My son is now a 4-month-old baby and I can honestly say that I’ve hardly if ever seen feeding cues. Before I had my son, every time I read about so-called crunchy mums (i.e. natural mums), I knew I was going to be one of them. Attachment parenting, babywearing, cloth nappies, co-sleeping – you name it, it all sounded great to me. So natural and simply what parenting was supposed to be like. Breastfeeding on demand was also one of those things. It seemed such a logical choice that I never even considered that it might not come as easy as it sounds. Breastfeeding in itself was the only thing I was concerned about, but if I could breastfeed at all, then surely I could also breastfeed on demand?! As a natural mum, I was definitely not planning to let a schedule dictate when my son could be fed and when he had to suffer because it wasn’t ‘time’ yet.
Once my son was born, things weren’t as simple as they had been in my head. Even with all the information on breastfeeding I had absorbed in the last few months of my pregnancy, as I was anxious to succeed. I knew all about feeding cues and thought, “Ha, this sounds easy! I don’t even need to think about feeding times. My baby will just ‘ask’ to drink by using clear signals.” But in this real-life context that revolved around my specific baby, feeding cues just didn’t make sense to me. I felt very confused and doubted myself – was I doing something wrong? In the early days of his life, Facebook groups for mums with babies my son’s age were bombarded with messages such as, “My son wants to nurse every 2 hours.” And, “My daughter is ready for another session at the breast after 1½ hours.” All I could think was that they could read some sort of secret language. How the heck did these mothers know? How were they so sure?
Our son spent more time crying than sleeping in the first few weeks of his life – or so it seemed. I was desperate to know which cry meant what… He mostly appeared to be in a lot of discomfort and visibly suffered from cramps. Oh, there were so many cramps! Out of pure desperation, I started researching when to feed a newborn. I feared I was not feeding our little boy often enough, so I wanted to see something like a schedule. Well, what do you think?! Those damn feeding cues again. “You should offer the breast to your baby whenever he shows feeding cues.” Goddammit. What are you even talking about? For the record, MY BABY DOESN’T SHOW FEEDING CUES. And yet, every website seemed to broadcast a message along those lines, as if feeding cues were a given. No wonder I started doubting my own competence. Thankfully, though, it wasn’t just me, because my husband really couldn’t see any cues either.
The fact that other parents could identify their baby’s early feeding cues (crying is a late indicator) made me think that their babies must be a lot calmer. You see, these cues really on the baby being calm – there is no other way they could display the cues. Crying, for whatever reason, overrides feeding cues (but that doesn’t mean the baby isn’t hungry). And that’s exactly what happened with my son. In the first weeks, up to maybe a month, if he wasn’t feeding, he was crying or sleeping. Since he didn’t sleep enough, it was mostly crying. Literally. Every time he was done feeding, we were in for a rough few hours if I had not managed to nurse him asleep. With no calm time between feeding sessions, it was impossible to tell when this little guy was getting hungry again. Often, the only thing that joined two breastfeeding sessions was a crying spell in between, which meant he was on and off the breast. I ended up using boob primarily to comfort him, not so much to feed him. It felt like everything – cries for pain, hunger, tiredness – was bleeding into each other.
Time passed and things did get easier. To my joy, our Zenon gained weight at a proper pace and his time spent awake and happy increased. Over the months, I definitely got a lot more confident about breastfeeding. Especially his weight gain signified we could make this work. When you’re unable to follow a baby’s feeding cues, there is that doubt whether you’re really feeding your baby often enough. For me, lack of feeding cues meant I offered feeding sessions very, very frequently and was always watching the clock – I would even wake him for it during the day, so that I couldn’t really miss anything (I’m no longer doing that now, as I trust he will wake up in time). It’s not an overstatement to say that I was a bit envious of mothers who followed nothing but their baby’s natural pattern. There was no such thing for me.
As of now, his cramps are pretty much gone, but Zenon still suffers a lot from reflux. I’m confident in my ability to identify his reflux cries – he always spits up sooner rather than later – but I still don’t really see any clear feeding cues. A few times I’ve seen him root when he wasn’t finished with his session yet, but that’s really it. The thing is, I offer regularly; we really have a pattern now, and this seems to work well for both of us. Zenon only really seems to cry when he suffers from reflux, and sometimes when he’s fighting sleep, so that must be a good thing, because we never let him go hungry. It’s funny how even when he wakes up from a long sleep, he seems content and not in a rush to get milk, when we would expect him to! Sometimes I even wonder whether the reflux stems from this artificially established feeding routine and I’m actually overfeeding him. But hey, they always say that you can’t give too much breastmilk…
I’ve made peace with this whole feeding cue issue. I seriously doubt anything is going to change after a good 4 months of time. Right now, there are no significant problems, other than reflux. It still feels a bit alienating to hear other natural mums talk about their babies’ needs, which they seem to be perfectly attuned to, but I can’t do anything about this reality. No one is hurting at this point and there’s enough of a routine for it no to be stressful. There’s weight gain and growth. Zenon is mostly happy and at night he can literally choose when he drinks (which isn’t all that much). In fact, I have seen some unsure mums when their babies started to suck on their fingers and turn their heads for reasons other than hunger. So maybe I’m not completely alone after all!