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When to stop breastfeeding on demand (and what to do instead)

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

"When should I stop breastfeeding on demand?" 😱

It's a question that many parents grapple with as their baby heads into toddlerhood. And it makes sense - you were told to breastfeed on-demand and follow your baby's hunger cues in your prenatal education class, but at some point you stop, right?

In this blog, I'll walk you through:

Listen to this blog as a podcast:

What is on-demand breastfeeding:

Let's start by getting everyone on the same page about what on-demand breastfeeding is.

If you Google it, you'll find a few different definitions, and some people may bundle it together with terms like 'baby-led breastfeeding.' However, ultimately, on-demand breastfeeding boils down to the fact that you breastfeed while paying attention to your baby's cues rather than watching the clock. It's the opposite of scheduled breastfeeding.

If you're living in the modern world, you've probably heard the phrase 'on-demand' quite a bit, right?

a black plastic, modern tv remote

We talk about it in the context of on-demand streaming for TV and other forms of entertainment. The beauty of 'on-demand' is that you don't have to wait for things on a fixed schedule; you can simply sit down, press a button, and it's right there.

This is essentially what on-demand breastfeeding is all about – responding to your child's requests automatically, offering them unrestricted access to breast milk whenever they need it. (Learn all about what toddler breastfeeding, weaning, and tandem feeding can look like in my free workshop.)

In a nutshell, on-demand breastfeeding is all about letting your baby lead the way, both in terms of how often they feed and how long each feeding session lasts."

Why are we told to breastfeed on demand?

Health professionals and breastfeeding advocates encourage on-demand breastfeeding because it supports supply and demand milk production.

But for our current discussion, here's the key takeaway: If you're removing milk at the same rate and volume that your baby consumes, you're likely to maintain a perfect milk supply matched to your little one’s needs.

This minimizes the risk of both oversupply, with issues like mastitis and overactive letdowns, and undersupply, where your baby eats more milk than you produce.

The emphasis on breastfeeding on demand is a response to historical messaging about scheduled feeding.

A brief history of scheduled infant feeding

Scheduled feeding wasn't really a thing until the early 20th century and it came about primarily as a response to high infant mortality rates in the Western world.

While there's a complex history behind this shift, it's worth mentioning that there were a lot of racist reasons why governments were concerned about infant mortality rates. Consequently, they pushed the notion that parents, due to their ‘ignorance’ of new scientific approaches to parenting, were contributing to infant mortality.

Vintage early 1900's photo of a woman and baby

This led to an era where scheduled feeding was prescribed by doctors, instilling fear and undermining parental instincts while also convincing parents it was the only way to raise physically and psychologically healthy children.

However, it was eventually understood that this approach was detrimental to both parent and child, particularly regarding milk supply and overall well-being.

Around the mid-20th century, a more baby-led approach gained traction. Nonetheless, even in 2023, we still grapple with the lingering impacts of scheduled feeding and behavioralism applied to infant caretaking, a new branch of psychology that was extremely influential in the 1920s.

Behavioralism proposed that all human behavior, including infants', was shaped by rewards and punishments and breastmilk could be reinforcing undesirable behaviors and spoiling children.

It wasn't until we gained a better understanding of attachment theory and breastfeeding physiology that we realized there are multiple reasons why a child breastfeeds – (all of which are adaptive and wise).

This leads us to the current narrative by those who still advocate for scheduled feeding - fueling fears of a child becoming too clingy or breastfeeding too frequently.

You might have heard terms like making a 'rod for your own back' or concerns about creating overly dependent kids. I've certainly grappled with these fears myself, and they can resurface from time to time. (Even though I know they are unfounded!) This is why it's crucial that those who support breastfeeding families advocate for non-scheduled feedings to combat this pervasive messaging.

While I can't provide the complete etymology of the term 'demand' in this context, it aligns with the concept of supply and demand milk production, it makes sense that the phrase “on demand” has become the go-to way of describing non-scheduled infant feeding.

Three problems with on-demand breastfeeding:

The reality is, that using the phrase 'on demand' when talking about ideal breastfeeding can be problematic (at least from my perspective) and I have seen how it can negatively impact the breastfeeding journey.

So, in this discussion, I'd like to highlight three specific concerns I have regarding the concept of on-demand feeding and the terminology itself:

Firstly, it often removes parents from the equation.

While ideally, this isn't the intention - in practice, it can sometimes make parents feel passive. We should remember that breastfeeding is a two-way conversation between the parent and the baby, a dyadic relationship. Yet, in the context of on-demand breastfeeding, the focus can shift almost entirely to the baby's needs, somewhat resembling how we approach on-demand TV. TVs don't have feelings, and their experience doesn't matter. In a similar way, parents often interpret “on-demand” breastfeeding as meaning that their own needs are secondary.

Secondly, a problem arises when parents interpret 'on demand' to mean they must wait until their child is actively demanding to breastfeed.

This interpretation can be influenced by remnants of behavioralism, where there's a concern about creating a routine where the child’s negative behaviors (like crying) get “rewarded” by breastfeeding. So parents often feel they need to make sure their baby is really truly hungry before they breastfeed them.

However, it often stems from a lack of understanding of early hunger cues. Parents might be looking for more obvious signs like crying or rooting, which are valid cues but occur later in the hunger spectrum. If you wait until your child is demanding, you might end up with fewer feeds in a 24-hour period, potentially affecting milk supply and weight gain.

Additionally, a hangry baby can be challenging to latch, heaping more stress into the already stressful experience of taking care of a newborn while you are recovering from having a human being exit your body!

Thirdly, the term 'on-demand' can unintentionally set up a mindset that our children are demanding from us when they ask to breastfeed.

I've heard countless mothers describe their 1, 2, 3, or 4-year-old as constantly 'demanding’ to breastfeed. This can create a feeling of being trapped – you either give in (and “reinforce” the demanding behavior) or suffer through an unending tantrum that leaves you and your child utterly emotionally drained.

However, if we look deeper, we may find that the child is not necessarily being manipulative or demanding. There might be something else going on.

A shift in mindset can lead to more compassionate parenting, understanding that the child (and yourself!) may genuinely need comfort or nourishment. I see this happen with students inside of Own Your Breastfeeding Story all of the time. Often a small mindset shift can make big changes in the day-to-day toddler breastfeeding experience.

It's intriguing that we use the term 'on demand' to describe breastfeeding in the early days, only to later perceive our children as 'too demanding.' This can intensify feelings of losing bodily autonomy as if our child is the one with the control. That can also result in ramped-up nursing aversion (or that skin-crawling urge to push your kiddo off when they latch).

So, when should you stop nursing on demand?

Conventional Advice for when to stop breastfeeding on demand:

When should you stop breastfeeding on demand? Conventional wisdom offers a few different perspectives (which can get confusing!).

  • Most leading health organizations (like the WHO) recommend breastfeeding on demand without further guidance. Seemingly suggesting that you continue with on-demand feeding until you wean?

  • Others propose transitioning to a more structured approach when your child starts consuming solid foods at around six months. This implies that while you continue breastfeeding, you shift towards a schedule, with solid foods gradually becoming the primary source of nutrition.

  • Lastly, you might come across the notion of stopping on-demand feeding at around 12 months, as it's generally believed that breast milk or formula should serve as the primary source of nutrition during the first year, and after that breastmilk is really an unnecessary lingering habit from infancy.

However, the challenge with these viewpoints is that they don't provide clear guidance on how to transition away from breastfeeding on demand.

  • If you follow the 'never stop' advice, you might feel like you've spent years at the beck and call of another human, which can become exhausting and lead to feelings of resentment and hopelessness. Additionally, your negative experiences with breastfeeding can inadvertently encourage your child to breastfeed even more (I call this the “toddler breastfeeding stress cycle” and I talk about over in this blog post about toddler breastfeeding addiction).

  • For those who give specific timeframes like six months or 12 months, it's often assumed that breast milk becomes secondary to solid foods at that precise moment. It's as if, on this date, breast milk is no longer necessary.

The reality, however, is that there's no universal, fixed point at which breastfeeding must transition to a secondary role in nutrition. It's a highly individual journey, and breast milk continues to offer crucial nutrition, and immunological support, facilitates healthy oral development, and fosters healthy secure attachment with the caregiver for as long as it's provided. There isn't a moment when breast milk turns into mere water or is just a fancy drink; it always plays a vital role.

Ultimately, giving a strict, universal, timeline for when a child should stop having unrestricted access to breastmilk isn’t evidence-based.

So what is a full-term breastfeeding mom to do?!

What I suggest: Stop breastfeeding on demand right now (and start responsively breastfeeding)

mom and baby peeking out from under a bed sheet - just their eyes are shown looking curiously directly at the camera.  the words "when to stop breastfeeding on demand" are written on the bedsheet.

I suggest that you never breastfeed on demand. (Controversial, I know!) But my recommendation to you is to embrace responsive breastfeeding instead.

This approach can be implemented from birth or at any stage in your breastfeeding journey.

It's not something you start and stop; responsive feeding is really responsive parenting and that isn’t something that you ever transition away from.

Responsive feeding, in my definition, involves responding to your child's communication, ensuring that both their needs and yours are valued in this relationship. You are an empowered and active participant in the breastfeeding dynamic.

You'll be reading and interpreting your child's cues, which, especially for a newborn, often translates to breastfeeding directly at the breast when they cue throughout the day.

However, responsive feeding acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It recognizes that various circumstances may require different solutions. For instance, if you're dealing with issues like tongue tie, and maternal separation, or if you choose to supplement with formula, (or completely formula feed from day 1), you can still engage in responsive feeding. The essence of this approach remains the same: recognizing and responding to your child's cues. But, in contrast, it honors your wisdom and needs too.

I want to emphatically state that it is never wrong to meet your child's needs through breastfeeding; there's no 'too old' or ‘too often’.

Responsive feeding views the breastfeeding relationship as a conversation where each of your child's behaviors is a form of communication about their needs. You have the ability to lovingly respond to these cues, just as you would with anyone you love who communicates with you. This doesn't mean imposing your desires on them or claiming to know best; it's about trusting their communication and wisdom in their behaviors.

Responsive feeding involves a collaborative, problem-solving approach, where both you and your child contribute your wisdom to create a plan together.

To use the on-demand TV metaphor (I know – it gets a little weird at this point, but stay with me): Think of it as the TV that's not just a passive device, but a wise partner in your viewing experience. Imagine it can recognize your day, your body language, and perhaps even its own needs. It doesn't mean you can't watch TV, but it becomes a different relationship where the TV responds to your cues actively – maybe offering a walk outside before you sit, or a home-cooked meal while you watch because it understands your needs and values your desires. If you were exhausted and struggling to understand and meet your own needs, a loving, responsive partner in your self-care would likely feel like a welcomed support. I know it’s weird when we are talking about you (a grown, capable adult) and a robot – but do you see how different this responsive dynamic is from the on-demand one?

pregnant mom and toddler sitting on a couch considering when to stop breastfeeding on demand

The transition from on-demand breastfeeding to responsive feeding is a shift in mindset that we need to make from the start of the breastfeeding journey to its end, whenever that may be. When your child is empowered to communicate their needs, and you are empowered to value your needs, you can choose your responses to their communication.

So, when should you stop on-demand breastfeeding? I'd suggest making the switch to responsive feeding right now.

This transition might require some effort, as you need to tune into your needs, recognize your child's cues, and consider the bigger picture. It's not always easy, but it’s the way forward if you are looking for an alternative to on-demand breastfeeding.


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