Cluster feeding is one of those baby stages that can feel like it will never end: Baby cries. You get up and feed them. You lie down. Baby cries. You get up and feed them. You lie down. Baby cries. You can see where this is going. Most breastfed babies will go through a period when they seem to want to do nothing more than eat, eat, eat, and then eat some more. Called cluster feeding by doctors, these periods can feel like your baby is turning you (and your breasts) into a human pacifier as nothing—and we mean nothing—but a mouth full of breast will quiet their screams. So what’s going on with your fussy baby? Will a cluster feeding newborn continue to be a cluster feeding infant and later turn into a cluster feeding toddler? Is there a way to stop this insanity? We asked the experts to help make sense of why your baby has turned hangry and what to do about it.
What is cluster feeding, anyway?
First, a little good news: Cluster feeding is normal in babies. Pause for sigh of relief. Okay, now let’s dig in. Babies go through phases where their eating patterns change, but just because they’re eating more does not mean they’re cluster feeding. To be considered true cluster feeding, a baby needs to be demanding to eat almost constantly in a very short amount of time. Exact numbers will vary from baby to baby, but if your baby’s demanded to eat two to four times in a row over a three-hour span, it’s safe to say you’ve got a bout of cluster feeding on your hands, says Leigh Anne O’Connor, an international board-certified lactation consultant based in New York City. You might want to grab some water and load a few good binge-worthy shows into your Netflix queue. This could go on for a while…literally. It’s normal for cluster feeding to last anywhere from two to five days, O’Connor says, although you should get some breaks along the way. Just as the name implies, cluster feeds tend to happen in clusters, meaning baby will eat, eat, eat for a chunk of time and then lay off. It may even be limited to one portion of the day. “When breastfeeding is going well and the baby is growing, it is normal for babies to cluster feed in the evening,” O’Connor says. There are a few reasons for this phenomenon. “As the day goes on, the volume of milk is less than in the early part of the day,” O’Connor explains. Because the first milk a baby drinks early in the day is watery, it’s good for hydration. But if baby doesn’t eat a lot, that first milk, called foremilk, stays in the breast and builds up. Each time baby goes to have a meal, if they stick to short and sweet eating times, they’ll continue to get that more watery foremilk. If a baby cluster feeds, on the other hand, they quickly work their way through the foremilk, O’Connor says, and get to a mother’s hindmilk, which is fattier and helps baby grow. “Also, in the evening the milk has more melatonin,” O’Connor adds, “so after a cluster feeding in the evening, the baby has a belly full of fatty milk with a natural sleep aid!” With the changes in breast milk throughout the day, it’s no wonder doctors say cluster feeding is more prevalent in breastfed babies than those who are formula fed. As Cathy M. Coleman, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics in the department of pediatrics at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital on New York’s Long Island puts it, “Formula-fed babies may have appetite changes at various times, but formula is not human milk and takes longer to digest, so feeds are typically spread farther apart in a formula-fed infant.”
Is cluster feeding a problem?
Having a baby who won’t let you put them down for five seconds can be frustrating and even a little alarming, but it’s important to remember that cluster feeding is a normal part of development for newborns. And despite what you might have read in some parenting Facebook group, it isn’t “spoiling” your baby to respond to their cries for food and feed them on demand. Cluster feeding babies really do need to eat. What’s more, that time you spend meeting your little one’s demands not only helps them grow, but can also help a breastfeeding mom’s body adapt to meet the demands of feeding a growing baby. How? Deedee Franke, a registered nurse and international board certified lactation consultant based at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, says cluster feeding is “a way babies in the early months help mom build a milk supply or how a baby makes up feedings missed after a long stretch of not eating”—particularly after they may have been sleeping for a longer period. Because a mom’s milk production system is built to respond to a baby’s demands, cluster feeding is one of the ways baby is programmed to trigger mom to make more milk, which they will need as their bodies get bigger and thus require more food. “If a baby is nursing more and removing more milk, then the mother produces more,” Franke explains. You’ve heard that babies (and older kids) go through growth spurts? Cluster feeds are part of helping baby and mom adjust for those growth spurts, Franke explains, which is why they tend to occur several times in the first three months of life. Cluster feeding can first crop up in the first week after a baby is born, as mom’s milk is coming in and nature does its part to help establish good milk production. From there babies will typically cluster feed around the two or three week mark, then again at around six weeks, and once more at around three months old, Franke says. As they grow and eventually begin eating solid foods in addition to (and eventually instead of) mom’s milk, the need for cluster feeding wanes, and you’re less likely to experience it with older kids.
Cluster feeding can be exhausting, especially for parents who have to work or take care of older children in addition to feeding a fussy baby at night. So the answer to “How to stop cluster feeding?” may be disappointing. You don’t. But before you let the tears flow, there’s some good news to consider. Forty percent of moms told University of California, Davis, and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center researchers that they don’t feel like they produce enough breast milk, and some even turn to a breast pump to stimulate their milk ducts between feedings. But cluster feeding is nature’s way of helping your body keep up. As Franke puts it, “Baby is the best pump,” not to mention baby at the breast is often preferred to the mechanics of a pump, if only because it’s much more pleasant to bond with baby than operate a machine. What’s more, if you know a baby is cluster feeding, you’re armed with information. Use it. Now is the time to tell others in your household that you really need them to pick up the slack or to call in those favors from friends and family members who offered to lend a hand at your baby shower. They made the offer; don’t leave it hanging. Coleman says it’s also a good excuse for a mom to take to her bed where she can rest and do nothing but feed herself and baby. “The milk supply will respond to the demand, resulting in decreased feeding frequency,” Coleman says. If your nipples are chapped or you’re feeling pain in your arms or back from all that nursing, check with your insurance company to see if a lactation consultant can help you check your latch and find a more comfortable position. “Some moms need to go back to Latch 101 during a cluster period, as this will help with nipple comfort,” O’Connor says. In other words, go back to the basics of latching baby on your breast, or ask for help making that latch. “It is easy to get relaxed about positioning baby at breast, but as babies grow they can become acrobats and pull on the nipples,” she notes. “Grounding the baby and making sure the baby is super close should remedy discomfort.” If your nipples are sore, a balm like coconut oil or other nipple cream designed for breastfeeding moms can help. As for back, arms, and neck pain, changing up your positions might help. For example, a side-lying pose can allow you to rest while baby has access to your breasts.
When to Call Your Pediatrician
Although cluster feeding is a normal part of baby’s development, that doesn’t mean it isn’t alarming or confusing, especially for first-time breastfeeding moms who haven’t been through it before. Struggling to know if you’re breastfeeding “correctly” or should even keep doing it? Know that you’re not alone. According to the UC Davis and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital researchers, 52 percent of moms worry that their baby is not feeding well at the breast, leading researchers to conclude that moms need more support in their breastfeeding journeys. If a baby is “nursing constantly for a few hours, they will get both fore and hind milk, therefore they should be getting all the nutrients” they need during cluster feeding, Coleman says. But if a mom truly does not have enough milk, then baby may need to be supplemented with formula to allow for adequate caloric intake. “This would be based on the baby’s weight and urine and stool output, and should be decided with the pediatrician,” Coleman says. That doesn’t necessarily mean a mom who wants to continue nursing has to give up, she says. Supplementation with one or two bottles of formula a day for a few days can help baby improve weight gain and give mom a little rest, and baby can be weaned back off formula once things calm down. It’s important to always trust your mom gut, and it never hurts to ask a medical expert for some help. If your baby is struggling to maintain their latch, if they’re falling asleep quickly at the breast, or if they’re gaining weight slowly, it’s especially important to make that call to the pediatrician. “Sometimes a baby will frequently feed because the baby is not feeding well or transferring milk well from the breasts,” Coleman explains. “If a mother is not sure about how the baby is feeding, it is a good idea to have the baby’s weight checked and speak to a lactation consultant or your baby’s healthcare provider about the baby’s feeding pattern to make sure breastfeeding is going well.” A baby may also be fussing and using a mother’s breast for soothing rather than sustenance, so it’s important to keep tabs on other markers of health to determine if baby is hungry or just not feeling well. “If a breastfed baby is at least a week old, and not urinating at least six to eight times in 24 hours or stooling at least three to four times in 24 hours, the pediatrician should be called,” Coleman says, adding that “if a baby is very fussy for a prolonged period of time, parents should take the baby’s temperature, and the pediatrician should be called.”
When it’s over, it’s over.
Although true cluster feeding can last for several days, and it can come back, once you hit the three-month mark, things tend to improve. Not only is your milk production in full swing, but in a few months, baby can generally start to eat other things in addition to breast milk, taking some of the pressure off your body and allowing you the fun of sharing your favorite eats with your little one. It’s important to remind yourself that not only is cluster feeding normal, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. As Coleman (who isn’t just a pediatrician, but a mom too) says, “It is hard, but if you focus just on the nursing for a couple days, usually things improve.”