“Cluster feeding” describes a sudden change in a young babies’ eating habits, shifting from a predictable meal every 2-3 hours, to rigorous nursing every single hour. This abrupt change can last for 1-3 days at a time, with spurts occurring more frequently at night or all throughout the day.
Just when you think you’ve got this whole “baby” thing figured out, they throw you a curveball! I remember parking myself on the couch from 5 pm until 10 pm countless evenings when my son wanted to cluster-feed. The mornings after, he always looked so much bigger. Even though I knew he was just going through a growth spurt, being on-call all evening was challenging.
Here is some helpful information I wish I had while going through this phase with my first…
Reasons for Cluster Feeding
- Cluster feeding keeps up your milk supply! There is nothing wrong with the amount or quality of milk you’re producing. Frequent trips to the breast is the only way your body knows to keep producing ample milk for your growing baby. It is important that, at least for the most part, you resist the urge to resort to bottle feedings throughout the cluster-eating period. If you are going back to work, these nighttime feedings will be the key to keeping up your supply and fewer daytime pumps.
- Milk flow is slower at night. One theory is that a mother’s prolactin levels dip at the end of the day, causing a slight drop in milk supply and slower milk flow. Babies nurse longer to fill up their tanks. They also tend to drink more to prepare for longer stretches of sleeping and growing. To help with this, you can massage and compress the breast to push the milk out faster.)
- It’s a growth spurt. This was definitely the case with my little one, who grew noticeably larger after a couple days of eating and sleeping like crazy. Most babies cluster feed at least a few times in the first few weeks and months.
- It’s a developmental leap. Every baby is different, but you can refer to an app like The Wonder Weeks to see if the cluster feedings sync up with predictable periods of infant development. True “cluster feeding” usually wraps up sometime between four to six months, although older babies spend more time at the breast for all sorts of different reasons.
- Baby is self-soothing. Eating is relaxing and provides the hormones necessary for the development of your baby’s circadian rhythm. Many babies cluster feed at night to comfort themselves to sleep. As the baby gets older, you may notice hair-twirling, finger sucking, blanket-stroking, eye rubbing, or self-soothing activities before bed.
- It’s teething, sickness, thirst, or exhaustion. As adults, we have all sorts of coping mechanisms at our disposal. You can fetch that tall drink of cool lemonade or seek out your partner for a loving embrace when you’re feeling stressed. The baby has crying, movement, and you for comfort.
Cluster Feeding Tips to Survive This Challenging Period:
- Address pain. There are alternatives to simply suffering through painful breastfeeding or quitting. Talk to a lactation consultant about your baby’s latch. Use a nipple shield for the first month or so. Apply lanolin or nipple butter before and after feedings. If your nipples are cracked and chafing against your bra, try hydrogel pads.
- Seek comfort. Cluster feeding is among the most stressful phases of raising a child, period. It’s natural to wonder and worry about the baby’s health, but don’t forget about YOU! The increasing demands on your mind and body when you’re sleep-deprived and hormones are running wild is a lot to take in. For me, something as simple as being physically comfortable in soft, flattering clothing was essential. If you like sleeping in shorts, try the Amelia Nursing & Maternity Pajamas – it sleeps cool and comfortable, and there is no irritating elastic band, so pulling up the material to nurse is a cinch! If you prefer buttery soft PJ pants, you’ll love the Davy Nursing & Maternity Pajamas, designed for easy access and discreet nursing day and night. In addition to wearing comfortable clothes, be sure you drink lots of water and eat healthy snacks. Sleep when the baby sleeps!
- Be prepared. Resign yourself to the fact that you will be spending a lot of time on the couch. I spent many a night there, sleeping sitting up in a fort of pillows! There are some upsides – you have more time to make phone calls, read a book, rest your feet, text your mom friends, catch up on social media, or pick up necessary supplies on Amazon. Use a basket or cleaning caddy as a handy organizer for snacks, bottled water, the TV remote, breastfeeding supplies (lanolin, nipple butter, breastfeeding shield, towel, pacifier), Motrin, books or magazines, and a journal. Get recommendations from friends on the best TV shows to binge watch and the best podcasts to download when you’re needing a little extra mental stimulation. Be sure to have your phone charger connected to a power strip within reach, too! You don’t get much, if any, “me time” right now, so don’t feel guilty about squeezing it in however you can, so you’re more relaxed.
- Do what you have to do. Over time, you will find creative ways to work growth spurts into your daily routine. Some moms lean on their husbands to cover dinner and bedtime routines for the other kids, while they feed the baby. Others make dinner during the day while the baby naps that can be reheated later. (And, yes, you may find yourself breastfeeding at the dinner table on more than one occasion!)
- Wear your baby as often as possible. Snuggling close to mom in a sling is instantly soothing for many babies, especially those who want to be upright or held at all times. Some babies don’t allow you to sit down while wearing the carrier, but the good news is that you can at least get some light housework done or go for a walk while baby breastfeeds or rests. Then when baby awakens with a hunger, you’re right there, ready to oblige. I often found that I could wear my older son, while sitting on a large yoga ball, for meals and downtime on my computer. The gentle up-and-down motion was more soothing to him than rocking and gliding during the first few months.
- Be patient. A few hours of cluster feeding can feel like a few days. Even the calmest babies have “witching hours” at night where it seems nothing will soothe their savage souls. Young babies like to eat a lot at night and fuss. It is all part of adjusting to life outside the womb. You may be tempted to wonder, “Is this going to be my life now?” Some moms have described it as “looking down a tunnel with no light at the end of it.” But if there is one truth about the early years of childhood, it’s this: the time is fleeting. You will continue to hear two mantras from other moms endlessly: “It goes by so fast” and “Wow, he got big!” Months later, you WILL look back and think this period of helplessness was little more than a blink of an eye. For the moment, forgive yourself for letting a few household chores slide. Forget the rest of the world exists, and focus on the simplicity, beauty, and serenity of this time. You have everything your baby needs.
- Enlist helpers. My husband was very supportive -- always bringing me food and water, and helping me stay comfortable, while I camped out on the couch. Your partner is the most likely assistant, but don’t hesitate to ask parents, siblings, or pals to help with tasks like laundry, dishes, cooking, cleaning, or trips to the store. Family and friends want to lend their assistance, but they often don’t know exactly how to do this, without intruding upon your newborn bonding experience. You may even ask them to sit with the baby for a couple hours, while you catch a glorious, uninterrupted catnap! Sometimes that extra sleep gives you just enough patience to make it through another busy day.
Where to Find Cluster Feeding Newborn Help
Cluster feeding and periods of fussiness are perfectly normal for babies. Health care professionals are typically unconcerned unless the baby is not gaining weight normally or the baby is not producing at least six wet diapers (after the first week). If your baby spends an hour at the breast during these cluster feeds, ask your lactation consultant about tongue-tie. If forceful spit-up accompanies feeding sessions, inquire about acid reflux. For an older baby, it could be more comfort nursing than cluster feeding.*
Instead of worrying, stay sane – build a breastfeeding support network to get answers to your many questions and offer helpful advice at crucial moments. Outside of your immediate social circle, you will want to enlist help from:
- Doctors, nurses, and breastfeeding consultants at your OBGYN practice
- Nurses and breastfeeding consultants you met during your stay at the hospital or birthing center
- Your doula or midwife, if you used one
- A lactation consultant
- Peer counselors offered through La Leche League, Breastfeeding USA, or your local WIC program
For immediate support, call: 1-877-452-5324 (La Leche League hotline) or 1-800-994-9662 (US Office on Women’s Health hotline).
While it is exhausting, cluster feeding is completely normal and temporary. Think of it as necessary downtime for both of you. I miss those evenings, where my only “job” was to look at my son’s peaceful, slumbering face. Life really does get back to “normal” eventually, and your baby moves on to a wiggly, busybody phase… but, truly, nothing beats the lovefest of newborn baby snuggles!
*Disclaimer: The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other health care provider.