Newborn babies eat frequently, and sometimes it can feel like they are just eating all the time. Patterns seem to change during breastfeeding right when you have gotten used to a rhythm. It is normal for your baby to breastfeed often. Babies typically nurse every 1.5-3 hours. In the beginning it may fall on the more frequent side and after the first several weeks, they may begin to go longer stretches between some feeds or during the night.
In the first couple days postpartum, your baby receives colostrum which is highly concentrated and matches their needs perfectly. It is high in protein, beta carotene and antibodies. Your baby will nurse every 1.5-2 hours around the clock and this frequent nursing helps your milk transition from colostrum to a more copious supply. As your milk increases in volume, the composition changes. Fat and lactose in your milk increases and protein decreases.
Cluster feeding is when your baby breastfeeds on and off, very frequently, for a 2-3 hour block of time. Cluster feeding is normal and happens during certain time frames of your breastfeeding relationship.
When do babies cluster feed?
- 2-3 days old
- 2-3 weeks old
- 6 weeks old
- 3 months old
- 6 months old
- During an illness
What does cluster feeding look like?
- Smaller feeds close together - your baby may nurse for only a little while, seem to be done but then cue to nurse only a short time later, repeating this several times.
- Your baby may feed on both sides and then want to nurse on the first side again
- Often in the early evening hours for 1-3 hours
- Your baby may be slightly fussy during this time, but if they can’t be soothed, there may be other reasons to rule out.
- Your baby wants to be held and not put down during this time
- Cluster feeding often happens at times of developmental growth spurts both physically and emotionally.
- The cluster of feedings differs from your baby’s normal pattern
- They are content when they are eating and there seems to be nothing else wrong
- They are still having the appropriate amount of wet and poop diapers per day for their age.
- May be followed by a longer stretch of sleep
It is important to remember that babies are all unique individuals and may have different feeding patterns. Looking at a whole day or few days may give you a better measure of your baby’s nursing than each separate feeding. Some infants only ever nurse on one side. Others will tend to nurse from both breasts during a nursing session. Most of the time, you will see a combination of the above.(1)
Cluster feeding times tend to happen in the early evening parallel to when your breasts may feel less full. Each time your baby nurses and removes milk, prolactin is released. Prolactin is a hormone responsible for making milk. Frequent feeds during cluster feeding keep prolactin levels elevated and can help increase milk supply. When your breasts are less full, there is a higher concentration of fat in the milk your baby is getting than when your breasts are more full.
Babies do not just cluster feed for more calories. Babies rely on you for regulation. Self regulation does not begin until at least 3 months old. When a baby nurses, they are getting their emotional needs met as well as feeling safe and in their natural environment which is in your arms. When you respond to your baby’s cues, it strengthens your bond and leads to longer breastfeeding relationships.
Babies who are held more often, cry less. Between 4 weeks through 4 months old, babies may cry more often. When we respond to our baby by holding them when they cry and carrying them more often throughout the whole day, crying is reduced by about 43% overall and about 51% of early evening crying. Your baby will be more calm and content more often.(2)
Cluster feeding survival tips
- Get comfy - grab some snacks, your water bottle and make yourself comfortable so you are able to meet your baby’s needs with less stress
- Wear your baby - put your baby in your sling so they can be close to you, nurse as often as they need and you can still move around or be able to meet your other children’s needs.
- Hold your baby more often to reduce fussiness, not just during the time of day they are cluster feeding.
- Being skin to skin with your baby during cluster feeding can be more relaxing for you both and help if your baby cries more during cluster feeding times.
- Ask for help - if you find you do need a break in between feeding, have someone hold or rock your baby so your can have a moment
- Get extra sleep by napping when your baby naps and going to bed in the evening when your baby does so you have the energy to keep up with those cluster feeds.
- If you bottle feed your baby, measure out smaller bottles to accommodate cluster feeds. You will want to pump to mimic your baby’s pattern of eating.
- Babies like movement and hearing your voice. Humming can help to calm your baby and you.
- Take a bath with your baby to relax and be skin to skin.
- Use coconut oil or some of your breastmilk to help soothe sore nipples from increased nursing
What to avoid
- Giving a bottle during cluster feeding times can interfere with signals your body gets when your baby nurses often for increasing milk supply.
- Pacifiers can be a tool if your baby needs to suck after they have been well fed and still want to suck, but they benefit more from being able to nurse for comfort. Cluster feeding are short feeds so missing time removing milk can interfere with your supply.
- Swaddling or not being in contact with mom when a baby wants to cluster feed can actually cause stress for your baby. Nursing releases oxytocin which is the feel good hormone helping to calm you and your baby.
- Do not be hard on yourself. Cluster feeding can be tiring physically and emotionally. Make sure to talk to your partner or someone who is supportive to help you get through times of cluster feeding.
- Breastfeeding supplements that have nutritional herbs can give your body a support boost supplying vitamins and minerals for milk production.
- Avoid schedules and follow your baby’s cues.
Cluster feeding is temporary. After a couple days, your baby’s nursing patterns will return to a new normal. Being a mom can feel like a lesson in flexibility and going with the flow. Try to let go of the feeling of having to get all the dishes and housework or other tasks done, they will still be there tomorrow. Remember you can not hold your baby or nurse them too much. You are meeting their needs and this is not spoiling your baby in any way.