On-Demand Feeding versus Scheduled Feeding
Over the generations, “on-demand feeding” and “scheduled feeding” have vied with each other as the preferred method of offering a baby her nourishment. Though there are no absolutes as to who is more likely to feed her baby on demand and who feeds by schedule, people who like a well-ordered world and think that things run smoothest when they're determined by fixed schedules are drawn to feeding a baby according to a schedule. People who are more freewheeling and relaxed are more likely to feed a baby according to the baby's apparent needs.
Do you always get hungry at exactly the same hour every day? No, you sometimes want lunch or dinner before the time you usually eat, and at other times, you just aren't that hungry even though it is your usual lunchtime or even though dinner is on the table. Of course, you may have had a large or small breakfast or a late or early lunch, which is what's affecting you, but other times there's no apparent reason.
As your baby grows and her stomach grows, she'll take in more food at a time and need to feed less often. But if you feed her on a schedule rather than on demand, you may not realize that her needs have changed and she doesn't need feedings so close together anymore. One big advantage to on-demand feeding is that you'll be more readily alert to your baby's changing needs as she grows.
Though your baby's food intake is much more regulated as to amount (at least until he starts eating cereals and strained foods), your baby's stomach also might feel empty a bit earlier one day and somewhat later the next day. Does it make sense to feed him because “it's time,” if he's not hungry? Does it make sense to make him wait when he's crying for a bottle or your breast because “it's not time yet”? Many parents (and many doctors) think it doesn't.
The obvious advantage to on-demand feeding is that you feed your child when she's actually hungry, not at an arbitrary hour determined by you. The disadvantage is that you may misread her cries and feed her when she really isn't hungry. If your baby is gaining too much weight, discuss your feeding routine with your pediatrician. If her weight is fine, on-demand feeding is probably working for you just fine.
The obvious advantages to scheduled feeding are that you regulate the amount of food your baby gets by giving him feedings at certain hours only and that you can plan in advance for feeding him. You won't be in the middle of cooking dinner when suddenly you need to feed a crying, hungry baby. The disadvantage is that if your baby is hungry one-half hour or an hour before his scheduled feeding time, then you're going to have an unhappy baby on your hands from when he gets hungry until you finally feed him … and he's going to let you know about it.
If your baby's regular feeding time is 6:00 P.M. and she doesn't seem hungry, it's good to offer her a feeding anyhow in the interest of getting her to bed on schedule, whether that means a bottle, your breast, or solid foods, if she's eating them. Offer them to her, and she'll almost certainly eat. But if she cries at other times and especially if she seems to be hungry (for example, if she's sucking on her fist and is not a baby who does this habitually), then by all means offer her a bottle or your breast, even if it's not a regularly scheduled feeding time. If the baby is hungry, it's not good to be a slave to a schedule.
If I feed my baby on a schedule, does that preclude feeding her at night when she cries, if it's at a time when she's not scheduled for a feeding?
While it's good to get your baby onto some sort of regular schedule (even babies who feed on demand self-regulate to some sort of loose schedule), it's not good to be rigid about it. Attempt to keep to a schedule but be flexible about it. You do nobody any good by strict adherence to feeding at arbitrary hours.