad I knew or like one of the babies in the tragic stories I just quoted.

So, if your baby’s nursing needs can’t be predicted by an external schedule, how do you figure out when your baby needs to eat? Well, pretty much the same way you figure out when your older children need to eat. Not when they get so hungry that they’re crying (crying is actually a late indicator of hunger, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk) but long before then, when they either wake up, or when they say politely, “I’m hungry, Mommy, may I have a snack, please?” How does a baby who can’t talk tell you politely that he’s hungry? By making nursing cues, any kind of “increased alertness or activity, mouthing, or rooting,” according to the AAP, what we call at our house a “nursey face” –smacking his lips, opening his mouth, turning towards you, sucking on a fist or your shoulder or cheek. My current baby has always tried to throw herself down into nursing position when she wanted to nurse, taking a sudden sideways dive toward “lunch.”

Let your baby’s behavior tell you when it’s time to hit the buffet line, and keep that ice cream scoop going by keeping your counter tops clear.

19 comments to Breastmilk, Ice Cream, and Infant Feeding Schedules: How Much Space is on YOUR Counter Top?

  • Well said! I tried scheduling and it worked with som of my children, but not others. Just shows babies are different, although this momma is the same =). I always suggest observing and studying each one of your babies for clues, natural rhytms, etc. And then establishing some kind of routine from that. Of course always be prepared for changes =).

  • Great job making a good point. I tried scheduling with my first and found we were both frustrated, so with the rest I just let them nurse whenever they were hungry, and it worked so much better. I’m sold on letting babies decide…they know!

  • Julie

    I have one dd who was always a “snacker” and ate quick meals every 1-2 hours. I don’t htink I had a very big storage capacity. Funny thing is now at nine, she still likes to eat frequently (sometimes alot, sometimes a little).

    I agree that listening to your baby is the best advice.

  • :-) yes my little guy is definitely a snacker, except on days when we don’t have time for it. I have never had a problem with supply, but he is just distracted easily and would like to be exploring rather than eating for too long. I have never gone by the clock. I have heard some pretty judgemental remarks about it from people, sadly.

  • O.K. now the O.M. doesn’t feel so guilty for never putting any of her five chubby eaters on a schedule. I always had a “ton” of milk and they could only take in one side a feeding. As Kathy will remember, my youngest doubled his weight in six weeks and tripled in 4 months.. on solid breast milk–no additives or anything. We’re done with that stage now, since the Emmy is my last. I did let her nurse for 2 years and 4 months. She could just about ask for it in a full sentence.. LOL.

  • This is an excellent post. It always concerns me when people say that their way is God’s Way, when their way has nothing to do with what scripture says. The only scripture verses that I remember about nursing an infant tend to suggest satisfying that baby, completely. Isaiah 66:10 states, “That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations: that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.”

  • What a great and creative analogy for explaining the biology of breast feeding!!

    Another interesting point the helped me in sorting it all out was in reading all of the various Bible verses about nursing. Interestingly, they refer more to being comforted, consoled, delighted etc than even to being nourished! This made me realize that beyond the obvious (God meant our breasts to nourish our babies) that God also meant for them to be a source of comfort.

    And of course God created our biology to support this as well. When a baby cries, a woman’s breasts automatically begin the milk letdown reflex. God made our bodies to be ready to offer not only nourishment, but comfort to our babies. While feeding on a schedule may sometimes work, comforting on schedule is a rather odd thought to say the least!

    Again, I just love your analogy. I may have to use that one with someone sometime :)

  • Amanda

    I have to say, the book Babywise is probably not a good example of scheduling, because it doesn’t advocate a 3 hour schedule for infants, simply a feed, wake, sleep cycle and that most babies eat every 2-3 hours, which is exactly the advice of my pediatrician as well. The book has lots of advice on making adjustments for growth spurts and never says not to feed a baby when he/she shows signs of hunger. I also know several women who exclusively breastfed while following all of Babywise’s suggestions, many even delayed solids until 7 or 8 months and still have babies in the 90th percentile for weight.

    I do agree though that inflexible scheduling, of the kind advocated in the 1920′s, is definitely not conducive to breastfeeding. That is probably the reason many women in the hyper-scheduling eras did not breastfeed, or perhaps it was the lack of breastfeeding that allowed the hyper-scheduling to become such a predominant feeding style for a short period.

  • Mrs. Parunak


    Thank you for your comment. You are right that Babywise isn’t as classic a schedule as something that says: Feed your baby at 6:00, 9:00, 12:00, etc. However, it does have many of the dangerous characteristics of a schedule, despite the authors’ attempts to distance themselves from what they term “hyper-scheduling.” The routine itself requires babies to sleep (and to sleep for a parent determined amount of time) before they are supposed to eat again. What that means is that the baby’s sleep schedule translates to his feeding schedule as well, which effectively limits number of feedings by number of naps. In other words, a four month old baby who is only taking the usual two naps a day is only allowed to nurse four times a day (once after sleeping all night, once after each of two naps, and once more before bed). Women who have large milk storage capacities have no trouble giving their babies plenty of milk on this schedule/routine, and can be just like your friends: nursing exclusively for many months, and having healthy, growing babies. However, women with smaller milk storage capacities are not going to be able to follow the Babywise routine because their babies are going to need more than four feedings a day.

    Babywise is a rather confusing book because, while you are absolutely correct that it frequently encourages flexibility and feeding hungry babies, it also stresses the “dangers” of demand feeding, and the necessity of sleeping through the night. Women with very small milk storage capacities simply cannot go all night without nursing and are not going to be able to stay on an eat, wake, sleep routine during the day, which is going to mean “demand” feeding, since instead of using their babies naps as nursing cues, they’ll have to use traditional nursing cues (mouthing, rooting, restlessness, etc., NOT crying, as Babywise mistakenly claims–crying is actually a late indicator of hunger).

    You’re right that inflexible scheduling is horrible for breastfeeding, but I don’t think it’s possible to be truly flexible on the Babywise routine. For instance, if your five month old is following an eat, wake, eat, wake, eat, sleep pattern during the day and still nursing once or twice at night (which is the sort of pattern that develops for women with smaller milk storage capacities), can you really be said to be “doing Babywise?”

  • Margaret

    What a wonderful, thoughtful, logical post!

    Apparently, I don’t have much storage space. :p But feeding every 1-2 hours round the clock in the early days really paid off, as I was able to fully breastfeed all three of my sons for the first year, without adding formula or solids for nutritional value. I never could get my kids on a “reasonable” schedule or sleeping through the night without much shrill screaming on their part and engorgement on my part. They were just hungry all.the.time. I don’t think I’m going to bother with the “experts” from now on. I’ve finally learned that what my babies need and what i need is something we have to work out between us, and is not likely to be found in bullet points in a mass produced book.

  • Thanks so much for linking this post. I’ve been debating with whether or not to wean my 9 month old. She eat differently every day, depending on mainly how tired she is. Thanks so much! Kelly

  • Christy

    Babywise almost cost me my supply. After 4 months following eat, wake, sleep, I had a baby that seemed hungry all the time and never satisfied. After much research online and ditching the book, I realized I have a small storage capacity and my baby needs to eat more often. It’s killing me sleepwise because we don’t co-sleep, but I don’t know how to start that now after 6 months. He did sleep in our room until he outgrew his bassinette. Now I use the baby monitor and alarm clock to ensure I don’t go too long. I’m still realizing that I need to feed more often in the daytime, too. It’s hard to forget all the ingrained “training” I received regarding scheduling. Thanks for this post! It’s an encouragement. Christy

  • I am thankful to learn more about why or why not scheduling works for some and not others. What I love most about Babywise, is the overall philosophy is family centered, not baby centered. The sooner we can teach our baby that they do not run the household, the parents do, the better. This means that baby should be trained to sleep, as well as eat. We implemented a loose schedule with our baby at 6 weeks and our FAMILY has thrived ever since. She slept through the night, which meant, I slept through the night, which meant my husband slept through the night. Not mention we were able to get out of the house now that we had energy and some predictability to our day. I love it and recommend to anyone willing to try.

  • Mrs. Parunak


    Thanks for bringing up this important point. We ALL need to learn and relearn daily that we are not the center of the universe. God is.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think Babywise actually teaches what it claims to in this area.

    Take a child whose mother has a very large milk storage capacity. He’s being offered food right about when he starts to get hungry or even a little before, so from his perspective, life is pretty cushy. His every need is anticipated and met “before he asks or thinks.”

    But a baby whose mother has a small milk storage capacity is hungry, very hungry, long before the minimum time has been met. This is especially true at night, when he is supposedly being “trained to sleep.” A mother following Babywise to the letter could leave him crying in pain from legitimate hunger for as long as forty-five minutes. And indeed many sincere, well-meaning parents, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of being “child-centered,” have let their babies cry much longer according to the testimonies I referenced in my post. For all this baby knows, his parents have gone away and can’t even hear him. From his perspective, life is pretty rough. When he hurts, no one cares. When he asks for help, no on comes.

    The happy child seems like a “good” baby and a testament to how Babywise “works.” The suffering child looks like he’s unwilling to get with the program and seems a little strong willed. But neither child has learned what his parents were actually trying to teach him.

    I believe that the problem is that withholding food and ignoring a child who happens to be awake when his parents don’t want him to be are both completely extra-Biblical ways of dealing with our innate selfishness. The Bible never mentions them in conjunction with parenting, ever. The Bible has LOTS to say about child training, and about our sinful, self-centered natures. But the Bible’s methods for dealing with them are speaking constantly of God’s precepts (“when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up,” Deuteronomy 6:7), and enforcing them with the “rod of correction” (Proverbs 22:15), NOT hunger and loneliness. Since babies are not mature enough for God’s methods, I have wonder whether God actually means for them to be learning these lessons at this point.

    Also, for the record, there are other methods to bring predictability to your day without following an external routine. If you simply wake your baby up at the same time each morning, within a few days, you will have a sense of approximately what times he needs to eat and sleep, and you can plan your days accordingly.

  • I’m nursing my third, and have done strict scheduling and more demand feeding, depending on the baby. I think this is a fun article you wrote, and I’m going to end up feeding this one more often because of supply issues, but anyone who says that their baby was dehydrated by listening to Ezzo didn’t read the book carefully. It seems like you cherry-picked numerous horrible examples of people who didn’t do their homework–not just people who use a flexible schedule (which is what Ezzo recommends).

    Anyway, back to nursing.. (:

  • I do agree, though, that Ezzo’s recommendation that you will have only four feedings per day by week 16 is unrealistic at least for moms like me who aren’t making a ton of milk–BUT he gives way careful indicators of how to know if your baby is being nourished–it’s not fair to ignore all of his advice in this matter, and then blame him when the baby ends up in the ER.

    Just the same horror scenarios could be said about demand-fed babies–my first would have ended up in the ER if he were demand fed because he slept deeply–all the time–but mine wouldn’t have ended up in the ER because I was vigilantly watching his poops, pees, and weight gain to make sure…
    (which I learned from Ezzo)…

    It’s still a fun article. (:

  • Mrs. Parunak


    Thanks for your comments!

    My intention in sharing the “horror” stories was to show the effect that a schedule can have on babies whose mothers have very small milk storage capacities. I was attempting to include both extreme ends of the spectrum by telling about the couple we knew who had NO problems whatsoever and then other people who had very serious problems. Certainly not everyone who implements Babywise (or one of the other popular scheduling programs like Baby Whisperer, for example) is going to have this happen. My point is that there are VAST differences in experiences with schedules, and milk storage capacity goes a long way towards explaining why that is.

    I’m not sure how fair it is to accuse the parents who had serious trouble of not doing their research. You’re right that Ezzo does tell about watching wet diapers, but the problem is that he also manages to scare a lot of people with tales of the “dangers” of demand feeding, and he gives the false impression that all babies can and should follow the eat, wake, sleep routine. Babies whose mothers have small storage capacities often need to do eat, wake, eat, sleep, or even eat, wake, eat, wake, eat sleep.

    It’s true that there are babies who do not “demand” to eat frequently enough and could wind up in serious trouble, too. This has nothing to do with milk storage capacity, which is why I didn’t discuss it in my post. But you’re right, it is certainly dangerous to think that if your baby isn’t crying that he isn’t hungry. (Incidentally, I dislike the term “demand feeding” for that exact reason. It makes people think you only feed your baby when they are “demanding” it by crying forcefully. “Cue Feeding” is a much better term. You’re paying attention to cues: mouthing, rooting, increased alertness, and even the clock when you have a sleepy baby who needs to be awakened to nurse.)

  • rachel

    Great post. My husband and I believe that the best way we can teach our babies about God from the beginning of their sweet lives is to always be there for them and meet the needs that God created them with. If our babies know they can trust us to care for them, then hopefully they’ll learn to trust God to care for them as well. Thank you for the read–very informative.

  • Allie

    I know this is an older post, but THANK YOU! I think I don’t have much space “on my counter,” and for her first 3 or 4 months of life, my daughter mostly nursed every 1-2 hours in the daytime and every 2-4 at night. Pretty much everyone told me to try to stall her for longer so that I “had time to build up some milk.” Someone gave me the Baby Whisperer book and we tried it a little bit, though never letting her cry alone, but it didn’t resound with us and we abandoned it for watching her cues. When she stopped nursing so much a month or two ago, I kind of didn’t know what to do with her in all the spare time between feeds!!

    She is now almost 6 months old and people well-meaningly ask me if she’s sleeping through the night yet. She still wakes 3-4 times to eat each night, and yes I’m still tired, but sleeping through the night is not my goal. (I would be in a lot of pain from engorgement, for one thing!!) It’s interesting how many people suggested I give her solids early, too, “to make her sleep for longer.” She’s still just on breastmilk and she’s almost 19 pounds!

    Thanks so much. I always agree with everything you post. :)

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