When my eldest was a newborn, it was pretty much a sure thing that from 4pm until 10pm I’d be sitting in my chair nursing her. She’d have one side, then seem to finish. I’d lift her up, pat her back, hold her against my chest… maybe daddy might come to have a little cuddle with her since he’d been at work all day. But soon enough she was fussing again and the only thing that satisfied her was to have the other side. Back and forth we’d go from one side then the other. I felt tired from a long day of baby care and a broken night’s sleep; my breasts felt soft like all the milk was gone; I wondered whether her behaviour was a sign that she was hungry and I didn’t have enough milk for her. Come to find out, cluster feeding, or several feeds spaced closely together, is pretty much part and parcel of breastfeeding a young baby.
Full-term, healthy newborn babies should breastfeed between 8-12 times in a 24 hour period. But don’t be fooled: this doesn’t equate to every 2-4 hours. Some babies will want to feed more frequently at certain times of day, commonly the evening. This might be preceded or followed by a period of sleep, perhaps 4 hours long. Researchers and lactation experts aren’t quite sure of the reasons cluster feeding happens: some say it’s due to biorhythms, others say it has to do with the composition of mother’s milk. But most agree that for many mothers, the evening is truly the “witching hour.”
When cluster feeding happens, many mothers worry that they haven’t got enough milk for their babies. When the breasts feel soft or ‘empty’ and the baby seems fretful, mothers can worry that their milk supply has dipped. But in a baby who is gaining weight well, cluster feeding is nothing to worry about.
Remember that breastmilk is produced on a supply and demand basis: the more a baby drinks, the more your breasts will produce. Filling him up with a supplement or using other ways to pacify him can fiddle with the delicate balance between your baby’s needs and your milk supply. If you satisfy all of your baby’s sucking needs at the breast, you can be pretty sure that your body will make enough milk for his needs.
And even breasts that seem empty are still producing milk. Think of flying on an airplane when the flight attendants demonstrate the oxygen masks in case there’s a pressure drop: even if the bag doesn’t inflate, oxygen will still be flowing. It’s the same with your breasts: even if there doesn’t seem to be milk, it’s still there. And the baby can remove it better than anyone– so if you try to express it and can’t get any, this still isn’t a good indicator of milk supply.
It’s also worth remembering that research has shown that empty breasts produce more milk. So letting your breasts ‘rest’ and fill up actually works against you. Continuing to feed from seemingly-empty breasts will send the message to your body that you need to make more milk for your baby. If your breasts continue to fill without the milk being removed, your body will logically think that it’s no longer necessary to make this much milk and will slow down its production line.
Finally, young babies are growing faster now than they ever will in their lives! Expect your baby to go through growth spurts around 3, 6 and 9 weeks, plus at 6 months and 9 months. So when your baby is 2 and a half weeks old and you feel you’re just starting to get your head above water, but no, he wants to nurse all the time!– this isn’t usually a signal that there’s a problem. It is most likely the beginning of a growth spurt.
The time when lactation specialists and supporters worry about cluster feeding is if your baby isn’t gaining weight well and making plenty of dirty and wet diapers. If a baby isn’t gaining well, doesn’t seem to be producing enough diapers and constantly falls asleep while on the breast or doesn’t feed the requisite 8-12 times, it’s worth finding specialist help through La Leche League or an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.
What can a mother do to get through these cluster feedings, especially if they happen at a time of day when dinner needs to be made, older children have activities to attend, and everyone seems to want mama’s attention? Keeping meals simple can help. Preparing food earlier in the day, using a slow-cooker, letting friends help with meals… all of these are ideas for taking the pressure off yourself in the evening so you can feed your baby. Consider learning how to feed your baby in a sling so you can meet his needs while you attend to the needs of older children. Let others help with getting older children to their activities, or if you have to go along, bring your baby and feed him while you’re there. Take it for granted that your baby will need you during the Witching Hour and try to find ways to nurture yourself in other, quieter times, or even make this time when you’re sitting down for a long time a special time. For example, have your shower earlier in the day or just before bed; spend some time reading a book or some blogs while you’re nursing; if you have older children this can be a time for you to sit and read to them or help with homework.
This stage of your baby’s life is really very short. In a few weeks’ time it will have all changed again, and cluster feeding will be a memory, even if it seems very intense now.
Photo credit: Jorge Barrios, Wikimedia Commons.
About Lisa Hassan Scott
Lisa Hassan Scott is a stay at home mother of three little ones, age 2, 6 and 9. An American living in Great Britain for over 15 years, Lisa is a Yoga teacher certified by the British Wheel of Yoga, and a La Leche League Leader. She blogs about mothering, breastfeeding, Yoga and the mind at http://www.lisahassanscott.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter: @lisahassanscott