What is cluster feeding?
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.
What is cluster feeding? Cluster feeding is when a baby demands multiple feedings close together within a few hours. These “clusters” may be followed by a long stretch of not feeding, or the baby may cluster feed for multiple hours.
Why does my baby cluster feed?
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 more in the evenings:
1) Hormone changes and 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.
Cluster feeding can be frustrating but be reassured that this behavior is Normal
It is not uncommon for Cluster feeding to cause frustration for breastfeeding others and can often undermine a mother’s confidence, because of the behavior the infant may display during the clustering time. Your baby may:
– Be fussy and want to be at the breast or close to you
– 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 is simply normal newborn behavior.
What can I do, to get through cluster feeds?
During this time, find a comfortable place to sit with your baby and:
– Continue to nurse your baby as often as the baby requests. Feeding on demand is important for your supply and babies tummy as they grow.
– Soothe your baby and try to remember that this is temporary and it will pass. Skin to skin and calming affirmations can be helpful for both you and your little one.
– 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.
Does cluster feeding mean my baby is not getting enough milk?
If you are breastfeeding, there is no need to offer a supplement of formula or pumped breast milk during cluster feeds. Cluster Feeding does not mean your supply is low. 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. It can be tempting but do not skip feeds and supplement with a bottle, because this tells your body to make less milk during this time, and your supply may decrease. Watch your baby for signs that they are getting the milk they need, wet and dirty diapers, waking on their own and feeding on demand, meeting developmental milestones, listening for swallows at the breast. If you do choose to have another caregiver help during this time and feed expressed milk with a bottle, be sure to pump to replace the stimulation and practice paced bottle feeding to keep the transition between breast and bottle smooth.
If you feel that your baby is not transferring the milk they need, or 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.
How long does cluster feeding last?
Cluster feeding lasts for about 5-7 days, during growth and developmental spurts. The infant will then adjust back to their normal nursing behavior. Frequent cluster feeding, which happens during the evening hours, normally slows down around the 3-month mark.
Other times your baby may cluster feed is when they are learning a new skill, teething, there has been a change in your routine, or if they are not feeling well. How long cluster feeding lasts in these situations may vary, but often just lasts while the baby is working through the tough time, often just a day or two at a time.
Taking care of you during cluster feeding
Breastfeeding parents may notice that they are hungrier and thirstier when their baby is feeding more often, so be sure to stay hydrated and eat healthy snacks. A good tip is to have a glass of water and a small snack, each time you sit down to feed your baby. Having a basket with water, snacks, diapers wipes and the T. V. remote or your favorite book can also be helpful, to get you through an exhausting time
How to stop cluster feeding
As mentioned above, cluster feeding and these behaviors are all normal, and there is no need to panic! The process of making breast milk is heavily dependent upon responsive breastfeeding, or “supply and demand”. Cluster feeding is an important part of this process, as it helps your body adjust to your growing baby’s needs. How to stop cluster feeding is not something you want to worry too much about, relax and do your best to enjoy the additional feeding snuggles. If you need a break (it is normal to feel burnt out, and okay to take a break) have your partner or other care provider take over for other baby care like baths, diaper changes, and skin to skin snuggles to give you a little bit of time for yourself.
Cluster feeding does not mean that your milk supply is low, that your baby is not getting enough, or that you are doing something wrong. As always, If you are concerned your infant is not getting enough milk, count the number of wet diapers and the number of feeds the 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
What is cluster feeding? – Support for breastfeeding moms.
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