If you search the internet for how often a baby should feed, you will get 8-12 times in a 24 hour period. All pages will say the same thing. But you will most likely feel it's far more than that and you will question this with a healthcare professional next time you see one, such as a midwife or health visitor. They will most likely say that a baby comes to the breast for other reasons than feeding, for comfort etc. And that is definitely correct. However, what is never mentioned is how a baby feeds. And if you understand how your baby feeds, the number 8-12 times per 24 hours will make perfect sense.
A newborn baby and for the first weeks will have great hormone fluctuations due to the action of sucking. Sucking will not only make a baby feel contented and calm, but also tired and full. Even if he hasn't had enough milk for the stomach to be full because it's driven by hormones.
So what does this mean in terms of how your baby feeds? Imagine your baby is hungry and you put him to the breast. He sucks, then sucks and swallows and then after 20 minutes or less he falls asleep, but he is still attached doing sucks every now and again. If you take him off, he might sleep for 5-20 minutes ON YOU (I'll come back to if you try and put him down elsewhere). When he was feeding his hormone levels went up and made him feel full and sleepy and he needed a rest. After 20 minutes his hormone levels have dropped enough that he wakes up again to continue THE SAME FEED. He's rested enough to have another 20 minute go and then he falls asleep again, still attached. He has a short nap and then wakes up again, instantly rooting and goes back on the breast to finish off THE SAME FEED. This time when he is done he comes off on his own, either slipping off or quickly pulling off. That feed took one hour. He is now ready to be put down on his own. To you, this probably seemed like 3 feeds.
If you during this feed tried to put him down away from you, he probably woke up within 5 minutes, if not instantly and wants to go back on. It's simply survival driven and babies instinctively wants to stay close to the food source if their stomach isn't full. When he goes back on his hormone levels are still high and he hasn't rested so he probably only manages a few minutes of sucking before falling asleep again and it will take many more goes for him to finish what is only one feed and he'll be attached far longer in 24 hours than a baby who is allowed to rest on his mother chest during a feed.
This information is also useful for mums who worry about expressing. We know a baby takes roughly 70 ml's during one feed at 3 weeks (obviously there will be variations on the amount depending on health, size, prematurity and so on and it increases after the growth spurt) and a mum's who expresses 30ml's will feel anxious. Expressing isn't an indication on what a baby takes we know that, but if a baby doesn't take 70ml's in one go, why would mothers be able to express 70mls at one go? If you expressed 3 times in 1 hour (and you're able to stimulate at least one let down every time like a baby can) you'd probably get your 70mls.
Some babies do manage to finish a feed in one go, especially if the mother has a very fast let down, others take more than 3 goes, especially in the early days. Night time feeds also seem to follow a different pattern when babies sleep better at night, which also varies greatly from baby to baby. Some babies stay nocturnal far longer than other babies. Also evening cluster feeding is different too, as many of you will have experienced. In my example above I'm using what I am finding most common during the day.
Counting feeds according to this information will give you roughly the 8-12 feeds the guidelines state. It will also make you understand that your baby is using you for comfort far less than you actually thought. He will be feeding for the majority of the time. I'm hoping this will make sense to you new mums who are worried about how often your baby is attached and what you can do to make it a bit less (let him sleep on you). If he gets rest during the feed, then he will finish it better and sleep for a longer stretch, during which both of you can sleep or you can shower etc. You'll find that by keeping your baby with you, you will end up with more "free" time which might sound counterintuitive. All of what I write is generalising as we all have different babies with different needs, but use it as a guide. This is also just the feeding pattern for the first few weeks. Your baby will be able to finish a feed a in one go, but it usually doesn't start till 6-8 weeks which is why we say to stick with it. It does get easier. Try it and see how it goes. xx