Demand vs. Schedule


I’m caught up in fierce political warfare.

It turns out that typical loyalists of either demand feeding or schedule feeding are not content to regard their strategy as a preference — it’s the right way, and mothers in the other camp are foolish, inefficient, and worst of all, wrong.

Demand feeding — the method endorsed by today’s infant care professionals — is the child-directed strategy where the mother responds to hunger cues, and feeds the baby whenever she sees those cues. Scheduled feeding is the parent-directed alternative, where the parents decide feeding times — usually at three-hour intervals.

Demand feeders argue that a baby needs to trust there is someone else always there; that after being ejected from the womb and its constant companionship, they aren’t alone. Demand feeders also say that the baby knows how much food it needs, and when it needs it, and for a parent to enforce a schedule on them is to nutritionally and developmentally disadvantage the infant, overriding the natural instinct.

Schedule feeders argue that the baby needs its hunger patterns directed into an orderly cycle by the parents, to provide stability not just for the baby, but the whole family. They say the baby joins the family as a member of it, not the centre of it, so must learn to fit in with everybody else’s schedule. Schedule feeders believe that to feed on demand is to nurture self-centredness, and encourage manipulation as the child learns he can make his mother jump at his say-so. (While I agree a child can employ tactics to get what he wants at an early age, I think two weeks old is a little young to be accused of this.)

At this moment, I haven’t picked a team, officially. I’m still being bounced from one to the other by emphatic and persuasive arguments from people and books trying to recruit me to their team. I’ve tried both methods, and seen benefits and taxes of both. Because my baby’s only two weeks old, one could argue I haven’t given either method an extensive trial, but I am tending to lean toward one now. But my experience of feeling bullied in the process, when all I want to do is feed my baby, reminds me to never be one of those women who puts pressure on new mums to persuade them to join my team. Well-meaning it may be, but it’s not helpful.

Interestingly, despite infant care professionals officially promoting demand feeding, infants at the hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit are strictly schedule fed. Because apparently, it’s best for them. I find it bizarre that the same people who keep the babies to a schedule, for the good of their development, would then send them home with instructions to be demand fed. It sounds like the height of hypocrisy to me.

I found demand feeding to have its benefits. It’s a heart-rending experience for me to hear Timmy cry — especially as this is my first baby, so I’m still the super-attentive mother who desperately wants to do everything right, and to my mind a crying baby is indicative of a mother who’s not doing something right. (Intellectually, I know this won’t always be the case, but when I hear Timmy’s crying, intellect hides behind the couch and I want to do anything to make him happy and calm.) Demand feeding meant I didn’t have to hear him cry so much. I also had an ascetic feeling of worthiness, while I was cripplingly tired getting up so many times in the night to feed him — I was putting my baby’s needs above my own, which must make me a good and noble mother, right?

However, I found that demand feeding just wasn’t sustainable. Not just because I was so tired all the time, and consequently more emotionally fragile than one would expect to be with a new baby, but also for a more practical reason: the canteen was running out of stock. The frequency of his demand was often less than two hours, not allowing much time for me to replenish my stores. This had a negative cyclical effect: with not so much available at each visit, he then needed to feed more often to receive the same amount. And so the spiral downwards began.

So now I find myself back having a go at schedule feeding. It’s much easier to live, only having to wake every three hours overnight. It’s also possible to plan my day better, when I know what times I’ll be out of commission, on vending machine duty. The biggest benefit I found with schedule feeding previously, was a manageable level of fatigue. Sometimes I didn’t even need a nap during the day. My reasons of leaving it to try demand feeding previously (besides being made to feel like a bad mother by demand feeding advocates), was because I didn’t feel able to let him cry overnight, because it would perforate the sleep of my husband, whose work from home as a technical writer and editor calls for high cognitive function. And once I was throwing out the schedule overnight, it mucked up the following day, too.

According to Husband though, he’s now able to tune out the cries, if doors are shut. They’ve become tolerable background white noise to him, and in the last few nights he hasn’t been woken by it. This inspires me to try schedule feeding again. So far it’s gone well, although perhaps this is too soon for an analysis — it hasn’t even been 24 hours since 3-hourly feeding was implemented again. It’s still hard for me to hear restless cries, but it’s a fulfilling feeling when the baby seems to be syncing in with the schedule — waking just in time for a scheduled feed, and looking only mildly discontent with an empty belly, not yet having developed to a full volume protest.

I find it unfortunate that the most frustrating part of either feeding method has not been anything to do with physiology or infant response, but fending off attacks from the opposing team. I hope I never become like that to other mums.


(7) Comments

  • Rachel Black
    10 May 2012

    This blog, with valid support for both views, by itself disproves the spurious view that women, once delivered of a child, loose all intellect as the hormones turn their brains to mush. You go girl – prove you can be a good at home Mum, and still be the bright intellectual you have always been.

  • Jennifer Peters
    10 May 2012

    Well done for experimenting – only you know what will work best for you and for you little one.
    I strictly schedule feed for my first baby with controlled crying and that worked well. For my second baby it didn’t work at all and after struggling for months I moved on to demand feeding and it made things alot easier. For my third baby I demand fed which eventually developed into a routine by itself.
    Every child is different, and God has given us a mothering instint to make the right decision.

  • Andrea Latoa on Facebook
    10 May 2012

    I find it fascinating that when all else fails with the “purely demand feed” method and the child is in hospital or the mother is run ragged – the answer is always ROUTINE feeding – so a little bit of flexiblitity is needed – it needs never be a war! 🙂 A child must get a good full feed to be content (snacking is never the answer as it produces a colicky baby digesting frothy foremilk not full fat hind milk) and usually that’ll satisfy them for a good hour or more sleep until the next feed. You’re dealing with a human being – routine is good – but flexibility is also necessary. SO I’ve just proved you can be in both camps and not be militant AND you just brought out the Nurse/Plunket Nurse and “fond memories of breastfeeding” Mum 🙂 All the best with navigating the early days – here if you need to chat!! 🙂

  • Leanne Knox
    10 May 2012

    Wow this is so complicated!

    Not the feeding part, you and Timmy will work out what suits, but the politics of it all!

    You are approaching motherhood with grace and wisdom. Timmy is so lucky!!

  • Courtney
    10 May 2012

    Good on you Eve the mother guilt is not very fun is it. I agree with you it’s not a black and white issue. My two cents worth is that I stick to a flexible schedule. I was waking Gretchen for 4 hrly feeds in the beginning but then she set the schedule to every 3 and then 2 1/2. She sleeps through the night now. But obviously that could be a fluke. Glad to hear you are coping its pretty tough in the beginning. We vowed Gretchen would be an only child

  • Ngaire Bates on Facebook
    10 May 2012

    When you have twins if you don’t routine feed all you do all day is run yourself ragged between babies demands. We all have routines, its just that a new baby doesn’t. ..Yet. Do you want his routine or yours?

  • Leanne Knox
    10 May 2012

    I have just noticed that my dad follows demand feeding with the cat.

    Because *of course* she knows when she’s had enough.

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