In the News

Feeding on demand
Mar 20

Babies who are fed on demand do better at school than those who are fed on schedule, according to new research published this week. Surprisingly, the findings are consistent across both breastfed and formula-fed babies.

This is the first large-scale study that has been carried out to investigate the long-term outcomes of schedule versus demand-fed babies. The results are likely to spark fierce debate amongst parenting ‘experts’, particularly the Gina Ford’s of this world who have for years advocated the benefits of scheduled feeding.

The study was carried out by researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and at the University of Oxford. Taking into account a wide range of background factors that include parents’ educational level, family income, the child’s sex and age, maternal health and parenting styles, the research found that demand-feeding is associated with higher IQ scores at age eight, and this difference is also evident in the results of SATs tests at ages five, seven, 11 and 14.

Additionally, it was also found that mothers who schedule feed are more likely to feel confident and show high levels of well-being. Feeding on demand can clearly take its toll on the mother both physically and emotionally.

I know very little about schedule or formula feeding. I made the choice to breastfeed Little I on demand – it was something that I felt quite strongly about doing, as it simply felt right to be responding to the needs of my baby in that way. When she was hungry, I fed her. I didn’t have it in me to leave her to cry and wait for a feed. Her little cheeks got chubbier and chubbier, and a few people ‘suggested’ I might be feeding her too much, but for Little I and me, feeding was as much about comforting and communicating with each other, as it was about filling her tummy with milk.

Speaking to The Guardian, psychologist Penelope Leach, author of The Essential First Year, says: “A baby’s optimal brain development depends on communications between his ‘emotional brain’ and his mother’s immediate and sensitive responses. The baby expresses strong feelings, the mother instantly recognises, responds and regulates them, comforting the baby when he is angry, soothing him when he is afraid; bringing him back on to an even keel when he is over-excited. A lot of that communication takes place around the baby’s primary need and greatest pleasure: feeding.”

While there seems to be a growing trend at the moment towards parent-centred parenting, this study does a lot to support the child-centred parenting argument. It will be interesting to see how experts respond to the findings.

Do you have a view on the subject? If so, please get involved in the debate using the comments section below.

* Image by Richard Barry Photography

About the Author

Wendy McAuliffe

Social media & online PR consultant and trainer, and ex-journalist. Founder and Director of Populate Digital and Mum of two. Living by the sea in Bournemouth. @wendymcauliffe.

  • Jane Wakefield

    Interesting piece Wendy. I fed on demand, including through the night – or tit on tap as I called it! While it would be nice to think it contributed to the stellar intelligence of my children but I’m struggling to see where the science fits in. Are they saying that hungry children, even those left hungry for short periods of time, are brain-starved? What does this mean for kids in the developing world where very little is ever on demand…..more research needed McAuliffe, get on it!!!!

    • wendymcauliffe

      I think that because this is the first study of its kind, the researchers are reluctant to make too many statements about ‘why’ this link exists between feeding on demand and increased IQ. There are a few suggestions within the report that the “social characteristics” of the mother are relevant – they suggest mothers most likely to feed on demand “tend to be younger, more likely to be single, more likely to be social
      tenants and likely to be less well-educated or to read to their child.” But this seems like quite a big generalisation to me, which is why I steered away from talking about this angle within my post. I know lots of mums who schedule fed with formula and they don’t fit that stereotype at all.

      Personally, I think it has more to do with what Penelope Leach says, as I’ve quoted at the end i.e. when you feed on demand, you are immediately responding to your babies needs, at a crucial stage in their development. I’d love to spend more time researching this…just find me the time!

  • Lizzy

    Facinating article Wendy, really interesting that the research was taken from a variety of backgrounds.  I quoted the title to my husband before I read the article, and he said – doesn’t it just mean that mothers who feed on demand are more intelligent than those who don’t, and your comment below interested me about younger mothers etc..
    I fed on demand with E, and intend to with no. 2, even though its been suggested to do scheduled feeding by friends and family to make life easier around my toddler.
    One of the best things I found with demand feeding is that when she was ill she took what she needed, and having carried on feeding until she was 2+ meant that even when she was only having one feed a day on waking, she could revert to feeeding on demand when she was not well, still get nutrients and liquid.
    Thanks for this article, great info.

    • wendymcauliffe

      Thanks Lizzy, great feedback. I’m sure that feeding on demand with your second child is a completely different ball game to the first time round! In the early days my daughter was feeding every hour, which was fine with just her to look after, but with a toddler to entertain too that must be virtually impossible unless you have lots of friends and family around to help.

      I can relate to your comments about supply and demand with breastfeeding, particularly when they are ill. It still amazes me how wonderfully your milk supply adapts to the needs of the baby.

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