Responsive breastfeeding involves a mother responding to her baby’s cues, as well as her own desire to feed her baby. Crucially, feeding responsively recognises that feeds are not just for nutrition, but also for love, comfort and reassurance between baby and mother.
For example, when a mother breastfeeds her baby responsively, she may offer her breast when her baby shows signs of hunger or when her baby is distressed, fractious, or appears lonely. Breastfeeding can help settle her baby after an immunisation if her baby is unwell or to reassure him or her in an unfamiliar environment.
She can also offer her breast to meet her own needs, for example before she goes out, before bedtime or because she wants to sit down, rest and have a cuddle with her baby.
Therefore, breastfeeds can be long or short and at varying times in the day, depending on why the mother and her baby have decided to feed. The key to understanding responsive feeding is that it is what ultimately makes both breastfeeding and early parenting easier. Feeding becomes the first and usually most successful action when responding to a baby’s needs. It is important that mothers are aware that their baby cannot be overfed or ‘spoiled’ by ‘too much feeding’ and that breastfeeding will not, in and of itself, tire a mother any more than the normal tiredness that all mothers have when caring for their newborn baby.
Whilst responsive breastfeeding is (or becomes) instinctive to many mothers, others can struggle in the UK culture where there are often very strong attitudes regarding what constitutes a ‘good’ baby and the routines that should be achieved. Family and friends, baby-care ‘experts’, books and the media frequently reinforce the message that limiting feeds and enforcing a daily routine will make life easier. Therefore, mothers will often fight their instincts to respond whenever they or their baby wants to feed, and instead try and fit their baby into what they see as the desired pattern of feeds. All babies and mothers have different needs, and many babies may need to feed more frequently than the desired pattern dictates. This can leave the baby unsatisfied and distressed, which in turn undermines the family’s confidence in the adequacy of breastfeeding. Limiting feeds to fit into this routine can also threaten the mother’s milk supply and reduces the chances of successful ongoing breastfeeding.