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Breastfeeding is a unique experience for babies and nursing mothers; no two children feed the same, even siblings. It is both what makes it a magical experience and a challenge.
How long do babies breastfeed in one sitting is a tough question to answer. There is one answer that would be right for YOUR baby, but this article can you give some general ideas of feeding length as well as explanations as to why your baby may be having longer or shorter feeds than you expected.
Just remember, breastfeeding is a personal experience for baby and mum, how other babies feed has no bearing on how your child is or might feed! Embrace it.
How long do babies feed in one sitting?
Although newborn babies instinctively know how to feed from their DNA and the Montgomery glands, it is still a skill that gets better over time. This means that the length of a single feeding session can get shorter as they get better, but there can still be long sessions even when they’ve mastered it.
A typical newborn can feed from both sides for a total of around 15-30 minutes, but the minimum could be 5 minutes and the maximum could be an hour. These sessions could add up to 7 or even 15 in a single day. This is one of reasons why nursing chairs for new mothers can make things a lot more comfortable.
In the first few days when colostrum is present, feeds can be shorter as colostrum is nutrient dense and syrupy thick. Colostrum is arguably the healthiest nutrition for a human being, which means babies don’t need much of it to get a massive health and energy boost.
When the first milk comes in the feeds can become longer as the milk has less calories to fill them up than the colostrum.
Newborns are new to breastfeeding and their technique may not be there yet with jaw muscles not yet developed – they can appear fussy, almost clumsy, and this can create long and frustrating sessions for mothers but it does get better in time.
By 3 months old, your baby should have stronger jaw and mouth muscles, they should know (with your help) how latch on properly. This leads to short feeds in single sittings and a longer gap between sessions. The average length of a single feeding session could be between 5 and 10 minutes as they are able to extract more volume of milk. However, this may not always the case – some babies of this age may still have the occasional long feeding session (to go to sleep if there’s an issue – detailed further down).
Babies who may have long feeds per sitting are still common and it doesn’t mean there’s any issue whatsoever. As we said, breastfeeding is a unique and personal experience PER BABY.
But, they may still feed regularly throughout the day, particularly during a growth spurt or when they are sick.
6 Months-12 months
By this age they will have mastered the boob or overcome any difficulties experienced beforehand. Additionally, this is the time babies tend to explore solid foods or blended foods which give them new calories. However, it is still advised to continue to breastfeed babies on demand way past this point.
For babies who do still feed, the sessions should be much shorter with a much larger gap between sittings. As usual, this is generalising but not always the case. Some babies take a while to take to food and others have more breastmilk than others for various reasons.
But, the average session should be between 5 and 10 minutes, with some longer sessions if they nurse to sleep and so on. Sick babies even at this age will tend to feed more for anti bodies.
Once they become toddlers exclusively breastfeeding may not be possible and they should be getting fruits, vegetables and other foods in their diet at this point. A single sitting should be pretty rapid at this point – 5 minutes – and depending on their solid diet the gap between sessions could be hours at a time.
As is the case with any child being breastfed, comfort feeds when they are sick or at night can be longer but they shouldn’t be longer than when they were younger. They may also want to feed occasionally during the night but this is likely a comfort feed rather than for the nutrition at this point.
We detail this later on but breastmilk’s melatonin content peaks at night which is why they feed for longer to go to sleep.
What can make these sittings longer than usual?
We’ve mentioned previously that many variables can make how long a sitting is. Here we break down the most common causes of longer and shorter than usual sittings and what can be done about them.
A poor latch causes problems short term and long term including diarrhea and poor weight gain. A good latch means the baby can get the milk out quickly and efficiently which reduces the length of feeds and ensures they get ALL of the milk and not just the fore milk. Efficient feeding also sends signals to the mother to increase supply to match the baby’s demand. If you find your feeding sessions drag on and you end up with with sore nipples and even sorer patience then the latch is the best place to start. Signs of a poor latch include:
- Baby seems to labour to get milk
- You can hear clicking noises
- They frequently come off upset
- Feeding sessions seem long with only short breaks inbetween
- Low milk supply
- Sore nipples
- Not gaining or maintaining weight
Your local council or health service should have an infant feeding team which should be your port of call, otherwise local breast-feeding support groups can help. A poor latch won’t go away on its own and can lead to a negative breastfeeding experience so it’s best to deal with it quickly.
A low supply can be a cause of spending longer per sitting, as there isn’t enough to fill them up in a single sitting. The baby will just keep trying to yours and their frustrations. Managing supply in a nutshell is controlled by the baby, increasing the frequency of feedings, ensuring there is a good latch and feeding on demand can help increase supply naturally which will result in shorter feeding sessions.
A low supply is usually a symptom rather than a cause.
Growth spurts come like lightning and create a fussy baby who will need longer feeds for both food and comfort. There are many books out there who try and help you plan ahead but the reality is they will come from time to time and pass just as quick. The type of feeding a baby will do during one of these spurts is often called ‘cluster feeding‘.
However, cluster feeding isn’t necessarily long feeds in a single sitting, instead it might be an intense period of constant short feeds. During the night time this can also be the case, often worse. During a cluster feeding session many mothers can only hope for those long gentle feeds!
Growth spurts often make it seem like it never gets easier, but it does.
Babies get bugs and whey they do they go to the boob for comfort, when they feel particularly rotten they may go to the boob and stay at the boob for long periods of time. This can be welcome respite for both.
The signs of a sick baby are obvious, runny nose, coughing, sneezing and a mild temperature. If your baby seems sick and their spending a long time with each sitting then you can guarantee it’s because they just need that comfort.
It may be small comfort but breastfeeding is the best thing for a baby when they’re unwell and will actually make them better quicker.
Tongue ties in babies restricts the movement of the tongue, which is essential for effective and efficient feeding. Babies should be inspected for tongue ties at the earliest opportunity after birth even if you don’t suspect it.
Tongue ties can be spotted visually rather easily, it is a strand of cartilage (lingual frenulum) which ties the tongue to the mouth floor. When they’re tongue tie it can be pronounced and start closer to the front of the tongue.
Other signs of a tongue tie are:
- Baby feeds for long periods
- Baby falls asleep during a feed with the nipple still attached
- They want to feed as soon as they wake up\
- Feeding seems laboured even with a good latch
Tongue ties can be treated with a snip either via the NHS or privately. Ensure you get inspected properly before proceeding.
Many babies nurse to sleep and it is a very useful tool as the sleep hormone melatonin peaks in the milk during the night. These go-to-sleep feeds can be longer than the day time and indeed useful as melatonin and a full tummy is key to a decent night’s sleep.