For the first few months of baby’s life (pretty much your whole maternity leave), most breastfeeding mom’s describe the following phenomenon:
Breastfeeding goes well throughout most of the day. Baby nurses every two to three hours on one breast or both. Baby seems satisfied after breastfeeding and may even let you set her down in her bouncer or swing for a few blessed moments. On really good days, baby even lets you put her down long enough for you to take a shower! Then, right around the same exact time your partner pulls into the driveway, something changes. Suddenly, your generally pleasant baby flips a switch. All day you have been looking forward to a second set of hands to hold your baby. All day your partner has been looking forward to seeing his little baby. Unfortunately, she wants nothing to do with those second set of hands. Suddenly, all she wants is to nurse for marathon lengths of time. Every hour. For three or more hours.
This is cluster feeding. Here is more information of how to deal with cluster feeding. Cluster feeding is similar to growth spurting in that the baby doesn’t usually seem unhappy at the breast, only unhappy when you take the breast away. During cluster feeding baby is eating, but not a lot and is often only non-nutritively sucking. Even though your breasts seem empty, she doesn’t seem mad… unless you take your floppy boob away from her.
But WHY? WHY does it seem like you have little to no milk in the evening? And WHY does that happen right when baby seems the hungriest?
Let me explain.
For all breastfeeding women, volume of milk and fat content of milk changes throughout each 24 hour period. For most moms, milk volume is at its highest and fat content is the lowest in the middle of the night and early morning. Milk content decreases in volume and increases in fat content in the day and evening.
Exclusive pumpers know this phenomenon well. They know to expect to collect more milk in the early morning and less and less as the day goes on.
The volume decreases and the portion of fat increases.
Keep in mind that the amount of fat in your milk and how it separates depends on a number of factors, so please do not pump your milk, allow it to separate and proceed to obsess over whether or not you have enough fat in your milk.
Lower volume but higher fat yields softer, floppier boobs. They will plump up again sometime in the wee hours of the morning.
Volume and fat content are one of the reasons why baby camps out on the boob for a few hours every evening. The next reason is that baby is “packing it in for the night.” Oftentimes, this cluster f*ck, I mean cluster feed, is followed by a blessed chuck of sleep. Sure it may only be three or four hours, but if you are going to get a nighttime stretch, this is the time. Pay attention to whether or not your baby follows this pattern and it may help explain why baby wants to nurse so often right before sleeping.
The final reason for this temporary period of dinnertime torture is that baby is mentally and physically exhausted. It may look like all she did was eat, sleep, poop and cry all day, but to her, living is a monumental feat. She learned and grew so much today. She is feeling over stimulated and out of sorts. The only place in the world that seems safe is your breast. Maybe she is eating, maybe not, but she sure will put up a fight if you try to take her away from her safe place.
This is Balanced Breastfeeding, so you won’t hear me telling you to just sit down and take the abuse of this evening cluster f**ck—damnit! I did it again! Cluster feed! There are a number of ways you can handle those evening hours.
But, I will say this: This too shall pass. Too soon. She won’t always need you this intensely, but she does right now. She won’t always want to lay in your arms for hours, but she wants to right now. Pretty soon dad or grandma will be able to tag in and be a high quality alternative to mom, but right now only you will do. So maybe this is a time when you leave the dishes in the sink, ask your partner to cook dinner, watch TV shows you never would have watched before. Maybe this is the first time in your life you will allow your self to slow down, sit down, and just BE.
I don’t know. Now that my baby is almost ten, I think back to those hours and hours and hours and hours I spent with her on the couch nursing, and I am so very glad I sat still with her for that long. I remember tracing the swirl in her peach fuzz hair, fingering her tiny, long, delicate fingers, watching her suck in her sleep, dreaming of nursing. I wouldn’t remember the dinner I cooked or the way my coffee table was so neatly organized.
Sure, my boobs felt empty and floppy, but she didn’t seem to mind. To her, they were exactly what she needed at exactly the right time.
If you want to read more about the volume and fat content of breast milk throughout the day, click here for a research article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.