Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Lisa Hassan Scott
Photo: MJ Loiacono by Giselle Salazar Photography
With a young baby around, evenings take on a completely new complexion. Before we had a baby, my husband and I would come in from work, possibly pour a glass of wine, sit on the patio for a while, then make dinner for two around eight o’clock. We would read books then head off to bed, ready for another day in the office tomorrow.
Of course all of that changes when you become parents. No more office (for me), no more wine, no more sitting on the patio—my husband was too busy making dinner while I was sitting in the rocker with our baby. At the time, I sat there so much I thought I might have grown into the upholstery. My baby seemed to want to stay attached from about four in the afternoon until ten o’clock in the evening, when she would be ready for sleep. Right side, left side, right side, left side. I soon wondered if I had enough milk. I wondered why she seemed to be so fussy at this time of day. I wondered whether my seemingly-empty breasts were making anything at all. Why was she nursing so much?
When I talked about my daughter’s behavior with other mothers, they looked at me quizzically. Should I top the baby off with a bottle of formula? Maybe my baby wasn’t getting enough of the high-calorie hindmilk? Shouldn’t I just give my baby some water or a pacifier? After all, it was “only comfort.”
Most of these commentators were well meaning, but goodness, did they confuse me something fierce. What was wrong with my baby? What was wrong with me?
Only in later years did I figure out that my baby’s behavior was perfectly normal for a breastfed baby. I found out that what she was doing is called “cluster feeding.” The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding describes it beautifully:
“…you may find that nursings often cluster together, maybe especially at certain times of day. Cluster feeding means a clock is pretty useless in a normal breastfeeding relationship … Evening especially is often a time of ‘nursing marathons,’ when nothing but another time at breast seems to work … So long as your baby is gaining well, cluster feedings are absolutely normal.” (See pages 107–108.)
Cluster feeding is often associated with a baby’s fussy time in the late afternoon or evening, just as I’d experienced. Sometimes it’s linked with colic. No one is really sure why babies have this fussy time, but researchers have found that it’s probably not to do with a decreased milk supply in the evening. In fact, I was surprised to find out that my milk would be higher in calories in the evening than the rest of the day, if my baby was allowed to feed on cue. Interestingly, anthropologist Dr Katherine Dettwyler notes that babies in West Africa and other traditional societies don’t have this late evening fussiness or even colic. In those societies, it’s normal to have a baby in arms all day (or in a sling) and nurse on demand.
And the thing that really made me raise my eyebrows? Babies who are given as much milk as they want (whether expressed breast milk or formula) were still fussy, needing lots of holding and rocking, small amounts of milk at frequent intervals and plenty of cuddles. So maybe cluster feeding isn’t about the milk, but about a baby’s need to be close. Maybe it is “only for comfort” but isn’t comfort a valid need too, especially when you’re small and the world is so big?
Once I got my head around all this, it became a lot easier to just relax and feed my baby as much as she needed. My husband was happy to deal with the meals. They were simpler affairs (toast and eggs, anyone?) and we often resorted to take-out or batch-cooking on the weekends to fill the freezer. I sat and rocked and nursed and rocked and nursed again. Back then, I wondered how long this stage would last. It felt like forever.
So maybe cluster feeding isn’t about the milk, but about a baby’s need to be close. Maybe it is “only for comfort” but isn’t comfort a valid need too, especially when you’re small and the world is so big?
Today, looking back, it feels like no more than a heartbeat. And these days, the rocking chair is coming in handy as a place to store laundry.
Lisa Hassan Scott is an LLL Leader living in South Wales with her husband and three children. She writes a parenting blog.