When I was pregnant, I dreamed that my daughter, Ruby, would calmly empty her bottle in ten minutes flat, and then burp like a frat boy. Reality check: As a 3-month-old, she was more likely to stretch a feeding out to 40 minutes, and then upchuck all over her outfit.
Most new moms know that breast- or bottle-feeding doesn't always go as smoothly as expected, in part because all babies have their own set of mealtime mannerisms. Yours may be slow, squirmy, spitty -- anything but a champion milk guzzler -- and that's completely normal. "Don't expect that you'll get a baby who always drinks eight ounces every four hours. That doesn't happen very often," says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D.,a pediatrician in Seattle and the mother of two toddlers. However, if you figure out what's at the root of your feeding-time issues, you may be able to make meals less fraught.
What's going on "Once babies get to be a few months old, they go through a social-butterfly stage where they want to see what's happening around them," says nurse practitioner and lactation consultant Stacey H. Rubin, author of The ABCs of Breastfeeding. That curiosity can keep your baby from focusing on the job at hand.
How to help Provide cues that it's time to get down to business, like playing an MP3 of white noise or sitting in the same chair each time you nurse -- preferably in a TV- and toddler-free corner of the house. If your child's still not paying attention, it could be because he's not getting enough milk when he sucks. "As your milk flow naturally slows down near the end of a feeding, your baby will become distracted. Since heavier milk flow will keep his interest better, try switching to the opposite breast," suggests Rubin.
What's going on She may not be hungry, and she's letting you know by turning her head, arching her back, or fussing.
How to help "If your baby seems uncomfortable during a feeding, the solution is always to take a break," says Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D., a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Trying to force-feed her can make her resist. Wait until she shows signs that she's hungry, like rooting (nuzzling your breast) or mouthing her fist.
What's going on If you're nursing, your milk letdown could feel more like a tidal wave to your baby, leaving him sputtering. So can a too-big bottle nipple hole.
How to help When you feel your milk gush at the beginning of a nursing session, unlatch your baby and express some of the milk into a cup until your flow's a little gentler. If you're bottle-feeding, switch to a slower-flow nipple for now.
What's going on "If your baby is congested or she's getting a tooth, it may hurt when she swallows," says Rubin. If she was interrupted the last time she ate, she might hesitate to try again.
How to help Make your baby as comfortable as possible by offering her a chilled teething ring for a painful tooth or using a saline spray and a bulb syringe for a stuffed-up nose. Sometimes it can help to feed her in another room, nurse in a different position, or try when she's sleepy and likely to suck for comfort. "Chances are your baby won't miss too many feedings," says Rubin. If the strike lasts for more than a day or two, or if she shows signs of being sick, talk to your doctor.
What's going on In some babies, the muscle that keeps food inside the stomach (also known as the lower esophageal sphincter) is immature, so food backs up after meals.
How to help Spitting up tends to taper off over the first year, as the sphincter gets stronger. Until then, opt for smaller, more frequent feedings, and if you're breastfeeding it can be helpful to let your baby drain the milk in one breast before switching sides so he can get to the higher-fat and calorie-dense hind milk. He'll feel full faster and be less likely to overfeed. Spitting up isn't usually painful to your baby, so unless he's losing weight or screams when he vomits (which could indicate reflux, a condition for which you should see your pediatrician), just keep a burp cloth handy and invest in a supply of bibs!
What's going on If your baby is going through a growth spurt (the first one typically hits between 4 and 8 weeks, but they can happen almost anytime in the first six months), you might feel as if she's in the midst of a feeding frenzy. "There will be a day or two when she wants to nurse practically every hour, and you keep thinking to yourself, 'We just did this. What are you doing back here again?'" says Dr. Swanson.
How to help As long as you can hear an audible swallow when she sucks, your baby is probably genuinely hungry, not just treating you like a human pacifier. The best way to deal: Abandon your schedule and comfort yourself with the fact that the nonstop nursing shouldn't last more than a few days. Or if she's over 6 months, give her a little water. "Once babies start eating solid food, they're actually thirsty at times," says Dr. Swanson.
What's going on Most babies can drain a breast in 12 to 15 minutes, but some can take 25 minutes a side -- and longer if they catch a catnap in the middle of a feed.
How to help Stroke your baby's cheek, strip off extra layers, tickle his toes, or brush his upper lip and nose with your finger or nipple to help him resist the urge to snuggle up and slow down. Another trick: trying a more upright feeding position. "Maintaining eye contact can help your baby stay alert, so hold him under your arm and in front of your breast so you have face-to-face contact," advises Rubin. With any luck, you'll be able to get your baby back on task.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of Parents magazine.