One Side or Two?
As a lactation consultant, one of the most common questions I get asked is “should I feed my baby on one side or two at each feed?” The answer is frustratingly – it depends! Each mum and baby pair is a unique partnership and their feeding pattern will be equally unique. However, there are some general guidelines that can help you to figure out what’s right for you and your baby.
What is Your Storage Capacity?
Every breast has a maximum amount of milk that can be stored within it. This amount will not only vary between women; some women find that they have a significant variance between their own breasts.
Imagine that inside your breasts is a cup – some women will have a cup large enough to hold 600ml (or more!) of milk, while others may have a smaller cup that can hold say 100ml of milk (the size of this cup has nothing to do with the size of your breasts!).
Now imagine pouring milk into these cups – once they’re full you can’t pour any more milk into them. This is the same in your breasts - once the cup in your breasts is “full” your body will stop making any more milk until it has been emptied. Of course, the opposite is true too – the emptier your cup – the faster your body will produce milk to fill it. This response to being “full” and “empty” is a vital part of your body’s self-regulation.
It is not important to know the exact storage capacity of your breasts, but rather to understand that different storage capacities will require different feeding patterns. So how exactly do feeding patterns vary, and does the mother with the smaller cup have a supply issue?
Let’s say we are dealing with a 3 month old baby who requires a total of 950ml milk every 24 hours.
It is easy to see how the woman with the large cup will have a lot of flexibility in how she feeds her baby. She can choose to encourage her baby to take 6-7 large feeds over the 24 hours, and if each breast has the same large “cup”, then she will likely only ever need to offer one breast at a feeding. However, she could equally have a baby who prefers taking 8-9 smaller feeds despite the larger volumes being available. Remember – breastfeeding is a relationship that takes into account both mum and baby’s needs and desires…
On the other hand, this mother with the smaller “cup” will likely experience a different breastfeeding pattern. Her baby will probably need to access both breasts at each feed in order to get the desired amount of milk, and she will probably find herself feeding more frequently during the day (and night!). Since her body will make milk at a faster rate when her breast is empty, she will have another “cup” of milk to feed the baby when they come back for the next feed.
Do Either of These Mothers Have a Supply Issue?
The simple and positive answer here is “no”. Both these mothers have enough milk to feed their babies:
Mother 1 gives 6 feeds a day of approximately 160ml per feed = total intake of 960ml per day
Mother 2 gives 10 feeds a day of approximately 95ml per feed = total intake of 950ml per day
Both these mothers are able to fully meet their baby’s needs.
However, what happens if Mother 2 tries to put her baby on a 4 hourly schedule?
In this case, the baby can still only take 95ml per feed (as that is mother’s capacity), but now has only taken in 570ml over the course of the day (95ml x 6 = 570ml). This baby won’t gain weight appropriately and the mother will often be advised to supplement due to “low supply”.
Seeking Professional Help
A lack of awareness of how breastfeeding and storage capacity interact can lead many mothers to mistakenly believe that they have supply issues. While there are unfortunately cases where a mother will not be able to make a full milk supply for her baby, the vast majority of supply issues can be resolved with professional support.
Seeking out your local lactation specialist if you feel that breastfeeding isn’t progressing as you’d like is key to helping you achieve your breastfeeding goals.
Wendy Lever IBCLC