Babies often have periods of wanting to eat frequently, which many moms call “cluster feeding.” This happens for both breast- and bottle-fed babies, and can be related to a growth spurt, intellectual leap, or just a particularly hard day. This post will cover common questions about cluster feedings, so that next time it happens, you’ll know what to do.
How to Know If Baby Is Cluster Feeding?
If it seems like your baby is cluster feeding, they probably are! Look for the following signs of cluster feeding:
- Your baby wants to feed again shortly after eating
- Your baby is particularly fussy
- Your baby wants on and off the breast frequently, and has trouble settling in for a feed
- Your baby only wants to be held
- Your baby has fed normally/frequently, and still seems upset or to want more
- Your baby is not in pain, but is still fussy or cranky
Cluster feeding often happens in the evening. It may be related to milk flow, as your baby feels frustrated that your milk isn’t flowing as quickly as they’d prefer or to your baby’s frustration as they develop sleep and circadian rhythms and adjust to life outside your body. Another reason for evening fussyness may be what developmental pediatrician Dr. Ronald Barr calls “the period of PURPLE crying.” This phase begins around week two of life and often lasts until 3-4 monts of age.
What to Do For Cluster Feeding?
It can be overwhelming when all your baby seems to want is the breast for hours on end. It’s important to know that cluster feeding isn’t happening because your baby isn’t getting enough milk. This behavior can be observed in nearly all infants, and is part of the supply and demand nature of breastfeeding. Because of this, if you are exclusively breastfeeding and hope to continue doing so, it’s important not to supplement with formula or other milk when your baby is cluster feeding, because doing so inadvertently tells your body to make less milk. The frequent and sustained stimulation of cluster feeding “puts in an order” for more milk, whether it’s because your baby is growing, sick, or just hungry, and within a few hours, your body begins to respond by making more milk. If you give other milk, your body won’t get these messages and your supply may not grow to match your baby’s demand. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine lists cluster feeding in their supplementation protocol as an instance where “evaluation and breastfeeding management may be necessary, but SUPPLEMENTATION IS NOT INDICATED.”
With that in mind, here are some things you can try when your baby is upset and continually cluster feeding:
- Change of scenery - try going outside or to a different room
- Change of caregiver - have a partner or other helper walk with, hold, carry, sing to, etc. your baby so that you can reset
- Change of position - try a different breastfeeding position if your baby remains fussy at the breast
- Baby wear - keep your baby close and still go about your needed tasks or normal routines as much as possible
- Soothing sounds - music, singing, shushing, gentle and quiet words of affirmation (“I know you’re upset. I am here. We will get through this together.”)
- Soothing motion - walking, bouncing, rocking, etc.
- Calm environment - dim the lights, keep things quiet, create a low-stimulus environment for your baby
If you are concerned about your baby getting enough milk, you can look at these signs of healthy growth and milk intake, and talk to a lactation consultant or other healthcare provider about your concerns. Your baby is likely getting enough milk if:
- They are gaining weight and generally staying with their growth curve on the WHO growth chart
- They have a normal number of wet and dirty diapers in a day
- They have calm, alert, and awake periods
How Long Can Cluster Feeding Last?
While it can feel like forever, cluster feeding generally only lasts for a few nights in a row. It will vary based on your own baby’s growth and needs, but cluster feeding generally follows a pattern. Most babies will cluster feed around these milestones:
- 1-2 days old - adjustment to life outside the womb, this help your milk supply to establish, which in turn causes their stools to transition from black, tarry meconium to more mature yellow runny or seedy poop
- 1 week old - physical growth spurt
- 2 weeks old - physical growth spurt
- 1 month old - emotional and social development
- 6 weeks old - physical growth spurt, eyesight development
- 2 months old - physical development, begin to hold their head up
- 3 months old - language and social development
- 4 months old - physical and movement milestone, many babies learn to roll at this point
Sources like the Wonder Weeks help you understand your child’s growth and development. This doesn’t necessarily make the fussy or difficult moments easier, but it does let you know what your baby may be experiencing and realize that it’s temporary.
Why Is Baby Cluster Feeding?
As mentioned above, cluster feeding is related to the supply and demand nature of breastfeeding. Your baby isn’t feeding more frequently or acting a little more clingy to stress you out, though cluster feeding can indeed be stressful. Instead they are trying to get their needs met by frequent feeds and closeness with you. Cluster feeding also isn’t necessarily an attempt to get a larger volume of milk, but rather more frequent feeds and more time spent at the breast.
Cluster feeding is nature’s way of keeping you close to your baby and driving your milk supply to meet their changing and growing needs. Your baby is cluster feeding for good reason, even if it feels challenging or frustrating in the moment.
If you’re scratching your head (or pulling your hair out!) wondering what to do about cluster feeding, you’re not alone. Many moms find this experience exhausting, but thankfully it is temporary. Generally people find it most helpful to keep their baby close on these fussy evenings, offering frequent or long breastfeeding sessions. Knowing that cluster feeding is normal and is actually helping your body regulate your milk supply can also be helpful.