Moms In Cluster-Feeding Hell

by Rachel McKenny
Originally Published: 
A mom breastfeeding a baby while her toddler plays on the floor next to them
DGLimages / Getty

The handbooks don’t tell you the second night is the worst. The first night, the baby is too exhausted from punching its way out (what it actually feels like) and maneuvering its way through the birth canal (more technical description) to put up a fuss.

But the second night?

That second night baby realizes they’re no longer in his cozy hot tub and he needs a snack. If you’re breastfeeding, your milk hasn’t come in yet and suddenly it’s their job to make sure it does. That second night, the baby wakes up like an adorable zombie rising and I was not mentally or physically prepared. And I had even been there before.

Moms often talk about the pain of childbirth fading into the background with time. The same is true, at least in my case, with the pain of cluster-feeding. Even after two previous breast-fed kids, I forgot the shock of a newborn’s need to feed for hours at a time. Just when he seems to drift off, he wakes up again, rooting. Switch sides, repeat. And repeat and repeat and oh God, there’s not enough Netflix or internet forums or lanolin or Soothies to make this manageable.

I love my child. I love looking at him. How couldn’t I? After nine months of growth, I craved to see my newborn, hungered for it. He was hungrier, though. That second night, his wide, white eyes looked up at me. The irises might change from blue to brown or hazel someday, but that wide, white expanse will always remain. It’s hard to believe that those eyes will someday be larger than they were that second night as he stared up, unwilling to settle, starving for my skin and milk I didn’t have.

The policy at most American hospitals is to room-in with a newborn. Talk to anyone over 60, and they will raise their eyebrows at the lack of physical “nursery” space in delivery wards. Instead, the baby stays by your bedside in a portable bassinet to help encourage bonding, breast-feeding, and giving you your first badge of parenting honor for changing meconium diapers. Most of the time, rooming-in works fine, but the second night I had to give up for a while.

I didn’t have a traumatic birth, but by the third kid, my uterus is like a tent I’m trying to store in too small of a bag. Every time he latched, it contracted. It shifted like an animal, something with claws. Paired with sore breasts and the exhaustion still lingering from labor? I was done. After four hours of cluster feeding, I caved and hit the call button. The nurses took him not to a nursery behind glass in old movies, but to their intake desk where they passed him back and forth. I sent my newborn away for 90 minutes of the most solid sleep I had gotten in a week and I didn’t regret it.

Now, with him at four weeks old, I’m typing this with him propped on a nursing pillow in front of me. Like most breastfeeding moms, I get used to doing things one-handed. Every night this week, we’ve spent four hours camped together cluster-feeding on the couch. I feed through dinner, through story time with my older kids, and through their bedtime routine. After they are tucked in, I feed into the evening to when I’m yawning with no call button to hit (though I’m lucky to have a husband who will bring me ice cream and a glass of water).

Check out this Momsplained video on breastfeeding in public:


Cluster-feeding is frustrating. It makes you doubt your ability to feed your child and doubt their signals for food, but they are hungry and you are feeding them. Cluster-feeding can feel so alienating without a clear start and end point. It keeps you from doing the things that seem so necessary. Cluster-feeding makes you stop, forces you to stay still and focus on the most primitive things: eating and closeness.

So many people will tell a new mother: “Enjoy this time. It goes so quickly. Enjoy the baby cuddles.” To fellow cluster-feeding moms that would prefer a little less closeness, I understand you. Don’t feel guilt for hitting the call button for that hour of sleep on the second night and don’t feel guilty if you cry or need a break. Ask for it. You are more than breasts and skin, although it can be hard to remember that during those long hours.

Oh, and if you have any must-binge Netflix series, let me know. I’m probably headed back to the couch again tonight.

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