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Is my baby getting enough milk while breast feeding?

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Are you worried about your baby getting enough breast milk?

Are you worried about your baby getting enough breast milk?

Photo © iStockPhoto
Breastfeeding mothers frequently ask how to know their babies are getting enough milk. The breast is not the bottle, and it is not possible to hold the breast up to the light to see how many ounces or millilitres of milk the baby drank. Our number obsessed society makes it difficult for some mothers to accept not seeing exactly how much milk the baby receives. However, there are ways of knowing that the baby is getting enough. In the long run, weight gain is the best indication whether the baby is getting enough, but rules about weight gain appropriate for bottle fed babies may not be appropriate for breastfed babies.

Ways of Knowing

1. Baby's nursing is characteristic. A baby who is obtaining lots of milk at the breast sucks in a very characteristic way. The baby generally opens his mouth fairly wide as he sucks and the rhythm is slow and steady. His lips are turned out. At the maximum opening of his mouth, there is a perceptible pause which you can see if you watch his chin. Then, the baby closes his mouth again. This pause does not refer to the pause between suckles, but rather to the pause during one suckle as the baby opens his mouth to its maximum. Each one of these pauses corresponds to a mouthful of milk and the longer the pause, the more milk the baby got. At times, the baby can even be heard to be swallowing, and this is perhaps reassuring, but the baby can be getting lots of milk without making noise. Usually, the baby's suckle will change during the feeding, so that the above type of suck will alternate with sucks that could be described as “nibbling”. This is normal. The baby who suckles as described above, with several minutes of pausing type sucks at each feeding, and then comes off the breast satisfied, is getting enough. The baby who nibbles only, or has the drinking type of suckle for a short period of time only, is probably not. This is the best way of knowing the baby is getting enough. This type of suckling can be seen on the very first day of life, though it is not as obvious as later when the mother has lots more milk.

2. Baby's bowel movements. For the first few days after delivery, the baby passes meconium, a dark green, almost black, substance. Meconium accumulates in the baby's gut during pregnancy. Meconium is passed during the first few days, and by the 3rd day, the bowel movements start becoming lighter, as more breastmilk is taken. Usually by the fifth day, the bowel movements have taken on the appearance of the normal breastmilk stool. The normal breastmilk stool is pasty to watery, mustard coloured, and usually has little odour. However, bowel movements may vary considerably from this description. They may be green or orange, may contain curds or mucus, or may resemble shaving lotion in consistency (from air bubbles). The variation in colour does not mean something is wrong. A baby who is breastfeeding only, and is starting to have bowel movements which are becoming lighter by day 3 of life, is doing well.

Without your becoming obsessive about it, monitoring the frequency and quantity of bowel motions is one of the best ways of knowing if the baby is getting enough milk. After the first 3-4 days, the baby should have increasing bowel movements so that by the end of the first week he should be passing at least 2-3 substantial yellow stools each day. In addition, many infants have a stained diaper with almost each feeding. A baby who is still passing meconium on the fifth day should be seen at the clinic the same day. A baby who is passing only brown bowel movements is probably not getting enough, but this is not yet definite.

Some breastfed babies, after the first 3-4 weeks of life, may suddenly change their stool pattern from many each day, to one every 3 days or even less. Some babies have gone as long as 15 days or more without a bowel movement. As long as the baby is otherwise well, and the stool is the usual pasty or soft, yellow movement, this is not constipation and is of no concern. No treatment is necessary or desirable, because no treatment is necessary or desirable for something that is normal.

Any baby between 5 and 21 days of age who does not pass at least one substantial bowel movement within a 24 hour period should be seen at the breastfeeding clinic the same day. Generally, small infrequent bowel movements during this time period means insufficient intake. There are definite exceptions and everything may be fine, but it is better to check.

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