Right when you start to feel like you have your baby figured out, he or she has this fun way of changing things up on you. In the first year of mothering it feels like this happens every two to four weeks. And it does. I am happy to report that this starts to space out to about every three to six months in later years of life.
In a lot of breastfeeding books, textbooks, blogs, etc., there is talk about “growth spurts.” These are periods of time when baby ramps up the length and frequency of breastfeeding for three to five days before returning to her more reasonable breastfeeding ways. Growth spurts are definitely one of those tough mothering times when you feel like you don’t know what you are doing.
So, this blog is meant to address these alleged growth spurts, explain what is going on, and how to not lose your mind.
If you haven’t yet, get The Wonder Weeks book and/or App. I have encouraged the mamas I work with to use this app for years now and it is legit. The Wonder Weeks is an overview of your baby’s cognitive development for the first 20 months of his or her life. The authors, a husband and wife team, are Anthropologists who dedicated their life’s work to studying the regressive periods of infant primates. Translation: they set out to find out why babies seem to go through periods of extreme fussiness and clinginess. What the couple discovered is that human babies go through very predictable changes in cognitive development. During this change, babies are rearranging their brains as they get ready to learn something brand new. While they are rearranging their brains, they regress, often becoming much more clingy and fussy than usual.
I cannot talk about growth spurts without talking about The Wonder Weeks because without The Wonder Weeks every period of fussiness and increased need to nurse looks like a growth spurt.
The First Two Weeks
The first two weeks don’t count. The first two weeks is a breastfeeding-free-for-all and you have no idea what you are doing. That’s totally normal. For the first two weeks, your job is to get your baby back to birth weight without losing your mind. There is no rhyme or reason to the madness. Just nurse the baby eight or more times per 24 hours, count diapers, and seek help if you have nipple pain that you would describe as any worse than “sore, tender or sensitive.”
Weeks Two to Three: A Real Growth Spurt
Make sure baby is back to birth weight by two weeks. If your baby isn’t back to birth weight by two weeks, you should be working with a good IBCLC. Chances are your pediatrician is watching to make sure your baby grows well, but he or she isn’t watching to make sure breastfeeding is being protected. That is what a good IBCLC is for.
Once your baby is back to birth weight and you have allowed yourself to exhale and unclench your anxious jaw slightly, you may have a few days to a week before you encounter your baby’s first growth spurt.
But, I have to say, you may not notice this growth spurt or it may not happen at all. Mothers who have somewhat of an oversupply of milk at this stage may skip the growth spurt entirely. If you don’t notice a growth spurt in the two to three week period, THAT IS OK!
A lot of moms report that around baby’s second or third week of life, he starts asking to nurse a lot more. Moms also describe feeling like the baby is nursing on “empty breasts.” Baby usually seems content to sit and nurse on an empty breast, but don’t you dare take baby off or hand him to dad. He will freak out until you put him back on the breast.
This is why it is really important that you have gotten any significant nipple pain taken care of in the first few weeks. If you are heading into the growth spurt with busted nipples, this challenging period can feel downright excruciating.
What is going on? Well, baby is upping the ante on what he needs your body to produce. This first growth spurt is really important for your milk supply. The messages that are sent during this time are super duper important for your overall production. So baby nurses, gets what he gets, then sits there and sucks and sucks and sucks to let your body know that he is growing and needs more. He is increasing demand.
But here is the catch: Your supply works on a two to five day lag from the demand. Meaning, baby is going to need to send the demand message for a few days before your body delivers the supply. THIS is the growth spurt period.
At the end of two to five days of this lovely growth spurt, your baby should once again seem satisfied at the breast after a reasonable nursing session. He or she may pop off when done with a sweet little milk drunk kind of face. You should see feedings space back to two to three hours apart. You may get your first blessed four hour chunk of sleep (hopefully at night and hopefully you are sleeping too).
If this doesn’t happen after five days of growth spurting, check your work. Get a weight check on your baby and see your kick ass IBCLC. One cannot endure more than about three days of growth spurt madness. Five is really hard. Anything longer can be straight torture, which leads to insanity. Do yourself a favor and find out what is going on. Here is an example from Balanced Breastfeeding Mama (and Birth Center nurse) Jenn:
Audenae is a content baby as long as she has her fill of Mama-snuggles throughout the day. But around 2 weeks old, she acted like the crazy starving baby. She was gaining weight well, but I began to doubt that I was producing enough milk. The entire first day (and night!) of this phase, she wanted the breast. She would get angry that there was nothing coming out, but that’s only because she had run the well dry with all her nursing! That first night, she was up every 45 minutes, and I don’t feel like I slept at all. The next day, she would give my breasts time to fill a little bit before wanting to nurse again, and the third day her starving-baby raving had reverted back to her happy self and her normal pattern of eating every 2-3 hours. Katie and I had determined she was going through a growth spurt. She did chunk up after those few days and filled out pajamas that she had been swimming in three days prior.
Weeks Five to Seven: Probably Not a Growth Spurt, but Rather a Leap
The first Wonder Week falls around five weeks from your baby’s due date. The App is super cool because it allows you to enter your baby’s due date and birth date and it adjusts itself accordingly. Some moms find using the due date is more accurate while others find using the birth date is more accurate. Play around with it and see how it works for you.
The first Wonder Week, “The World of Changing Sensations,” will be another challenge to your mothering and breastfeeding confidence. During this period, “new sensations bombard your baby inside and out, and he is usually bewildered by them. . . . it is not so much the sensations themselves that are changing, but rather the baby’s perception of them” (The Wonder Weeks, 2014). Baby tends to be clingier to mom. He not only wants to be with mom, he wants to be ON mom. Ideally breastfeeding, but he may accept a close second of laying on her chest. A big difference between a Wonder Week and a growth spurt is that during a Wonder Week baby seems to simply eat more, but not nurse you dry. It doesn’t seem as much like you don’t have enough, more like baby is just eating a lot.
Understanding that your baby is going through a Wonder Week helps you nurture a deep sense of empathy for your baby. Rather than seeing him as being “needy” or “too dependent” you can see him as learning something new. Rather than worrying that you aren’t making enough milk, you can realize that it helps baby to eat more and snuggle more while he is learning these new skills.
It is rumored that you may see growth spurts around six weeks and twelve weeks as well, but I encourage you to keep track of the Wonder Weeks to see if what you are observing is a growth spurt or just a developmental leap. Here is Jenn’s experience during the leap:
The clingy temperament came again at 5 1/2 weeks, but I was expecting this one thanks to a tip from the Wonder Weeks app. She began to really focus on me and attempted some social smiles and purposeful coos. It was a delight, but Audenae could barely handle all the new sensations and just wanted to be near Mama. Her fussiest times were evenings and nights. After feeding, she would pacify herself on the breast for hours. During the days she would lay down in her bassinet for no more than an hour before wanting to be held again, specifically by me. This lasted a couple days before she embraced these new sensations and started sleeping on her own again for longer stretches.
Don’t Confuse Growth Spurts and Leaps with Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding is different than growth spurting. Cluster feeding is when baby closely spaces feedings for a few hours once or twice a day. For instance, if your baby typically eats every 2-3 hours during the day from 7 am- 5pm, but then eats every hour from 6pm-11pm, that is a cluster feed. This is a really common phenomenon for the first few months of baby’s life. Read more here on cluster feeding.