The general advice around growth spurts is to feed more often. However, by increasing the amount of times a baby is fed often increases unsettled behaviour because this generally pushes a newborns digestion beyond its natural capabilities and capacities.
Unlike older children and adults, whom have the ability to retain food in the stomach in order for nutrients to be broken down and absorbed adequately, research shows that a newborns food can be pushed through the system by the amount of food they are having.* When a newborns milk is pushed through the digestive tract too quickly the nutrients aren't processed fully. This of course places undue pressure on other digestive organs as they try to cope with abnormal processes. Heightened communication then develops, but this crying or screaming is largely taught as a sign that your baby is going through a growth spurt, it’s normal and they are just feeling hungry. But when we respond in a digestively respectful way to growth spurts, the unsettled behaviour is less prominent, and in some cases it doesn’t occur at all.
Some of the advice around 'growth spurts' actually makes me cringe for our newborns. Recommendations that 18-24 feeds a day is normal, or it’s normal to sit on the couch and feed your baby almost continually from 6pm to 10pm - it is not normal! It is however easy to think that your baby is hungry because the discomfort in their digestive tract, from the overload of food, has them instinctively wanting to suck more – one of the innate tools they use to obtain security, comfort and a healthy intake of saliva enzymes to help break down the overload of food. Sucking away from food allows a baby’s body to relax which in turn enables the food or waste to move onward in the system.
How to respond to growth spurts while respecting natural digestive processes?
Newborn biology shows that feeding a newborn with a period of three-and-a-half to four hours between feeds is appropriate for digestive health, for the first six months of life. During a growth spurt it's important to continue to nurture this healthy pattern. Yes, your baby may still become unsettled during their growth spurt from feeling more hungry but this is the natural rhythm of hunger and your baby needs to feel this in order to suck harder and/or longer at the breast and this may only be another couple of minutes for some. It is fair to say you may not even recognise the difference but for your baby, that extra time will be perfect to both bring in more supply over the next 24-48 hours thus satisfying their needs during a growth spurt. If a baby's suck is nice and strong, then generally most babies don't need to feed for any longer than 20 minutes to feel full, with most being full around 10 to 15 minutes. However, this is very dependent on flow, time between feeds and, as mentioned, your baby's strength of suck.
By teaching a baby how to foster the natural harmony of 'demand equals supply' in an appropriate manner for their digestion by allowing them to naturally feed a little longer and/or suck a little harder at each feed instead of more often, we respectively nurture nature's gifts as the baby's suck reflex is more likely to stay strong as opposed too, 'snack' feeding where a baby may become lazy at the breast.
The same applies for formula fed baby's - keep the same natural daily rhythm of 3 1/2 hour to four hours (age dependent) but increase the volume of formula by 10mls for two to three of the feeds in a 24 hour period, increasing the other feeds by 10mls once bubs seems able to cope with the increase, which for some may take four to seven days. You will know they have learnt how to digest the increase because they will become more settled. Please remember too, while 10mls does not seem much to us adults it's quite an increase and change for a newborns digestion so making small, slow increases is the healthy option when formula feeding.
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* Weaver, LT., Lucas, A. Development of bowel habit in preterm infants. Archives of Disease in Childhood 1993; 68: 317-320