Cluster Feeding: Our Survival Guide For Parents

Cluster feeding is a completely normal phase where your baby feeds more frequently, because they’re going through a growth spurt. Here’s what you need to know when your baby starts cluster feeding.

Does your newborn want to feed several times close together, often during the evening? This may be frustrating, but it’s completely normal --- it’s a phase known as cluster feeding. Here’s what you need to know when your baby has started cluster feeding, including tips for this often-tiring phase.

What is cluster feeding?

Cluster feeding is when baby wants to feed several times during a shorter period (in clusters).

A cluster feed usually lasts for a few hours at a time, and looks very different from baby’s typical feeding habits. Baby might alternate between eating, crying and possibly resting several times in a 2-3 hour period. They might want to feed every 20-30 minutes within this timeframe.

Cluster feeding is perfectly normal, so don’t be alarmed at the changes in your baby’s feeding routine.

Why do babies cluster feed?

Cluster feeding is a way for newborn babies to make sure they get enough breastmilk (or formula) when they’re going through a growth spurt, to satisfy their increased developmental needs.

During this growth spurt, baby instinctively knows that feeding in clusters is the best way to encourage their mother to produce more breastmilk. Breastmilk production is all about “supply and demand” --- the more baby drinks, the greater supply their mother will have to meet their needs.

If you’re breastfeeding, this doesn’t mean that you weren’t producing enough milk before. Rather, baby’s just entering a time where they need more milk, and the cluster feed helps your body respond by producing more.

Do bottle-fed babies cluster feed?

Cluster feeding doesn’t just happen with breastfeeding babies, because it involves a natural instinct.

Even though the reasons behind cluster feeding involve getting a breastfeeding mother to produce more milk when baby needs it most, many bottle-fed babies will also want to cluster feed.

After all, all babies need more nutrients when they are going through growth spurts. And bottle-fed babies don’t always lose the instinct to take in those nutrients in a cluster pattern, just because they’re drinking from a bottle.

So, although cluster feeding is most common in breastfed babies, don’t be surprised if your bottle-fed baby starts cluster feeding.

Why does cluster feeding happen in the evening?

Experts don’t yet know why cluster feeds tend to occur in the evening or early afternoon (the period when baby tends to be fussiest). But they do have some theories.

Some experts think that babies’ still-developing nervous system makes them overtired or overstimulated, and that cluster feeding helps them relax.

Other experts believe that cluster feeding helps build mothers’ milk supply up during a time of day when it can naturally be slightly lower. Cluster feeding may help fight against that slight drop, so baby can get the nutrients they need before bed.

How to know when baby has entered the cluster feeding period?

Cluster feeding usually starts around baby’s third week of life. Then, it stops, and happens again around baby’s sixth week of life. This coincides with baby’s major growth spurts. Of course, every baby is different, so they may not start cluster feeding at these exact times.

On average (outside of cluster feeding), your 0-8 week old baby will feed 8 to 12 times every 24 hours.But if baby wants to feed more often than that (especially closer together), they’ve probably started cluster feeding.

Even though cluster feeding can be hard to identify (since babies often don’t have a predictable feeding schedule), these signs may indicate that your baby has started cluster feeding:

  • Baby wants to feed repeatedly and constantly
  • Even if they’ve already been fed, baby doesn’t seem satisfied with the feeding (especially in the evenings or later afternoons)
  • Baby eats more frequently, in shorter sessions than normal
  • Baby won’t stop crying until they’re fed
  • Besides the urges to feed frequently and the added fussiness when hungry, nothing seems “wrong” with baby
  • Baby is content during feedings
  • Baby still has the same amount of wet and dirty diapers

When they’re in the cluster feeding phase, baby will usually exhibit signs of hunger frequently during the evenings, even after they’ve already been fed. These may include:

  • Rooting (searching for the breast or bottle, or turning their head towards whatever touches their cheek)
  • Nuzzling against the breast
  • Opening the mouth wide
  • Mouthing
  • Moving the fists to the mouth
  • Lip-smacking
  • Fussiness
  • Becoming more alert

How long does cluster feeding last?

Each cluster feeding period usually lasts for a few days at a time. Babies usually “grow out of” cluster feeding around 3 or 4 months of age (of course, every baby is different.)

But if an older baby gets sick, or is teething, and needs the comfort of frequent feeding, they might cluster feed. Cluster feeding might also happen if an older baby goes through another growth spurt.

Regardless of when it happens, if your baby’s “cluster feeding” lasts longer than a few days, you need to check their weight and call your doctor. This may be a sign that your baby isn’t getting enough calories.

How to deal with cluster feeding?

The most important thing to remember during cluster feeding is that it’s completely normal. Don’t try to stop the cluster feed. Rather, let baby feed as often as they need to and want to.

Yes, cluster feeding can be frustrating, as it can be near-impossible to sleep when baby wants to feed every hour.

But these survival tips may help make the cluster feeding period more bearable for you and your family.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance when you need it.
  • If you’re breastfeeding and you’ve pumped breastmilk, or if you’re bottle-feeding, you could have another family member offer a bottle (or bottles). Then, use that time for self-care (such as a walk, a shower, or a few uninterrupted minutes to yourself),
  • Keep water and nutritious snacks by your feeding area to stay nourished. This is especially important if you’re breastfeeding.
  • Get plenty of rest beforehand. Try to nap for a few hours just prior to when you expect the cluster feed.
  • Make sure you’re nourished and hydrated by eating a healthy meal, and drinking plenty of water, just before the cluster feeding time.
  • Plan ahead in other ways if you can. Use the bathroom, and try to get comfortable in your feeding area, right before you think baby will want to cluster feed.
  • Plan to cluster feed in front of the TV so you can watch a movie or show that you enjoy.
  • Or, plan to listen to an audiobook, podcast, or music during a feed.
  • Practice feeding baby in a sling or carrier. That way, you’ll be able to walk around while you cluster feed.
  • Call a friend or family member while you cluster feed.
  • Switch up your feeding positions frequently to keep from getting sore.
  • If you have older children, designate special toys (or shows) for them that they can only enjoy during baby’s feeding times.
  • Ask your partner (or friends/relatives) for help with cooking and housework during baby’s cluster feeding periods.
  • If you’re breastfeeding, don’t assume that cluster feeding means your milk supply is low. Also, don’t automatically assume that you have to switch to formula (or supplement nursing with formula). You’ll need to keep breastfeeding (or pumping) consistently to maintain the milk supply baby needs.
  • If needed when breastfeeding, consider pumping between feeds, or using “power pumping,” to help your body produce the milk baby needs during cluster feeds. This way, you’ll be able to offer some or all of the milk in a bottle during cluster feeding (or let someone else feed baby, freeing you up).
  • If you have any concerns about breastfeeding during this time, consider talking to a lactation consultant.

Mama Natural offers more tips for supporting yourself and your baby during cluster feeding. Note that these tips are largely geared towards breastfeeding moms:

How to soothe baby during cluster feeding times?

Cluster feeding usually coincides with baby’s fussiest times. They may cry a lot in between feedings, even though they’ll be satisfied during the feedings themselves.

These tips may help you soothe baby during a cluster feed:

  • Move baby around while feeding (walk while using a sling or carrier, or gently rock baby).
  • Sing or talk to baby with a gentle voice.
  • Play soothing sounds (white noise or calming music). Turning on a fan may also create white noise.
  • Hold baby close to help them feel secure. Swaddling them may help as well.
  • Feed baby in a quiet, dark room to remove unsettling stimuli.
  • Try holding baby in different positions.

What is the difference between cluster feeding and colic?

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

However, if baby keeps crying for several hours per day, for no good reason, and feeding doesn’t satisfy them, they may have colic.

Colic crying can sound like screaming, while cluster feed crying will sound like baby’s normal “hungry” cry. Also, colic crying tends to peak at six weeks, continue without a break, and stop around three months of age (a different pattern than cluster feed crying).

Please read this article for more on identifying and managing colic.

Wrapping up

Even though it may be frustrating, cluster feeding is a normal way for baby to get more nutrients during their growth spurts (and encourage you to produce more milk if you’re breastfeeding). Embrace this time the best you can, and follow the tips we’ve given to help make it more bearable. It will pass eventually!

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