Have you ever wondered why your infant seems to nurse perfectly well during the day and then cannot get enough at night? Does your baby seem to be hungrier at a certain point during the month?
Your little one may be doing what is called cluster feeding. Cluster feeding iswhen a baby demands multiple feedings close together within a few hours. These “clusters” may be followed by a long stretch of not feeding, or baby may cluster feed for multiple hours. Cluster feeding is very normal and something that all babies go through at some point. Infants may cluster feed in the evenings, before bedtime, and during times of growth spurts and developmental leaps.
There are two main theories as to why cluster feeding happens in the evenings:
1) Milk Flow. We know that our milk-making hormones are higher in the morning and lower in the evening. There is also some thought that milk flow is slower later in the day. Slow flow at the breast can be very frustrating for babies, particularly younger infants.
2) Overstimulation. Some medical professionals think that because of the infant’s immature nervous system, fussiness in the evening may be due to your baby being overwhelmed from the day’s activities.
Understand that all of this behavior is NORMAL
Cluster feeding can undermine a mother’s confidence because of the behavior the infant may display during the clustering time. Your baby may be fussier while they are cluster feeding, pop on and off of the breast, or even refuse to latch. Babies that are bottle fed may try to drink the bottle very quickly then have some tummy troubles or gassiness afterward. These behaviors can certainly make a parent think that they are doing something wrong.
However, this behavior has nothing to with your milk or your parenting. It’s simply normal newborn behavior. During this time, continue to nurse your baby as often as the baby requests. Soothe your baby and try to remember that this is temporary and it will pass. If you notice cluster feeding happening at the same time every night, a warm bath, skin to skin, or babywearing during the crying time can be helpful in calming down your baby enough to concentrate on eating.
If you are breastfeeding, there is no need to offer a supplement of formula or pumped breastmilk at this time. Do not skip feeds and supplement with a bottle, because this tells your body to make less milk during this time, and your supply will decrease. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine indicates that supplementation is not necessary for the infant that is fussy in the evenings or nursing for longer periods of time. However, if you choose to offer a bottle, be sure to also pump at that time to stimulate your milk supply, and using pace bottle-feeding to keep the transition between breast and bottle smooth.
If cluster feeding persists, you can also make a note to call your lactation consultant for an appointment, so that your infant’s feed and latch can be assessed to confirm they are gaining well and getting enough breastmilk.
Cluster feeding during growth spurts normally lasts for about 5-7 days. The infant will then adjust back to their normal nursing behavior. Breastfeeding moms may notice that they themselves are hungrier and thirstier during this time as well, so be sure to stay hydrated and eat healthy snacks while your baby is nursing. Cluster feeding that happens during the evening hours normally slows down around the 3-month mark.
Cluster Feeding does not equal low supply
The most important thing to understand is that this is all normal, and there is no need to panic! Cluster feeding does not mean that your milk supply is low. If you are concerned your infant is not getting enough milk, count the number of wet diapers and the amount of feeds baby has in 24 hours. This reference chart will help you to see day by day if your baby is taking in enough. If you are still worried, make an appointment with a lactation consultant to have the feed, latch, and transfer assessed.
Remember, your body knows what to do! You got this!!
Dominique Gallo, IBCLC, RLC
International Board Certified Lactation Consultant