For many first time parents, the first two weeks of life with a newborn can be a bit of a blur. Then, just as you feel like you might be slightly more confident in your new role, the “witching hours” hit.
Most parents know that newborns need to eat 8-12 times a day, but don’t be fooled into thinking that these feedings will be organized or spaced out into any pattern in the beginning. Around week 3, many newborns start to have “fussy” evenings where they are clingy, cranky, and seem to want to nurse on and off for hours. This pattern is referred to as “cluster feeding,” and there is disagreement on what causes it. Some say it’s developmental, others say that baby is filling up on the fattier hind milk before sleep. But it helps to be clear on what it isn’t.
UNDERSTAND THAT IT’S NORMAL
When a new mom’s newborn begins cluster feeding so early in their breastfeeding journey, they may blame their milk supply. A clingy baby who is nursing frequently will leave mom’s breasts feeling soft and “empty,” leading mom to believe that baby must not be getting enough milk. But if baby is gaining weight and making lots of wet/soiled diapers, there is nothing to worry about.
Research shows that fully “emptying” the breasts can actually help produce more milk. And don’t be tricked by the pump; even if you can’t pump any milk out at this time, your more efficient baby often is getting something. In these delicate first weeks of nursing, we don’t want to confuse the “supply and demand” system of milk production by adding in a supplement if we don’t need it. Many parents get confused by the baby’s strong reflex to suck: “when I offered her a few ounces from a bottle after nursing, she sucked them right down! She must have been hungry!” Newborn babies are wired to suck. Breasts, pacifiers, fingers, bottles–if you put them in their mouth, they will probably suck it. This is not a great indication that baby is hungry.
Even exclusively formula fed newborns go through “the witching hours.” It’s also often confused for reflux or colic because babies can be fretful and fussy, but it’s rarely either of these things. Knowing what it’s not can help you get through this stage with less anxiety.
PREPARATION IS KEY
These fussy evenings can last for hours and are inconveniently located when you might be trying to start dinner, and wind down and connect with a partner that has gone back to work.
Nursing can be physically and emotionally demanding, so this isn’t a great time for multi-tasking. Make use of a slow cooker and prep dinner during an early afternoon nap. Take a shower in the morning and don’t plan on having guests or heading out during your baby’s fussy hours. As you get closer to your baby’s usual fussy time, make sure you have had a good snack, grab a glass of water (and maybe a glass of wine), and settle in with a good Netflix series or Nook while your little one is cluster feeding. This is only temporary; in a couple weeks, the “witching hours” will be a thing of the past, but until then it is best to work with them, rather than fight again them.
FIND SOME CONSISTENCY
The witching hours are most frequently experienced somewhere between 5pm and midnight. But it’s a good idea to start laying the groundwork for a consistent routine now. Decide what you think a good “bedtime” might be; a good indicator is 90 minutes – 2 hours from baby’s evening nap. So if she had a nap from 4:45-5:30, then 7pm might be a place to start. When “bedtime” comes, bring baby to the room they sleep in, darken the room as much as possible, turn on a white noise machine, and consider swaddling them. This may not put an end to the frequent nursing or fussiness yet, but it helps to reduce overstimulation and can start to create new sleep associations. The good news is that when baby does settle after the witching hours they usually have their longest stretch of sleep. It will still be some time before they will sleep through the night, so when they wake to nurse, keep the room very dark and minimize stimulation (diaper changes, talking); this will help her to realize that night is for sleeping, nursing, and going right back to sleep. Even if she’s not settling till 9 or 10, knowing that there is a goal and having a clear separation of day and night routine will help everyone feel less overwhelmed.
You can expect this phase to pass and see more settled evenings usually after baby is 8-9 weeks old. Sometimes knowing that this is a normal phase that will soon be a memory can make it easier for everyone while you are going through it.