When infants get to a certain age they may begin to want to breastfeed more frequently than usual. Often, the length of the feedings will decrease as the frequency increases. While this is normal, it can be concerning or confusing to new parents.
Breast or bottle feeding that happens frequently and isn’t necessarily due to hunger is referred to as cluster feeding.
How to Know It’s Cluster Feeding
It's normal for babies to cluster feed. It is especially common during the early days of breastfeeding. Cluster feeding is more common in the late afternoon or early evening, but it can happen at any time of the day.
Cluster feeding usually happens between three weeks to six weeks after birth. During this period, your baby experiences growth spurts. As a result, they may require more milk than usual. Throughout these times, it's important to make sure you provide enough milk to keep your baby full.
You should consider it normal for your baby to cluster feed if you notice the following:
- Your baby is gaining reasonable weight.
- The process occurs during a limited time, like 3-4 hours a day.
- Your baby is having a lot of dirty and wet diapers.
- The process occurs after birth when you have an adequate milk supply.
- Your baby has short rests or sleeps between these feedings.
- Your baby feeds for a few minutes then pulls off and on the breast.
- Your baby cries and is fussy during this time.
If you are concerned that your milk supply is inadequate for your baby’s needs, talk to your pediatrician.
Causes of Cluster Feeding
Some babies do not cluster feed at all. The following are reasons why your baby could be cluster feeding:
Your baby is undergoing a growth spurt. If your baby is at a stage where they are experiencing a growth spurt, they will naturally need more nourishment. During these times, your baby may want to nurse every 30 minutes to an hour. In the first month alone, growth spurts can happen every few days or even weekly.
These growth spurts typically happen when your baby is around two to three weeks, six weeks, three months, and six months old. However, your baby's growth spurts may not happen at these exact times as every baby is different. Growth spurts usually last a few days.
Developmental milestone. Your baby may be undergoing a developmental milestone during the first six months. When your child experiences physical and psychological changes, they may need nutrition. The process can cause your baby to cluster feed.
When Is Cluster Feeding Not Considered Normal?
There are times when your baby may frequently breastfeed to the point that you need to involve your pediatrician. Such instances include:
- Your baby breastfeeds non-stop.
- Your baby cries unless they are breastfeeding and continues to show signs of hunger.
- Your baby appears jaundiced (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes), becomes lethargic (appearing tired and dull), or has tremors after long periods of non-stop nursing.
- Your baby is not gaining weight.
- Your baby is not producing wet and dirty diapers.
How to Deal With Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding doesn't mean you don't have enough milk. However, some parents are concerned that they may not be producing enough milk for their baby during cluster feeding episodes. If you are in such a situation, be sure to:
- Stay hydrated.
- Find a breastfeeding partner to bring you drinks and snacks and keep you entertained during the cluster-feeding episodes.
- Stay prepared for your baby’s needs.
- Do not miss your meals.
- Relax, get comfortable, and follow your baby’s lead.
- Know when your baby is hungry.
When your baby is full but can’t seem to stop craving more, you may use non-nutritive sucking to soothe them. For instance, using a pacifier instead of breastfeeding your baby every 30 minutes will save you and your baby lots of fussiness and time.
Benefits of Cluster Feeding
Some of the advantages of cluster feeding include:
- Providing your baby the nourishment they need to grow
- Helping to soothe your baby
- Ensuring your baby gets enough sleep after a satisfying nursing session
- Providing comfort, security, and reassurance that sustain your baby's emotional needs
- Boosting your milk supply to fit the needs of your baby
Challenges of Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding can make you feel emotionally and physically drained. Studies show that many parents may experience frustration or fatigue from cluster feeding. Some lose confidence in their ability to breastfeed.
You may become worried that you aren't producing enough milk, especially if your baby takes a long time to settle when nursing or your breasts feel empty. Another challenge of cluster feeding is the sleep deprivation that comes about when your baby wakes up frequently to nurse.
During periods of cluster feeding, parents may find it helpful to talk with a lactation consultant or pediatrician. Your doctor may also recommend additional ways to care for your nursing baby.