Cluster feeding is not uncommon, particularly in your baby’s early months. It happens when you baby bunches his feeds close together at a certain time of the day ― usually in the evenings. This, of course, leaves new mums exhausted and frustrated and doubting their ability to nourish their babies.
When Seow Danni’s 3-week-old baby refused to stop nursing ― she would nurse more than two hours at a time, she almost threw in the (breastfeeding) towel. “When he finally seemed to have had enough, he would sleep for half an hour, then wake up to nurse again!”
By the fourth consecutive day this happened, she was exhausted and angry. “No one else could hold Fabian, as he only wanted the breast,” she recalls.
At the start of the “witching hour” ― around 6.30pm ― Fabian, now 10 months old, would start to fuss and cry uncontrollably. “It was as though it had something to do with the sun setting. Just as we were going to settle down and have dinner, he would start,” she says.
Breastfeeding her son calmed him down, but Fabian refused to break the latch. “I would watch the minutes go by, and my wrist and arm would ache from carrying him. There were days I couldn’t even have my own dinner and my mum would have to feed me.”
“I would watch the minutes go by, and my wrist and arm would ache from carrying him.”
Danni says it started to become the worst time of day, “Just as the day was ending and my husband was getting home from work and we were thinking we could chill, this happened.”
Coupled with her sore and cracked nipples, as well as her C-section wound that was still healing, it was an extremely trying time for her. “I was wondering if Fabian was ill, or if I was doing something wrong. I thought maybe I didn’t have enough milk and he was unsatisfied,” she recalls.
Still, she hung in there. And as abruptly as those “frightful evenings” had started, they stopped ― after about 2 weeks. Indeed, this phenomenon is known as “cluster” or “bunch” feeding, when babies bunch their feeds close together at certain times of the day.
As awful as cluster feeding can sound, it’s something many mums go through and “completely normal”, says Dr Mythili Pandi, president of the Breastfeeding Mothers’ Support Group in Singapore.
Dr Mythili points out that the mother’s milk supply is not one of the factors that contribute to cluster feeding. “Cluster feeding usually happens at 6 or 7 in the evening, and it could be because the baby has been overstimulated during the day ― so he or she needs that extra bit of comfort and pacifying.”
Tanking up to sleep through longer during the night could also be another possible reason. Dr Mythili adds that “babies do digest breastmilk very quickly, so it doesn’t mean the baby will sleep for long hours at a stretch, plus the BMSG doesn’t believe in sleep training.”
Some experts also say that cluster feeding is nature’s way of increasing the mum’s milk supply ― especially if your baby is heading towards a growth spurt or a developmental leap.
Besides the exhaustion that the mums face, cluster feeding can also cause concern among relatives who may assume that you “don’t have enough milk”, or there is something wrong with your breastmilk and hence your baby is fussing.
Says mum of two Serena Tay, “My confinement nanny was actually the one who kept stressing me out, saying that babies don’t cry for such long periods, unless they are still hungry.” Fortunately, Tay’s own mum supported her and encouraged her to keep going, and made tonic soups for her to keep her energy up.
Accepting the exhaustion, as well as back and arm aches, that come with being a new parent would help you feel less resentful and frustrated. However, here are ways to help make cluster feeding easier.
Once you’re fed and comfortable, the evening ahead will seem less daunting.
1. Wear your baby
Sometimes, babies cluster feed because they need to be soothed. Wearing your baby can give him the comfort and closeness he yearns, especially when he’s overstimulated. Plus, your hands will be free to do other things around the house. You can try using a baby wrap, or a ring sling. Both are suitable for newborns.
2. Plan ahead
If you know that your baby will start fussing in the evenings, have your dinner early and take a shower. There’s nothing worse than feeling tied to the couch, sitting hungrily while bubba chows down. Once you’re fed and comfortable, the evening ahead will seem less daunting.
3. Get hydrated
Many mums feel extremely thirsty as they breastfeed. This is no surprise, given that about 88 per cent of breastmilk is water. Have plenty of fluids, including soups and juices throughout the day, and keep a huge bottle of water beside you when you nurse.
4. Entertain yourself
Sure, breastfeeding is a beautiful bonding moment with your baby, but it can get mind-numbingly dull, as well. Says Tay, “I’d get my sister to come over and just chat with me during those hours, or I’d pop in a movie to watch. It sure beats watching the clock.”
5. Clear your schedule
If you wanted to put your older son to bed, clean your kitchen cabinets, or bust out that bottle of bubbly after the kids have slept, cancel those plans, stat. Babies are unpredictable ― you might think that his cluster feeding routine ends at 9pm, but don’t take his “word” on this. He’ll likely want to nurse till midnight just as you’re getting those champagne glasses out. Clearing your schedule will prevent you from feeling frustrated that your plans have gone awry.
6. Know that there is light at the end of the tunnel
“The magical period will be around the sixth week, when you get better at breastfeeding and your baby gets better at it, too ― things are generally more settled then,” says Dr Mythili.
Check out these other breastfeeding stories…