I remember it well with each of my babies. It’s not an experience you easily forget.
After the initial newborn breastfeeding challenges of the first few weeks (which were total hell with my first child, but that’s a different story), I finally felt like breastfeeding was going well. Nurse the baby every 2 hours, burp him, change his diaper, and then watch him sleep all curled up on my chest? I can do that, I thought, breathing a giant sigh of relief.
Then, I swear, just about three seconds later, that lovely plan went to shit, because it turned out that my child freaking hated breastfeeding. Or at least I thought so.
Starting at about 5 p.m. every single day (this time varies from mom to mom and day to day, but it’s usually in the PM hours), my baby would whine and cry at my breast, sometimes even seeming to push my boob away. Then I’d finally get him on, he’d nurse for just a few minutes, fall totally asleep, and then wake up 15 minutes later, hungry and pissed, as though I hadn’t just fed him.
This went on and on and ON for hours at a time. I had no clue what in the ever-loving fuck was going on. And it was especially confusing because he nursed like an angel during the daylight hours. It was like he morphed into a baby werewolf as soon as the moon peeked through the clouds.
Thinking I was doing something horribly wrong, I called my midwife, who quickly assured me that it was totally normal and common. As long as the baby was peeing and pooping and gaining weight, I was good. Oh, and this hellish situation had a name: cluster feeding.
All of that was reassuring, but it didn’t change the fact that those hours with a fussy AF baby barnacle baby stuck to me like glue were stressful and absolutely maddening. OMG.
Like everything else, this phase passed in a few weeks, and I moved on to the next annoying phase (spoiler alert: annoying phases with kids end, but are quickly replaced). Still, I remember cluster feeding well, and it was definitely one of the hardest parts of the newborn phase.
Since then, I’ve counseled hundreds of moms through cluster feeding as a lactation consultant (IBCLC), and I can tell you that it truly is common and normal – and, of course, that it passes for all moms. But the other thing I will say is that it’s one of those times in breastfeeding when a mother can really doubt whether she is doing it right, and whether she will even be able to continue nursing.
So, to the mom in cluster feeding hell, I say this:
Almost all babies go through times when they cluster their feeds together, sometimes even as often as every 20 minutes. There are a few theories as to why that is (growth spurts, underdeveloped nervous system, needing to “tank up” before bed), but in all honestly, unless your baby is in pain or isn’t gaining weight, it’s best not to analyze it too much, and instead “go with the flow” until it passes.
That said, the whole thing is exhausting, and mentally draining — and now, more than ever, you need to take care of you so that you can get through this and be the best mama you can be.
So what does that mean? ACCEPT ANY AND ALL HELP THAT IS AVAILABLE TO YOU.
You may be the only one your baby wants during those cluster feeding hours, but if anyone you trust wants to come and hold your baby for a few hours during the day while you rest and shower or whatever, please say yes.
And also: see if your baby will accept someone else during those cluster feeding hours. Sometimes a break from you is actually just what the doctor ordered. My babies were really happy bouncing on their dad’s shoulders during cluster feeding hell, and then they’d be more content to come back to me and nurse.
Enlist any products or gadgets that help you without guilt. Will your baby sit in a swing for 30 minutes during the witching hour? Go for it! How about a baby carrier? If that works, get yourself the coolest one you can afford. And what about pacifiers? Do what works for you and your baby, mama (just don’t let the paci be a total substitute for the boob, because that can cause issues sometimes).
And what about bottles? If breastfeeding is otherwise going fine (like during the non-witching hours), totally pump your milk and have a trusted helper give your baby a bottle so you can rest. Formula is okay too, especially if you are supplementing anyway. If you are intending to breastfeed exclusively, pumped breastmilk is preferred.
But a bottle of formula here or there because you were too freaking tired and desperate to pump? Not a problem. Be gentle on yourself.
Be gentle on yourself. That is the bottom line. Cluster feeding is no joke. It’s going to test your patience, your endurance, and your confidence like nothing else. It’s normal to feel “touched out” and even annoyed at your baby at times. You might even start to doubt if you are cut out for this motherhood thing to begin with.
Remember that you don’t have to love every second of breastfeeding. Or motherhood, for that matter.
But know this: You are a great mother. This will pass. And you will get through it. I promise.
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