Exhaustion from Breastfeeding

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by on-demand breastfeeding

I'm a new, first-time mom with a 10 week old baby. I have been breastfeeding her on demand since birth, but am beginning to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. She seems to want to eat constantly,she cries and acts hungry sometimes just an hour after I have finished feeding her. I often feed her 9-10 times a day. On the one hand, this schedule seems to work for her. She's gained a lot of weight since birth, she was born 2 1/2 weeks early and only weighed 5 1/2 lbs. Now she's almost 10 pounds. On the other hand, it's hard on me with lack of sleep and little time for myself. I am committed to breastfeeding and am not working, but wonder how long I can keep this up and whether I should do something to get her on a more livable schedule (and to take more interest in other things in life besides eating!). Lately, too, she seems to want to hang out on my breastfeeding could last up to 1 hour, if I let her suckle at her own pace. I thought babies would just naturally begin to get more efficient at eating and to go longer between meals, but this does not seem to be happening.

I'm considering trying to get her on a schedule: for instance, eat every 2 1/2 to 3 hours and only nurse for 1/2 hour per feeding. Is this realistic? Or should I just wait and she will begin to do this on her own? I worry that she maybe be too small or too young to do impose a schedule. Also, sometimes when I have tried to get her to wait between feedings, she will scream. It's hard for me to take much more than 5 minutes of desperate crying with tears in her eyes. This behavior also makes me wonder if I am doing the right thing to make her wait. Does anyone have advice or experience with breastfeeding demanding babies? I am definitely open to suggestions.

I can empathize with how exhausted and overwhelmed you sound. It seems like you're having a conflict between your values and feelings about breastfeeding on demand, and the physical and emotional reality of exhaustion and lack of autonomy. I would encourage you, before trying to make a decision, to try to get some emtional support and empathy for your rest, sleep, and personal space needs. It may be that you'll find another way to get those needs met other than forcing yourself and your daughter to change what comes naturally. My personal belief is that it's very very very worth it to establish the kind of bond in which your daughter knows that her basic needs get met without her having to cry her heart out for them. In early infancy, there is no difference between want and need. However, you get to make a decision that keeps you sane. Make sure it comes out of a compassionate place for both of you. Good luck!

When my son was breastfeeding, he'd want to nurse frequently while going through growth spurts. The experts say this increases your milk production to the level needed for the bigger baby. If your daughter nurses so frequently you might not be producing milk fast enough for her. It wouldn't hurt to try increasing your milk production by one of the various means suggested in previous messages.

Regarding the sleep deprivation: if you don't now sleep with your baby, would you consider doing so? The baby could then nurse during the night without disturbing you much (or even at all).

There are differing schools of thought about whether to breastfeed on demand or on schedule. I'm from the on-demand school, but non-dogmatic, so with that caveat, here are some random thoughts:

* At 10 weeks, your daughter just won't be interested in much besides what she can get from the breast -- e.g., food and comfort. So, don't expect her to take some interest in much else.

* At various times in infant development, the child will go through a growth spurt, and will demand much more milk and/or comfort from you (it's a thin line between the two, in my opinion). It may take anywhere from a day & a half to a couple of days for your milk supply to catch up to demands. This interim period can be excruciating.

* If you find your body is not catching up to demands and the baby's weight gain is insufficient, do not feel guilty about supplementing food needs with formula.

* If wear-and-tear on your body feels like it's too much, do not feel guilty about supplementing comfort/suckling needs with a pacifier.

My bottom-line feeling is that as long as you are able to continue breastfeeding & suckling, supplementing -- and scheduling the activity is fine. This period will be over so soon, try to make it as joyous as possible.

To the woman breastfeeding her 2 month-old on demand. I would suggest you hang in there and continue to allow the infant to feed at her own schedule. I was similarly exhausted with my baby, feeding her 10, sometimes even 12 times a day until she settled into a regular schedule right at about 10 weeks. I kept a daily log tracking the time she started and ended each nursing session and couldn't believe how varied her feedings were in the beginning-- the only consistent thing was that she seemed always to want to feed! Keep in mind, most sources say that a newborn will need to feed between 1 to 3 hours after the BEGINNING of the last feed (because their small tummies just can't hold very much). I only have experience with my own baby so I'm obviously not an authority, but I suspect that your baby's having been born just a little bit early has something to do with her taking time to settle into a regular nursing schedule. Just to let you know, my baby was born 7lbs 4oz, and at ten weeks weighed 13lbs 11oz. which pretty much put her in the FAT category. Anyway, it was around then that she started to nurse eight times. A few weeks later, she nursed only 6 or seven times. Today, at 4 1/2 months she has a regular schedule of 5 nursings a day. And she's not THAT fat.

As for your own eating schedule, that's a little tougher. I had a mild bout of post-partum depression which resulted in my not eating unless my husband forced me to, which in the end was probably every three or four hours. Like me, he is a grad student and consequently had a flexible enough schedule to do this. In any case, I was too spent caring for the newborn to even THINK about preparing a meal, much less zap some leftovers in the microwave. Maybe someone else has a more enlightening experience.

I'm sure this must be very hard on you. But I think it would probably be a poor idea to impose a schedule on this tiny infant. You risk upsetting the delicate balance of supply and demand for your milk production, for one thing. Additionally, there are some studies out there that seem to indicate that children allowed to feed on-demand grow up with better eating habits (they are always confident that there will be enough, and don't need to eat everything *right now*). I'm afraid I don't have the citations for these. I would suggest strongly that you contact La Leche League for ideas and support. My League flyer has wandered out of my purse, so I don't have any of the main numbers. A friend of mine is an active member, however, and will probably have a full compliment of contact numbers for you. Her name is Dana Williams, and her phone number is 531-8482. Please be aware that she is mothering a 4 year old and a newborn (tandem nursing both!), and she prefers not to talk on the phone much. But I'm sure she will be happy to give you phone numbers of folks who have the expertise you seek and the time to share it with you. Good luck!

What you describe sounds draining, both physically and emotionally. The perspective I have to offer is based only on my own experience, and only with 1 kid, but it might offer you some encouragement. My daughter (who is now 17 months old) also got off to a galloping start with her weight gain: she was born at 7lbs 12 oz and doubled her birth weight in just under 3 months. She did this by the same kind of marathon nursing you describe: until 6 weeks, she was nursing for 45 minutes every 2 hours. After 6 weeks, feedings were spaced about 2 1/2 hours apart, but were still just as long, and making her wait was just too nerve-wracking. Also, she would want to nurse for 2 to 2 1/2 hours STRAIGHT every evening (right when dinner needed to be fixed, right when my husband came home, he would want to hold the baby and I would be really ready for a break). I, too, got very close to the end of my rope. But all that changed at around 3 months. She started going 3 hours between feedings, dropped the evening cocktail hour, and became able to tank up in 15 minutes or less. I've talked to other moms who also experienced a real change in their babies' nursing habits at around 3 months. So, with the usual disclaimer about how all babies are different, let me say that there's cause for hope. Not only will your daughter grow out of this pattern, but it will probably happen within the next month. In the meantime, if you have a moms' group to vent to, that might alleviate some of the frustration. Hang in there.

I just read your notice in UCB parents advice line. Your situation sounds very similar to mine. I have a 6 month old, he's my first. He was born at 39 weeks. When he was 8 weeks and then a couple of times again when he was 12 and 16 weeks, he would breastfeed for what seemed to be constant. I was completely worn out and exhausted. It was really hard. Those periods seemed to last about 4 to 7 days at a time and they always ended. I wasn't sure if I was actually producing enough milk, or if there wasn't something wrong with the baby. I even went to the doctor to get him checked out because he was so uncomfortable when not on the breast. [He was just fine.] One thing that I did find helpful was a pacifier. Perhaps many do not want to use a pacifier, but I found that it is a helpful comforter for the baby, especially when nothing seems to work, not even comfort from Mom. I too would let the baby spent a lot of time on the breast (up to an hour at a time), only to find that 30 minutes later he wanted to feed again. So, if the baby was just hanging out on the nipple after 15 or 20 minutes, and not really breastfeeding, then I would use a pacifier. The baby didn't always want one, and that was fine too. Sometimes just holding the baby comforted and relaxed him. Carrying him around always seemed to work.

He also gained weight well. My experience with this was that the marathon breastfeeding periods seemed to fit with the estimated growth spurts described in the literature. I use the Baby Book by Sears and Sears. It's an excellent resource if you want a nurturing approach. This book also seems to be right on the money with what a new mother should expect in the early months. At 6 months old, my son is doing a bit of marathon breastfeeding again, but it's nothing like before. When he is not marathoning, he eats on his own (very regular) schedule.

After 6 months of [my] training, I feel as though I can really read my son and understand what's going on with his eating. I use a very flexible approach and he is thriving.

I hope this helps.

I too breastfed my baby on demand and did so since birth both day and night until 2 weeks ago when we finally night-weaned her. She was nursing probably 12-16 times/ 24 hour period, and at least a few times/ day it was for up to 30-60 minutes. I can understand that feeling of overwhelm and exhaustion as she is now nearly TWO YEARS old. While this truly has been exhausitng (especially since I am now 5 months pregnant and I am still working 1/2 time), we believe that a child's core sense of self is developed during these early years and what we both want to communicate to our daughter deeply and indelibly is that her needs and wants matter-- a message which neither my husband or I ever received. We do this by creating with her one onion-skin layer of experience after another which communicates that what she needs and wants is important, while trying to keep our own sense of balance and meet our own basic human needs as well so we have the stamina needed to continue the joyful, hard work of parenting.

My experience is that babies do get more efficient at eating and can go for longer between meals but my hunch is that we're more likely to see that at 6 months rather than at 10 weeks of age. I also have come to believe that my daughter virtually never cries or fusses for no reason. I may not be able to understand what it is that she's needing for a while but there always seems to be a reason for the crying which I eventually can understand. If it were me, I'd assume that my baby was crying out of hunger -- for physical food or emotional nurturance as met by sucking. The behavior you are describing does not seem like a demanding baby to me, but just a normal one. Good luck.

Eating every 2 hours is pretty common even at 2 months, and there isn't anything you can do about it. A baby's stomach is only as big as it's fist, so it makes sense that they need to eat pretty often because they can't eat too much at one time. If you were to try to change your babies schedule what you would end up doing is 1) making her/him cry until you are ready to feed her and then 2)force feeding her/him more than s/he can eat at a time, which she will compensate for by either a) spitting the extra back up or b)refusing to eat as much at the next feeding, and then wanting to eat earlier the feeding after that. It would be far better for you to let your baby just take the lead with this. When s/he is able to take more in and go longer between feedings it will happen, but that happens at all different times for all different babies, so you never know when. Also, it doesnt' happen all at once... your baby will gradually go a little longer each time and one day you will realize that you aren't feeding her every 2 hours. (Although some babies continue to eat that often for many months).

By the way, when my baby was 2 months old he was only eating every 4-5 hours, and I only had to wake once during the night to feed him... but I still felt exhausted. I think that is just part and parcel with a 2 month old, regarless of how often they nurse. ( Now that my son is 1 it is hard to believe how tired I was when all he did was eat and sleep, compared to now when he is walking, but I really was more tired back then!) As I understand it, between 2 and 3 months the hormone surge that you get after giving birth wears off, and that is a big part of getting tired and depressed. The best thing you can do about being tired is to sleep when the baby sleeps, and to bring the baby to bed with you at night so that you can nurse in your sleep.

Also, try to get away between feedings so that you have some time to yourself. You need to take care of yourself or you will forget who you are and end up even more depressed later on in your baby's first year. Have your partner/spouse or another family member care for your baby while you take a bath or read a book or do something that nourishes your soul... it will make a world of difference. And you may want to consider getting a small breast pump (not one of those evenflo or gerber type ones though, they are not worth the $.... try an Avent or Medela Mini) so that you can leave the baby and a bottle of breast milk with someone so you can get out every once in a while. Even if you only pump one ounce at a time... over a couple of tries you will eventually have enough for a whole bottle (you only need to leave about 3oz.).

There is nothing you can do to make your baby interested in the world instead of eating... you will just have to wait for her/him to get to that point on her/his own. But that is probably only a couple of weeks away... so don't feel like you are doomed forever.

Also, schedule feeding is the worse thing you can do for any baby, breast or bottle fed. That is because if you feed a baby on a schedule instead of on demand, than the baby will learn to ignore its own hunger cues and will have problems with self regulating its food in take... that is how you end up with obesity problems latter on.

Have you been in contace with an IBCLC or attended any LLL meetings... these are great ways for you to ask your questions from people who really know what they are talking about and share your belief in/commitment to on demand breast feeding. Good luck.

I'm not an expert on this, but my son was very similar to your baby in that he would nurse constantly (every hour even at 2 months), never take himself off, and get hysterical when I would (only after I could tell he wasn't swallowing anymore.) For an entire month between two and three months of age he was incredibly fussy - crying all the time and always hungry, but never satisfied. When my husband would take him he would be completely pleasant and not fussy - but he was drinking two bottles per feeding (6 ounces) which is double what I could ever pump at a missed feeding! So I started to feel that my milk production was low. I tried pumping and mother's milk tea but he was still so fussy I decided his happiness was more important than having only breastmilk so I tried supplementing with formula. This was the magic bullet - he was finally getting the food he wanted and his fussiness went away. HOWEVER, the sad part is that because the bottle supplied (and the breast didn't) he soon chose that over nursing and at 4 1/2 months is now completely formula fed. As he ate less I produced less milk and so on. As long as your baby isn't fussy and horribly upset, maybe you might want to try pumping to get your supply up, and see if that helps her get more in a quicker time period and be more satisfied.

As far as schedule I don't know if that's possible with breastfed babies; I would consult experts on that. Good luck!

My son was also an avid breast feeder for a long time, eating every hour to hour and a half in the first several months and beyond. He also seemed to have occasional growth spurts where it seemed all I did quite literally was nurse. He too gained weight incredibly well and today is a happy, healthy, enthusiastic toddler. I want to support, applaud and encourage your efforts--I know it can feel exhausting. But I do think it is the very best for your baby, and my understanding is that scheduling a nursing baby that young can be detrimental. I learned how to read while breastfeeding and I read tons of books, not only on baby development, parenting, etc., but even novels. I found it very helpful to read books supportive of breastfeeding on demand as it reinforced the importance and would help me reframe things if I was feeling particularly exhausted. I also focused on the bonding experience. You can also listen to music, even listen to NPR and catch up on the news. Do take naps and do let your partner, friends and family help in whatever ways they can with shoppping, meals, cleaning , etc. And of course you can pump milk and let your partner take over sometimes. While this never worked for us (I couldn't pump much and my son didn't take to the bottle), I know it works for many families, especially if you start when the baby is about 2 months. Take a deep breath and remember, it won't be like this forever! You're doing a great job--keep it up!

All I can say is that I understand how hard it is to be a milk machine. I know how it feels to want to do something else, brush your hair, call a friend, etc. I went through everything you did and more. My daughter had problems latching on so for the first few weeks, it would take me at least an hour to get her to latch on and then she would nurse as long as she wanted. Wait one hour, repeat. The sound of her drinking was the most precious thing in the world for me. I hope you don't take the fact that you can nurse and she can latch on for granted. Not everyone is so lucky. Actually, I never wanted her to detach because it would be so tough to get her on again. I would have considered myself lucky to be in your situation.

All that said, I know what you mean about the endless breastfeeding sessions. It is tough emotionally and physically and it is a commitment but it DOES get easier. Like you said, they get much more efficient at it. You say 'when?' I don't know when, but it will come and pass so quickly, it will seem like a dream. Hang in there, please. It is worth it.

As far as a schedule: Please don't. You can not dictate their energy needs and their growth spurts. They are NOT like adults - we are not growing, just maintaining. They grow in spurts and maybe your baby is trying to catch up for being small (when born) or maybe her body is just going through an early growth spurt. You cant deny a hungry baby food. You also cant legislate efficiency or punctuality. Please, she is only a baby and all she knows is mom and milk. They cant do any abstract reasoning like, ... if I don't eat now, I will go hungry since it wont be feeding time for another hour and 50 minutes. They cant reason like that. She cries because she wants food. Writing this bringing tears to my eyes, because I did have thoughts of schedules and routines myself when mines was tiny. Today, I would give anything to have that closeness and the sound of her gulping my warm milk ... and then a sigh and ... sleep. In the big scheme of things, this nursing time will seem like a flash, come and gone. Good luck and feel free to email me if you like.

It seems like every few months an SOS message from a desperate mom comes in -- someone whose baby nurses round the clock and for whom the physical and emotional wear and tear is a great strain. And, every time there are 5, 10, 15 messages from people encouraging her to hang in there; that she mustn't succumb to the evils of scheduling, bottle-feeding, supplementing, etc..

Rarely is there a voice that says:
1. Its ok to supplement with formula;
2. Its not unreasonable to help a baby move toward a more regular/less frequent eating schedule;
3. Its ok to develop other ways of nurturing and bonding with your baby other than suckling.

Today I am that voice. Clearly you have your child's best interests at heart. This does not require taking the most extreme view that is advocated by many of the berkeley le leche league. One should not feel guilty for experimenting with alternatives!

Good luck at finding what works best for you and your child.

Just one more addition to long list of helpful posts: my success in breastfeeding had to do with getting rest - I was always horribly tired and sleep-deprived, too, the whole first year, but when I really let exhaustion get out of hand, I saw immediate negative effects on my milk supply. It was surprising to me how very important sleep is to milk supply, but I had a graphic illustration when I went back to work when my son was 3 months old and I started pumping in quantity and could measure how much I produced. So if you get enough rest, you should benefit doubly - you'll be much more chipper and your daughter will get more to eat. Hang in there, it does get easier. And see if you can get someone to help you out with the occasional bottle. And if you do supplement with some formula now and again, hey, that's fine. Breast milk is wonderful, but your mental health is more wonderful still.

A few months ago I requested advice: I was feeling overwhelmed with the demands of breastfeeding a 2 1/2 month old baby who seemed to want to eat every 2 hours. I received so many responses (I counted at least 40, if not 50!) that I wanted to post an update.

First of all, things are sooo much better. Since about 3 months she and I have developed a more regular routine, which helps both of us stay happy through the day. Our routine involves getting exercise and getting out of the house every day, as well as some quiet time for both of us. Also, dad gets up with the baby in the morning to have a some time alone with her and so I can sleep in a bit.

Also, everyone is getting more sleep now. A big part of our routine is a long nap in the afternoon for baby and for me. Moreover, my husband and I have learned how to help the baby get to sleep at night and how to get her to fall back asleep if she wakes up in a few hours. At 5 months old, she usually needs to be fed twice at night, for about 10 minutes each time. I am feeling much more sane with more sleep!

Finally, she seems to have fallen into a pattern of eating every 3 or sometimes 4 hours during the day. I think she's just gotten big enough (she's a chubby kid) that she doesn't need to eat so frequently. And she's definitely developed an interest in exploring the world. She's much more fun now that she smiles, laughs, and reaches out to touch things. Life isn't just eat, sleep, and cry--it's look, touch, and take an interest in life.

I especially appreciated the comments I received, comments like I can relate or that's normal, or things will get better. This helped me feel more confident and hopeful, and get through that rough spot of baby raising. Thanks to everyone who wrote a response to me--I'm so glad I'm a part of this UCB parents listserv.