If you’re a breastfeeding mother, or you’ve been around breastfeeding parents and babies, you’ll know that breastfeed babies tend to feed very often, especially newborn babies in the early weeks. Some new mothers may worry about whether their baby is getting enough milk, while others may worry about whether their baby is getting too much breastmilk.
You may wonder if it’s possible to breastfeed a baby too much. You may be worried about if you can overfeed them if you breastfeed them too often. The simple answer is that you can’t breastfeed a baby too much and you can’t overfeed them unless you’re not exclusively breastfeeding or if you have quite a big oversupply.
Why can’t babies breastfeed too much or overfeed at the breast?
They can regulate their own nutrient intake
Breastfed babies can regulate their own nutrient intake. They know how much milk they need and they know how often they need to feed in order to receive the adequate amounts of milk they need every day.
They will let you know when they’re hungry and when they’re full. You just need to learn your baby’s early hunger cues and follow responsive feeding. Breastfed babies should not be fed on a schedule or be breastfed for a specific length of time, but rather on demand to avoid any milk supply or weight gain issues in the baby. Each baby will have their own feeding pattern based on their own individual needs. They’ll only suck actively if they want to.
They can pace their own feed
Babies also have the ability to pace their own feeds at the breast, no matter how long they suckle for. Babies can suckle for both feeds, known as nutritive sucking and for comfort, known as nonnutritive sucking.
Nutritive sucking differs from nonnutritive sucking. How they suckle communications with your body, it tells your body whether they need more milk, or more comfort.
The flow is not continuous
When you bottle feed a baby, the milk will keep flowing for as long as the baby keeps sucking. But with breastfeeding, the flow of the letdown is not continuous, the flow varies during the feed, thus naturally pacing the feed.
What are not signs of breastfeeding too much or too often?
It’s very biologically normal and healthy for your baby to want to breastfeed very frequently, especially in the early weeks, but even well into toddlerhood is also considered normal. Even if they breastfeed every hour or two. Babies are supposed to have less milk or smaller meals, more frequently.
Breastmilk digests very quickly, within 45-90 minutes. It digests much easier and much quicker than formula, which is why it may seem that breastfed babies feed more frequently than formula fed babies. So, it’s only natural that they’ll need to breastfeed frequently.
Babies don’t just breastfeed for hunger, which is a very common misunderstanding. They breastfeed for many different reasons including thirst, hunger, for pain relief, when they want to go to sleep, when they’re not feeling well or even just for comfort and bonding with mom.
The need for comfort sucking
Babies and even toddlers may want to breastfeed very frequently. But as mentioned above, it’s for many different reasons including comfort.
This is normal, babies have high sucking needs and will want to breastfeed to meet most of their nutritional and emotional needs.
You may have heard things like “my baby is using me as a pacifier”, but the truth is, pacifiers were meant to replace the nipple for comfort sucking and not the other way around. Your baby is doing exactly what they were meant to do.
Cluster feeding is when your baby feeds very frequently, so much so that the feedings are ‘clustered’ together. They seem to feed almost continuously over several hours, often in the evening or early hours of the morning but it can occur at any time during the day or night. They may be very fussy, and they often won’t settle to sleep easily.
Babies will cluster feed very frequently throughout their entire breastfeeding journeys, but especially so in the early days and early months of life.
It may be overwhelming to new parents that their baby is breastfeeding so “excessively”. They may worry that their baby is breastfeeding too much. I can assure you that this is very normal infant behavior, and your baby is not breastfeeding too much, and this will not overfeed them. Babies will cluster feed for many different reasons including establishing the milk supply, when they go through growth spurts and many more reasons. This is really great for milk production too.
The fourth trimester
The fourth trimester is the 12-week period immediately after you’ve given birth. This is a time where great physical and emotional change happens for both you and your baby. Your newborn baby now has to adjust to life outside of the womb, and you now have to adjust to your new life as a mother.
Your baby will probably want to be in your arms or on your breast 24/7. This is perfectly normal behavior, and you don’t have to worry about breastfeeding them too much or overfeeding them. Remember, this is for both feeds and comfort.
Newborns spit up a lot, some more than others. Their digestive systems and their lower esophageal sphincter are often immature and doesn’t keep the milk down as it should.
This is nothing to worry about, it will get better as your baby develops and everything starts maturing more. Spit up usually peaks around the 2–4-month mark and babies will usually outgrow it completely by the time they turn 1 year old.
The only time that spit up may indicate an issue is if it’s projectile vomiting, or when it’s so excessive that it affects your baby’s weight gain and wellbeing.
Infant dyschezia is a normal part of physical infant development and it’s characterized by the straining and crying of an infant before they either successfully or unsuccessfully pass wind or stools. The baby may strain, cry, pull their legs up to their stomach and turn red while experiencing infant dyschezia. This can usually last up to 10 minutes and it can happen several times a day.
Some parents may think their baby is struggling with gas, wind, cramps or colic due to breastfeeding too much or due to overfeeding at the breast. Especially since it often happens while breastfeeding. I can assure you that it’s not, all babies go through this period of development, and it has nothing to do with breastfeeding.
The frequency and consistency of diapers
Breastfed babies have very soft stools that are mustard yellow and sometimes has white seedlike flecks in it. People often think these very soft stools are diarrhea, and although diarrhea does happen when your baby is ill, very soft stool is completely normal in breastfed babies.
Breastfed babies can also have stool as often as twice a day, or even after each feeding. That’s a lot, isn’t it!? But it’s not a sign of breastfeeding too much or overfeeding your baby, it’s completely normal.
Breastmilk is higher in the protein whey than formula, and whey has a laxative effect on babies. This is also the reason why an exclusively breastfed baby won’t struggle with constipation unless there is a medical issue involved.
When can breastfed babies overfeed?
When they’re not exclusively breastfeeding
According to the World Health Organization, exclusive breastfeeding is defined as giving babies no other foods or drinks, including water. Only breastmilk. This means no formula supplementation, no solid foods and no water. If you give any of these to your baby, it’s no longer considered exclusive breastfeeding.
If you breastfeed your baby and you supplement them with a bottle of breastmilk or formula, solid foods or water, you can overfeed your baby by giving them too much.
When they’re bottle fed
As mentioned above, the flow from the breast isn’t continuous. How your baby suckles lets your body know what they need, and your baby paces the feed by changing the way they suck.
When a baby is bottle fed, the milk flowing from the teat is continuous, even if they suck for comfort. It will keep flowing unless you externally pace the feed very carefully. It’s important to follow early feeding cues and give the right amount of milk when giving a bottle.
When you have an oversupply of milk
An oversupply, which is the term for having more milk than what your baby needs, or too much milk. It’s not a “blessing” like many people may think it is. It comes with many complications, from severe engorgement and mastitis to the possibility of overfeeding your baby.
When you have an oversupply, your baby may get too much milk even if it’s not their intention. The milk flow will often be continuous and fast, and babies won’t be able to suck for comfort without the milk flowing continuously.
Signs of an overfed baby
Rapid weight gain
It is expected that breastfed babies are back at birth weight around the two weeks of life mark and the expected weight gain in the first 4 months is around 20-40g per day or 140-290g per week.
When a baby is being overfed, they may gain weight much more rapidly and well above the average expected weight gains. It can be normal for a baby to gain slightly less or slightly more, but it’s best to consult with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or to seek medical advice from a health care provider experienced in breastfed babies to help assess you and your baby and help with a treatment plan.
Spit up in babies is very normal, many babies will spit up quite frequently. But if your baby is frequently projectile vomiting, it may be a good idea to have an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or a health care professional experienced in breastfed babies assess your baby for overfeeding or other possible health issues.
Green frothy poos
If your baby is being overfed due to an oversupply, they may have frequent green frothy bowel movements. This is due to lactose overload in the breastmilk.
Severe gas, wind and possible cramps
If your baby is being overfed due to a bottle or an oversupply, they may struggle with some digestive issues such as gas, wind and cramps.
When your baby is being overfed, they probably will be very fussy due to feeling so uncomfortable. It’s important to reach out to an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or a health care professional experienced in breastfed babies. Fussiness can be a sign of low milk supply as well as oversupply and your baby being unwell.
In the case of a baby overfeeding due to an oversupply, there may be more lactose than fat content and the lactose overload can cause explosive diapers and even diarrhea. The fast flow of milk may overwhelm your baby and they may possibly start refusing the breast and start drinking less than they should.
If you’re giving your baby too much food, water or other liquids, they will fall short on the needed caloric and nutrient needs, and this will eventually lead to weight loss instead of weight gain.
If your baby’s stress cues are often ignored during bottle feeding, or they start associating the breast with discomfort, they may start to completely refuse the breast and even the bottle. It’s important to assess and treat the issue as soon as it arises to avoid further complications such as breast refusal.
It’s not possible to breastfeed your baby too much and overfeeding is very rare if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, unless you have an oversupply of milk. If you show any signs or symptoms of oversupply or if you experience severe breast engorgement that won’t settle down or causes discomfort or weight gain issues in your baby, it’s very important to seek help from an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or a healthcare professional experienced in breastfed babies.
Remember, frequent feeding and unrestricted access to the breast is best. Reach out for support when you feel like it’s necessary. Don’t follow apps or schedules, responsive feeding is best. You can also reach out to peer support groups such as La Leche League International’s support groups worldwide.