Is your baby nursing every hour for a few hours each day? Do you feel trapped on the couch every evening with your boobs out? You are not alone. Cluster feeding during the “witching hour” is very common for babies in the early months.
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I remember the “witching hour” as clear as
As soon as I put him down, he would wake up more irritated than ever. He would start rooting and trying to suck at anything close to him. It can’t be time to feed again! But alas, it was. So back to the couch I go, silently crying on the inside as I held him and nursed him until the sun went down.
If you are in the same situation, you may start to question everything. Do I have enough milk to feed my baby? Is it something I ate? What am I doing wrong?
Good news! Cluster feeding is normal and common with young babies. As long as your baby is peeing and popping and gaining weight, you are doing everything you are supposed to do. And your breast milk supply is fine – cluster feeding happens for bottle-fed babies too.
Let’s dive into why your baby is behaving this way and how to survive this phase.
What is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding, or bunch feeding, is when babies eat several times within a few hours during a certain time of the day (lovingly nicknamed the “witching hour”). Even though you usually feed your baby once every couple of hours most of the day, during cluster feeding the baby will consume small quantities of milk at very close intervals.
You know your baby is cluster feeding when:
- You baby is extra fussy and cannot be soothed.
- Your baby will nurse for a few minutes, pull off, cry, then want to nurse again. This cycle may continue for a few hours.
- Your baby cannot be put down and demands to be held.
Cluster feeding is more common in the late afternoons or evenings, but it can happen anytime during the day.
Why do Babies Cluster Feed?
Like colic, there is no definite reason why some babies cluster feed. There are many theories why babies cluster feed:
- A mother’s prolactin (breastfeeding hormone) level drops toward the end of the day, which means you may have a slightly lower volume of milk in the evenings. Before you freak out that you are not feeding your baby enough, know that your milk in the evening does have a higher fat content, so that your baby should be consuming a similar amount of calories. Think drinking regular milk versus milkshake.
- Your milk flow may be slower in the evening. Babies may get frustrated at the slow let-down reflex and act fussy as a result.
- Your baby may nurse frequently to calm his or her immature nervous system. After a busy day of getting used to the brand-new world around him or her, your baby may be overstimulated and needing comfort.
- Your baby may be experiencing a growth spurt.
- Your baby may be filling up his or her stomach on fatty milk before a long night of sleep.
How to Soothe Your Baby During the Witching Hour
Even though nursing seems to be the only way to calm your baby during these fussy times, your nipples may be on fire and need a break. Here are some techniques to soothe your baby and save your nipples before they fall off. We used to do a combination of these techniques because just using one was not enough!
- Bounce your baby. The exercise ball that I loved so much during labor became where I spent most of my time in the evenings. The motion of gently bouncing up and down on the ball helps the baby relax and fall asleep. Plus, it’s awesome for your core!
- Wear your baby. Wearing your baby in a sling or a baby carrier allows the baby to be close to you while freeing your hands to do other things. You can even nurse while carrying your baby – talk about multitasking!
- Go outside. With the sun going down, the witching hour is the perfect time to go out for a stroll. If you are too tired to walk, sitting at a park or even your backyard may provide the change of scenery and fresh air that your baby needs to calm down. True story – we built a deck out back for precisely this purpose.
- Look out the window. If you can’t go outside due to the weather, holding your baby at the window may be enough. My son used to love looking out the window, and we would stand at the window for hours until the sun went down.
- Turn on the white noise. Loud white noise calms down babies because it reminds them of the womb. You can make the “SHHHH” sound with your mouth, turn on the water, turn on a fan, or use the white noise machine (or use a white noise app on your phone). My favorite? Turn on the vacuum and clean the carpet, so you kill two birds with one stone.
- Turn on the music. Some babies like white noise, while others prefer music. Hum or sing lullabies to your baby or play soothing music for him or her. Try different genres of music with various instrumentals or singers to discover what your baby prefers.
- Swaddle your baby. Swaddling your baby nice and tight recreates the feeling of security that your baby had in your womb. Feeling snug and protected can help soothe your baby, not to mention keep your baby asleep by stopping your baby’s startle reflex from disturbing him or her.
- Bathe your baby. Babies like water, so why not take a break from all the fussiness with a nice, warm bath?
- Switch side. Not all boobs are created equal. One boob may have a stronger let-down than the other or faster flow, so if your baby is getting angry at one boob, switch to the other and see if it helps.
- Change nursing positions. For newborns, I find football hold to be the best. Try the cradle hold, side-lying position, reclined position, etc. until you find one your baby prefers.
- Swing your baby. Some baby loves the swing, but your baby may not want to sit in a swing during this fussy period. You can swing your baby in your arms left and right or forward and backward. Make sure your baby’s head and neck are supported the whole time.
- Dance with your baby. If your baby likes music and motion, dancing with your baby is a fun way to soothe your baby. The rhythmic movement of the dance will remind your baby of the way he or she swayed inside your belly. Hold your baby gently and securely against your body while dancing. Choose slow and calm music and dance slowly as your baby may already be overstimulated at this time.
- Use the pacifier. If you don’t want to nurse, try using a pacifier. Sucking helps a baby settle down, but it only works if your baby accepts a pacifier. Your baby may have a preference when it comes to pacifiers, so try different ones and see which one works.
- Mix and match. Sometimes, one single technique may not be enough to soothe your baby. Try different combinations of the methods suggested above and see which ones work for your baby.
Tips to Survive Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding can be very frustrating for an exhausted mom. Here are some survival tips to make the witching hour more pleasant, or dare I say, even enjoyable.
Prepare for the Worst
Stuck on the couch in the dark with a full bladder and with no water or food for hours sounds like something out of a horror movie. If you anticipate cluster feeding to start at 5 PM, then get ready for it. Make sure to run to the bathroom and stock up on water and snacks and prepare your “nursing station” before the fussiness starts.
Avoid Negative People
Cluster feeding makes you doubt your ability to feed your child and having negative people who pile on more doubt is exactly the opposite of what you need. Politely ask your friends and family to leave if all they are going to do is make negative comments and make you worry.
Pick a Comfortable Spot
Sitting for hours at a time may be quite uncomfortable if you don’t have the right support. Scout out where is the most comfortable for you, so you are not stuck with a numb butt and sore muscles for hours. I practically lived in my nursing glider for the first few months of my baby’s life.
Take Care of Your Breasts
Having your baby latch on and pull off gazillion times in a few hours can do a number on your nipples. Make sure to moisturize your nipples with nipple cream and give them a break whenever you can. Ensuring proper latching and comfortable hold is the key to avoid nipple pain.
Hand the Baby Off to Your Partner
Just because you are the one with boobs, doesn’t mean you need to hold the baby the whole time. Even though your baby will want to nurse most of the time during cluster feeding, you can still get 10-30 minutes here and there.
Have your partner use the soothing techniques discussed above and comfort the baby long enough for you to stretch, go to the bathroom, and eat.
Ask for Help
I hate asking people for help, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
The great thing is that PEOPLE WANT TO HELP. They understand you have a tiny baby at home who needs your full attention.
Ask your neighbor to help walk your dog, or your parents to help cook dinner. You can always repay them later, but I bet the people in your life are more than happy to pitch in to make your life easier.
Surrender and Relax
Cluster feeding is going to happen no matter what you do. Fight the urge to clean or cook and relax with your baby. If your nipples are okay with it, just nurse and cuddle with your baby, maybe even catch up on shows on Netflix. When else in your life will you have permission to sit and bond with your baby for hours?
Know When Fussiness is Not Normal
If you are concerned about whether or not your baby is getting enough milk, start keeping track of the number of dirty and wet diapers the baby produces per day. You should also monitor your baby’s weight to make sure that the baby is gaining the appropriate amount of weight.
Contact a lactation consultant if you feel like your baby is not latching on properly.
When in doubt, consult with the pediatrician to make sure your baby’s growth is on track. If your baby cannot be soothed (even at the breast), has a fever, or if cluster feeding lasts for an extended period of time, contact your healthcare provider to make sure the fussiness is not due to infection, colic, or something else.
Embrace Cluster Feeding
Breathe, mama. Cluster feeding is normal, and you will get through it. The hours of breastfeeding a fussy baby will test your patience and even make you question your ability as a mother. However, once your baby is all grown up and running away from you, you will miss all the cuddliness.
Embrace cluster feeding and enjoy being with your baby. Remember, cluster feeding is just a phase, and this too shall pass.