How long should your baby nurse at each session?

This is a classic question for lactation counselors, and it’s easy to understand why: Parents want to be sure their babies are getting enough to eat! The thing is, the length of your baby’s nursing session doesn’t tell us that much about how much milk they are getting. It would be nice if a quick glance at the clock could confirm that the baby is full, but it doesn’t work that way.

Think about it: if I served you a nice meal and started a timer, then stopped it 15 minutes later, would I know how much you ate? Of course not. You might have eaten quickly or taken your time, you might have taken a break to have a conversation, you might not have been hungry at all. It’s the same with babies, plus a bunch of other variables that come from the nursing parent’s side of the equation. So, shooting for a certain number of minutes each feeding doesn’t make a lot of sense. Fortunately, there are other signs that are just as easy to read as a digital clock, and I’m going to share them with you now.

First: let’s talk weight gain. It’s your baby’s most important job during their first few weeks, and it remains important throughout infancy. If your baby is gaining weight appropriately, you should feel assured that your nursing sessions are a good length.

Next, there’s diaper output. When your baby takes in enough milk, their digestive system responds by making urine and stool. Production starts off slow, with perhaps just one pee and one poop on the first day of life, but by day four, 6+ wet diapers are expected along with 3-4 stools. As your baby gets older, you’ll learn what’s normal for their output. If they’re gaining weight well and sticking to their normal diaper output, you should feel reassured about your nursing session length. (Note that older breastfed babies may sometimes go a few days without pooping.)

Weight gain and diaper output are all well and good, but they take time to assess and you want reassurance right now. Here are some ways you can read your baby in the moment to get instant feedback on whether they’re still hungry or not:

some common hunger and fullness cues

You can also watch your baby during nursing to get an idea of whether they’re getting enough milk. If you can see or hear lots of swallowing, that’s a good sign. It’s also reassuring to see your baby slowly relax their limbs and feel them get heavier in your arms as they get more and more satisfied. You might also notice their breathing slowing to a deep, gentle rhythm. All of this is reassuring that they are getting plenty of milk.

Hopefully, knowledge of your baby’s weight gain, diaper output, and hunger/fullness cues will replace any preoccupation you had with watching the clock. Know also that it’s normal for babies to shorten their nursing sessions as they grow and become more efficient eaters. Remember that you can trust your baby to know when they need to eat more, and when they don’t.

And finally, trust your own gut! If everything seems right on paper but your baby doesn’t seem right to you, don’t hesitate to talk to a CLC or doctor. Your judgement as a parent is some of the most valuable input we can hope for.

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