Have you been watching hours pass as your newborn sits on the breast snacking? Does it always seem to happen at the same time each day? If so, your newborn may be cluster feeding!
As only one of the challenges that accompany breastfeeding, cluster feeding confuses and frustrates many. It’s a normal part of having a new little one around, but the whole ordeal can be both exhausting and stressful for a new mom. How can you defeat the cluster feeding blues?
Read on to learn how to master the art of cluster feeding and turn it into a positive experience for your family.
What Is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding is characterized as an intense series of short feedings – baby just wants to feed every hour for a few hours. Newborns who cluster feed are also commonly extra grumpy during this period (1).
Breastfeeding can be exhausting, demanding and confusing, but is also extremely rewarding in the long run. You need to remember that when the times get tough.
Don’t Doubt Yourself
Another important trait of a cluster-feeding baby is that outside of these feeding periods, babies can eat full amounts and go longer between eating. The cluster feeding occurrences are seen only during these few hours.
Why Does Cluster Feeding Happen?
There are a few reasons why babies will “snack” at the breast or a bottle, but cluster feeding is typically done in the evening because your baby is preparing to sleep for a longer period. Cluster feeding helps them fill up a little extra and get a full tummy (2).
Other reasons for cluster feeding could include:
- A growth spurt: Sometimes your baby needs extra calories to fuel their growth.
- A slower milk flow: Your milk production might have slowed down some, which could lead to extra feeding time and effort from your baby. Watch for any signs they aren’t getting enough milk.
- A general desire for comfort: Babies can’t handle much, so if something has them upset, they need their mom in the most comforting way possible.
- Teething: Cluster feeding can help soothe the discomfort from teething.
- Illness: There might be an increase in feeding when babies aren’t feeling well, such as when they’re fighting off an infection.
If the reason for the cluster feeding isn’t clear, check with your doctor.
Can Cluster Feeding Be Beneficial?
Many breastfeeding moms have mastered cluster feeding and have wielded it as a weapon against the “up every hour” nights that are so dreaded those first few months. When timed right and done properly, cluster feeding can get you closer to a full night’s rest weeks before you ever thought it could be possible.
Cluster feeding shouldn’t be an all-day or an all-night activity, but instead only take up around 4 hours of your time. This may still seem like a long time to be tied up breastfeeding, but it may lead hours after cluster feeding to a longer stretch of sleep and improved feeding habits.
By changing the way you look at cluster feeding, which can feel at first like an annoying and discouraging hassle, you can start figuring out the best time to cluster feed and how to enjoy the benefits that follow.
Will It Change My Milk Supply?
Cluster feeding can be nature’s way of ramping up milk production before a baby hits a growth spurt. Your baby’s frequent nursing can signal an increase in milk production to keep up with your growing baby’s needs. (4)
As babies prepare to go longer stretches without food, you may notice your infant napping longer or sleeping for more than a couple of hours after cluster feeding. Sometimes the longer stretch of sleep happens first – then baby makes up for it by cluster feeding when he or she awakens.
The only time cluster feeding starts to act as a sign your baby isn’t getting enough to eat is if they seem to be doing it all of the time and if they are not producing enough wet diapers. If your baby is at the breast both day and night, and never seems satisfied, it’s time to get some help.
Moving Night Cluster Feeding To Daytime
Babies are born with no sense of time, especially when it comes to night and day. Those differences mean nothing to your newborn, so if their cluster feeding time happens early on in the day, they are confused as to when nighttime happens.
You can train them to reset their inner clock with these four easy steps.
1. Say No to Long Daytime Naps
If your baby goes down for a longer stretch of time at any point, it can be tempting to enjoy the peace for as long as it lasts. You may look at these long daytime naps as a way to get one of your own, a chance to catch up on housework, or to finally make that call to your mom you’ve been putting off.
Unfortunately, since they spend their daytime hours sleeping, they need all that extra food while it’s dark outside. And that makes for an exhausted mommy!
2. Gradually Reset Their Schedule
Once you’ve figured out your baby isn’t cluster feeding at the right time and is struggling to get back on track, you can begin changing their feeding schedule little by little.
It’s impossible to expect a lot from a newborn when it comes to on-demand behaviors since their sense of time is so limited, but you can still do a few things to help them get a better sense of day and night. Move your feedings a little closer to where you want the cluster feeding to happen, and make adjustments as needed.
3. Keep Nighttime Activity to a Minimum
When your baby does wake up hungry in the middle of the night, feed them with as little disruption as possible. The key is to give them the milk they need while avoiding stimulation.
If you need to change their diaper, do so with minimal light and as little noise as possible. Be slow and soothing with your motions and don’t rush it. The more relaxed your baby is, the easier it will be to have him or her fall back to sleep.
Is Cluster Feeding A Red Flag?
On its own, cluster feeding is entirely natural and doesn’t indicate something else is going on with your baby.
Spending time worrying about your baby’s feeding habits is time wasted if they’re doing well in every other area. Check for wet and dirty diapers, and weight gain. If you don’t see concerns there, then just relax!
If your baby, however, never seems satisfied and is always attached to the breast, it could be a sign of a problem. If you aren’t hearing or seeing swallows, if your baby seems to be nibbling rather than sucking and swallowing, and if your baby is fussy much of the time, it’s possible that he’s pacifying at the breast and not really eating.
If you believe this is the case with your baby’s cluster feeding, work closely with your baby’s doctor and a lactation consultant to get feedings back on track.
Editor's Note:Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
4 Tricks To Survive Cluster Feeding
Just because it has eventual benefits doesn’t make cluster feeding fun. For me especially, I would dread having to sit on the couch alone in silence and staring into space while my baby fed and fed and fed. I quickly learned I was just doing it all wrong, and I’m here to share what I learned with you!
1. Make It Part of the Routine in Your Family
If you’re a family with more children than just your newborn, sitting down for hours on end isn’t realistic. Try to make your cluster feeding sessions blend in with your family culture by including the other members.
Bring the party to your nursing chair or feed baby right from the dinner table. I even somehow managed to play board games with the family while breastfeeding!
Once you make your newborn an attachment to your body and get used to the dynamic of it, you’re pretty much unstoppable!
2. Use This Time as a Way to Unwind and Relax
Remember that book you’ve meant to read for a year now? Or how about the show on Netflix you keep wanting to watch? Cluster feeding is a great time to get some you time… well, as much as you can with a baby pressed against you.
Relaxing and just taking this time to chill and reflect on yourself can be a way to reduce stress. I personally found meditation some nights as a great way to unwind and let go of my nursing-related frustration.
3. Create a Family Movie Night
If you aren’t a fan of trying to multitask, get your spouse to throw on a movie you two can enjoy while you’re nursing. You shouldn’t have to be isolated and alone if you don’t want to be, though it can be nice sometimes.
Don’t hesitate to be a little selfish during this time. A newborn can take a lot out of you, especially if you’re breastfeeding and dealing with unusual situations or poorly-timed cluster feedings. If you want to cuddle up and watch a timeless favorite, you should do so guilt-free!
4. Time It Around Your Spouse’s Schedule
For me, cluster feeding was hard because I’d been at home with my baby all day and then it was time to feed for hours right when my husband got home. He didn’t get time with either of us at all! It was really difficult for us until I adjusted when the feeding started.
What I did was simply start pushing the feeding back a little later gradually, so we had about an hour and a half to spend together before I needed to focus on feeding the little one. It worked out great, especially when I introduced activities the two of us could enjoy together while I nursed.
You Can Master The Art!
With a refreshed opinion on cluster feeding and all the knowledge you need to become a pro, nursing and sleeping should get a little easier from here on out. Our babies will cluster feed for such a short time in life, so try to enjoy the baby snuggles before this stage passes. You’ll have your body back to yourself before long and you’ll end up missing this special time.
Did you get to the light at the end of the tunnel of cluster feeding? Share your stories with us in the comments below!