Cluster Feeding: What Is It and How Long Does It Last Last

Why does your newborn want to feed so many times close together ? It’s because they’ve started to cluster feed. This is a frustrating, but totally normal, phase. Today, we’ll cover the essential tips for parents.

Cluster feeding: What is it?

When baby wants to feed several times in a row, over a much shorter period than usual, this is known as cluster feeding.

Cluster feeds usually last for around two to three hours at a time. During a cluster feed, baby will behave differently than during a typical feed. They might eat, then cry a lot, and then possibly sleep, multiple times across the two or three hours. Don’t be surprised if they want to feed as often as every 20-30 minutes during the cluster feed.

As frustrating as this may be, cluster feeding is perfectly normal for newborns, so don’t panic. There’s nothing wrong with baby, and this isn’t a sign that they weren’t getting enough to eat. Rather, it’s baby’s natural response to a growth spurt.

The reasons behind cluster feeding

Once baby enters a growth spurt, they’ll need more breastmilk or formula for their development. They’ll instinctively start to feed in clusters, because they know that this behavior will encourage their mother to produce more breastmilk when they need it most. The more baby drinks in a shorter timeframe, the greater the supply their mother will produce to meet baby’s needs. It’s all about supply and demand!

If you’re breastfeeding, rest assured that cluster feeding doesn’t mean you weren’t producing enough milk. Rather, baby just needs to drink more milk to satisfy more demanding developmental needs, and naturally knows that the cluster feed will prompt your body to produce more. That’s why cluster feeding is most common in breastfed babies.

But what if you’re formula feeding, and baby starts cluster feeding? Well, that just means baby’s natural instinct to feed more often during their growth spurt is still kicking in.

All babies need more nutrients during their growth spurts. Some bottle-fed babies will still instinctively feed in a cluster pattern to take in those nutrients, even though they’re not taking in those nutrients via their mother’s breast. Their body doesn’t want to give up what it’s hardwired to do that easily! So, don’t be surprised if your formula-fed baby starts cluster feeds.

How to know when cluster feeding has started?

Cluster feeding periods match up with baby’s first two main growth spurts. The first cluster feed usually happens when baby is around three weeks old. Then, the cluster feed stops, and starts again when baby is around six weeks old. All babies are different, though, so baby’s growth spurts (and cluster feeds) might not start exactly on baby’s third and sixth weeks of life.

It may still be difficult to know when baby has started to cluster feed, though. After all, many babies don’t follow a predictable feeding schedule!

First and foremost, watch for feeding needs that increase vs. baby’s average feeding needs, and that start to occur closer together than normal.

0-8 week old babies will usually want to feed 8-12 times per day. If baby wants to feed more often, and has periods where they want to feed several times over 2-3 hours, they’ve probably started to cluster feed.

Also, if baby keeps showing signs of hunger in the early evenings, even after they’ve already been fed, they’ve likely started the cluster feeding phase.

Signs of hunger may include searching for the breast or bottle (rooting), opening the mouth wide, nuzzling against the breast, mouthing, taking the fists towards the mouth, fussiness, marked alertness, and lip smacking.

These signs, coupled with increased feedings during an expected growth spurt time, almost always point to cluster feeding.

In addition, here are other signs that may point to cluster feeding:

  • Baby eats more often, but each feed is shorter than usual
  • Baby wants to eat repeatedly in a smaller time period
  • Baby clearly isn’t satisfied with a feeding, even though they’ve just been fed
  • During the evening or late afternoon, baby seems especially eager to eat or especially dissatisfied with a feed
  • Baby still has the same amount of wet/dirty diapers as usual
  • Baby won’t stop crying, and feeding is the only thing that satisfies them...
  • ...But during the feedings, baby is very content
  • Nothing seems “wrong” with baby, except the frequent feedings and the added fussiness when baby wants to eat

How long does cluster feeding last?

You can usually expect each cluster feeding period to last for a few days. Remember that baby will start to cluster feed for a few days, then stop, then start to cluster feed again a few weeks later, again for a few days.

Cluster feeding will usually stop for good when baby is 3 or 4 months of age (but all babies are different).

Still, there are reasons why an older baby might start cluster feeding again. If they go through yet another growth spurt, they’ll cluster feed to support it. Or, if they start teething (or get sick), they might use frequent feeding --- cluster feeding --- as a source of comfort.

No matter when it occurs, if baby’s “cluster feeding” lasts longer than a few days, immediately weigh them and call your doctor. This could indicate that your baby isn’t getting enough calories.

Cluster feeding in the evenings: Why is this common?

Why does cluster feeding usually occur in the evening or early afternoon (when baby tends to be fussiest)? Scientists don’t know the answer yet, but there are a few theories that could explain evening cluster feeds.

Some experts believe that the cluster feed helps baby build up their mother’s milk supply when it naturally tends to be a bit lower. Creating more demand may help fight against the small decrease, and ensure baby gets all the nutrients they need before bedtime.

Other experts think cluster feeding is a way that a baby responds when they’re overly stimulated or overtired. Babies’ nervous systems are still developing, and they use the cluster feed as a way to relax when their nervous system overwhelms them.

How to soothe baby during cluster feeding times?

Cluster feeding and fussiness usually go hand in hand. Baby will usually be fussiest during cluster feeding hours, in between the feedings (but during the actual feedings, they’ll be content).

Here are some ways to help soothe baby during cluster feeding periods:

  • Play soothing sounds, like calming music or white noise.
  • Turn on a fan (another way to create white noise).
  • Sing or talk to baby in a soothing voice.
  • Swaddle baby and hold them close, so they feel more secure.
  • Move baby around while you feed them. You could rock them, or put them in a carrier or sling and walk with them.
  • Try holding baby in different feeding positions.
  • Feed baby in a dark and quiet room. This may help get rid of unsettling stimuli.

Cluster feeding: Keys to survival

Cluster feeding is a perfectly normal phase, so never try to stop baby from cluster feeding. It may be frustrating, and it may make it very hard to sleep, but let baby feed as often as they want and need to --- even if that’s every hour.

These tips may help you and your family through the challenging period of cluster feeding:

  • Rest before you expect the cluster feed. Think a cluster feed is coming up? Try to nap for a few hours just prior.
  • Stay nourished and hydrated. Eat a nutritious meal, and drink lots of water, right before you expect baby to cluster feed.
  • Keep healthy snacks and water on hand, right by your feeding area. This is especially important if you’re breastfeeding.
  • Be sure to use the bathroom right before you think baby will cluster feed.
  • Try to plan ahead for a cluster feed in other ways, if possible.
  • Get comfortable in your desired area right before an expected cluster feed.
  • Watch a TV show or movie, listen to an audiobook, listen to music, or put on your favorite podcast, during a cluster feed.
  • Call friends or family during cluster feeds.
  • Change your feeding positions to try to prevent soreness.
  • If you have experience with feeding baby in a sling or carrier, consider feeding them in that and walking around during cluster feeds.
  • If you need assistance during cluster feeding, don’t be afraid to ask for it!
  • Think about adding pumping to your feeding routine, if you’re breastfeeding. Pump between feeds, or even use “power pumping.” This way, you’ll be able to offer some or all of the milk in a bottle during cluster feeding (or free yourself up by enabling others to feed baby from a bottle).
  • Have your partner or another caregiver offer bottles (of either pumped breastmilk or formula, depending on how you’re feeding baby) during the cluster feed. You’ll then be able to use that time to take care of yourself --- shower, take a walk, or simply enjoy uninterrupted alone time.
  • Keep older children occupied with toys (or media) that they are only allowed to enjoy when baby is feeding.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, don’t assume your milk supply is low just because baby wants to cluster feed.
  • Don't assume that you must switch from breastfeeding to formula feeding, just to satisfy baby. Don’t assume that you must breastfeed and formula feed at the same time, either. The best way to keep up with baby’s increased milk demands is to keep breastfeeding consistently (and/or keep pumping consistently).

Mama Natural offers more tips for supporting yourself and your baby during cluster feeding. (Most of these tips are for breastfeeding moms, but some tips are helpful for all families.)

Cluster feeding vs. colic crying

When baby is cluster feeding, they may cry a lot, especially during the evenings. They’ll be satisfied during feeding, though.

But if baby keeps crying for several hours per day, for no good reason, and is not satisfied during feedings, they may have colic.

Cluster feed crying will sound like baby’s normal “hungry” cry, but colic crying usually sounds like screaming.

Also, cluster feed crying shows up at around three weeks of age, continues for only a few days, stops, then shows up again at six weeks of age for only a few days. Meanwhile, colic crying has a different pattern--- it usually peaks at six weeks of age, continues with no breaks, and then stops around three months of age

Summing things up

Remember --- even though cluster feeding may be frustrating, this too shall pass. Cluster feeding is a normal way for baby to increase their nutrient intake during a growth spurt, when they need it most. And it only tends to last for a few days at a time. In the meantime, follow our tips to help make this time more bearable for both you and baby.

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