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, including tips for this often-tiring phase.
What is cluster feeding?
Cluster feeding is when your baby wants to feed several times during a shorter period. 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, baby’s just entering a time where they need more milk.
While cluster feeding is most common in breastfed babies, don’t be surprised if your bottle-fed baby starts cluster feeding.
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 week six, coinciding with baby’s major growth spurts. But of course, every baby is different.
Generally, your 0-8 week old baby will feed 8-12 times every 24 hours. If they’re looking for more than this, they’re likely cluster feeding. Here are some other signs:
- 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
- Moving the fists to the mouth
- 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.)
If your baby’s “cluster feeding” lasts longer than a few days, it’s a good idea to check their weight and contact your provider as this might be a sign that your baby isn’t getting enough calories.
How to deal with cluster feeding?
While it can be exhausting, feed baby as often as they need to and want to. This time will pass.
Here are some tips
- 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). 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.
- Try to nap for a few hours just prior to when you expect the cluster feed.
- 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
- Call a friend or family member during feedings
- 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.
A lactation consultant can be extremely helpful as you navigate breastfeeding, cluster feeding, and caring for your mental health.
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.
Try these tips
- 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).
You’ve got this
Even though it may be frustrating, cluster feeding is a normal way for baby to get more nutrients during their growth spurts (and boost milk production if you’re breastfeeding). You’ve got this. It will pass.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
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