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Free Groceries for Life!

by Rachel Lilly

Imagine you've won free groceries for life from the store across the street from your home. There are only two restrictions: you may only have one bag of groceries per trip to the store, and you may only get your groceries at that store.

This is a great deal! Wow! You are so excited. Your family eats well and is able to pay down the mortgage with your savings from not buying food. It's not at all a hassle to run across the street everyday or every other day to fill your one sack with the items that are running low in your pantry.

The store changes ownership and agrees to honor the previous contest rules with only one change: you can only make one trip to the grocery per week. You can still get all the groceries you want for free, but you are limited to one bag per trip, and your trips are limited to one per week. This isn't as great as the old arrangement, but if you plan well and pack the sack well, your family won't be hungry very often. After all, you have agreed to not get groceries from anywhere else, so you'll have to make do.

After a few months the store changes ownership again and the new owner wants to change the revised agreement. The new owner will continue to give you free groceries, but you can only fill one sack, you can only shop at his store, and you can only come to the store on the first Friday of each month. He explains that it is easier for him to staff his store if he knows when you are going to shop.

Sticking to the agreement to shop only at this store, you find that if you fill your bag with rice and beans, your family doesn't often go hungry. However, after a couple of months you notice that there aren't enough bags of rice and beans to fill your sack. Twelve bags of each will fit in your sack, but lately the store never has more than four bags at a time. You fill your sack with other foods, but they don't last as long and your family goes hungry and begins to lose weight.

This cannot continue. The next month when you are allowed to go to the store, you speak with the manager about there not being enough rice and beans for you to buy. The manager explains that the store is on a weekly replenishment system and he cannot override the automatic ordering. What happened is that you bought twelve bags of rice and beans the first month, and the automatic ordering system then ordered another twelve bags for the next week. But you didn't come in and buy twelve bags. Other customers purchase 3-4 bags a week, so the rice and beans sell down to four bags and the replenishment system maintains that level. Even if the store manager could get twelve bags of both rice and beans in the store, by the time you came back to the store the next month, the replenishment system would have allowed the stock the dwindle to just four bags. You explain to the store manager that it isn't your fault - you are only allowed to come to the store once a month! The manager is sympathetic to your plight, but he says there's nothing he can do. You have a problem, and you don't know how to fix it. Your hands feel tied.

Breastfed babies whose parents practice parent-directed feeding (PDF) as popularized by Babywise are in a similar situation to the contest winner after the rules have been changed a few times.

Babies' stomach capacities are limited (their "one grocery sack") and exclusively breastfed babies have only one source of nutrition (their "one grocery store"). These two facts alone don't create problems. As with the grocery store analogy, the problem with PDF lies in spacing out the "trips" to the breast without regard to baby's caloric needs and the breast's replenishment practices.

Breastfeeding is the healthiest feeding method for babies, and it works best when baby is allowed to determine when to go to the breast. Some babies can grow well on a 3 hour PDF schedule. They are doing well despite parent-directed feeding, not because of it. In the free-groceries analogy you were able to feed your family reasonably well just going to the store once a week, though it was much easier to do so going once a day. What if you had a family of eight instead of a family of four? Going to the store only once a week would have created hunger sooner for your family. That is the problem with parent-directed feeding: it doesn't allow any room for deviation if you have a smaller-than-average "grocery sack" or have a "larger-than-average family". And PDF completely ignores the fact that "grocery stores" (the mother's breasts) have a set replenishment cycle that cannot be overridden to ensure adequate milk supply.

You cannot predict your baby's caloric needs because you cannot accurately predict your baby's growth rate. Baby's ideal height and weight is pre-programmed in his DNA, and you aren't privy to that information. You cannot pre-determine how much or how often your baby will need to breastfeed to grow to his potential. Therefore it is best to allow baby to decide when to nurse. His body will tell him when he is hungry, and you will soon learn his hunger cues. Don't be the grocery store owner! Telling your baby how often he can eat could have minimal consequences or it could have dire consequences --and because an undernourished baby can look a lot like a "good" baby who sleeps a lot and is complacent -- you wouldn't know until it was too late to avoid the problem. Trust your baby to know when he is hungry and respond to his hunger cues by putting him to the breast.

Rachel Lilly lives with her husband and two children in Tennessee, USA. Before she became a mother, she was the Director of Merchandise Replenishment for a national retailer (hmmm.... maybe that's why the paragraph about rice and bean replenishment is so detailed?). She holds a Masters of Business Administration and a Bachelor's degree in Marketing.

For more information on the impact of scheduled feedings upon milk supply, please see Examining the Evidence for Cue feeding of Breastfed Infants by Lisa Marasco, BA, IBCLC and Jan Barger, MA, RN, IBCLC