What is cluster feeding?
If you have a young baby, you’re probably familiar with those days when it feels like they want to be fed constantly. Any routine you have in place seems to have gone out the window, and your little one is hungry ALL THE TIME. Then, all of a sudden, it seems to calm down again.
This can be completely exhausting, but it is also a normal part of your baby’s development and is known as cluster feeding.
Cluster feeding refers to a baby feeding much more often than usual for a period of time. The individual feeds might last much longer too, and it can feel like your baby’s appetite will never be satisfied.
Why do babies cluster feed?
New parents often worry that cluster feeding means their baby isn’t getting enough. It is much more common for breastfed babies to cluster feed than those on formula, and this can lead moms to worry that they aren’t producing enough milk.
However, cluster feeding does not indicate an issue with milk supply or mean that your baby needs top-ups of formula. Cluster feeding usually happens during the first few months of breastfeeding when your little one is experiencing a developmental leap or growth spurt.
It often happens during the evening, and there is a theory that this is your baby filling up on milk so they can have a longer gap between feeds at night. Older babies will often cluster feed when they are teething.
The good news is that cluster feeding won’t continue indefinitely. It may just happen on one evening or continue for several days, but your baby should then go back to a similar routine and feeding pattern as before.
Cluster feeding can be a useful way of building up your milk supply, as breastfeeding works on a supply and demand basis.
How will I know if my baby is cluster feeding?
Cluster feeding can be confused with colic, where babies cry for long periods of time and are very hard to settle. Both cluster feeding and colic usually happen in the evening, but one way to tell them apart is whether your baby calms and settles after a feed.
If your baby remains distressed and fussy during feeding or seems disinterested in the breast, it isn’t cluster feeding and is more likely to be colic or another issue.
All newborn babies need to be fed very frequently, and this is not necessarily cluster feeding. It is normal for a very young baby to need to be breastfed up to 12 times in 24 hours.
However, if it is much more frequent than that, it could well be cluster feeding. Infants will often cluster feed when they are just a few days or weeks old, and it can feel like they are constantly hungry.
They will be showing all the signs that they are hungry and will only settle if they are fed. They will be content during a feed and will be producing plenty of wet and dirty nappies. Some babies will take a lot longer on the breast, while others will seem to feed on a little and often basis, pulling off quickly and then demanding another feed soon afterwards.
How do I cope with cluster feeding?
Nursing your baby so often can seem very overwhelming, and you are likely to feel tired and even run down.
Make sure you rest as much as you can during the periods of the day when your baby isn’t feeding so often and get plenty to eat and drink to keep your energy levels up and avoid dehydration. Keep a water bottle near where you feed your baby as well as some handy snacks.
You may find your nipples become sore from frequent feeding too, so invest in a nipple cream or balm—a lanolin-based product is particularly effective—to soothe and protect them. Change breastfeeding positions regularly so your baby isn’t latching on to the nipple in the same place every time.
If you have a partner or loved one who can help you with the baby, get them to step in as much as possible when you are not feeding so you can get some much-needed rest. Prioritise feeding and sleep and postpone any non-essential jobs or chores until your baby’s routine settles down again.
Give yourself something to do while you are cluster feeding to help pass the time. This could be listening to the radio, a podcast or audiobook, chatting with a friend, or watching TV. If you have an older child, try to breastfeed somewhere where they can still spend time with you. Have a basket of toys nearby to keep them occupied, and take the chance to talk to them or even just snuggle up and watch a film or TV show together.
When do I need to seek help with cluster feeding?
Although cluster feeding is normal, if you are ever feeling worried or concerned, contact your local breastfeeding support team, your health visitor, a lactation consultant, or your GP. There is a lot of support and advice out there for breastfeeding mothers, so don’t suffer in silence.
If you aren’t sure what support is available in your area, there are a number of breastfeeding helplines you could contact as a starting point. They may be able to suggest coping strategies and check whether there is something else going on that might be making breastfeeding more difficult for you and your baby.