What is cluster feeding, why does it happen, and how do you survive? As a mom of two, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks to help new moms get through their baby’s big mental leaps and fussy evenings.
If your search history looks something like,
“Is it normal to breastfeed every hour,”
“Why is my newborn always hungry,”
or even, “how to get my baby to stop crying,” first of all, girl, same.
Second of all, please know that it will pass. Just tell yourself that over and over as many times as you need to.
It’s not just that you have to wake up every 2-3 hours to feed and change your newborn.
It’s the dreaded cluster feeding. Not exclusive to breastfeeding moms, and usually accompanied by fussiness that won’t let up – it’s every new parents’ nightmare.
Even the phrase sends chills down my spine and gives me flashbacks.
Actually, I’m going through cluster feeding with my second baby right now, so to those of you currently ripping your hair out and crying from exhaustion – take solace in the fact that I, too, am crying and ripping my hair out and writing a few sentences every hour or two when my hands are free.
With my firstborn, it took everything in me to make it through. I breastfed and supplemented with formula with him, especially in the beginning. (Which I don’t recommend if your goal is to exclusively breastfeed by the way. Learn more about establishing a great milk supply here.)
By cluster feeding day 2, I was starting to really lose it. How much sleep do you actually need to survive, anyway?
Thankfully, things have been smoother the second time around. I truly believe it’s because I have a better understanding of what cluster feeding is and why it happens.
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What Is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding (also known as bunch feeding) is when babies bunch their feedings up close together for an extended period of time. These back-to-back feedings take place for so long, and so close together, that it feels like one or two feedings that take hours.
For example, your baby may usually go 2-3 hours in between feedings most of the time, but during cluster feeding periods, they may only go a few minutes, with the feeding itself lasting hours.
Usually bunch feeding takes place in the evening, though it can occur at any time of day or night.
Why Does Cluster Feeding Occur?
There are a few different theories as to why cluster feeding occurs, and to be honest, no one really knows why babies do this. Most experts have concluded that it’s a major way that babies boost breast milk production. (In fact, it’s what many lactation consultants teach.)
Another theory is that your baby is filling themselves up for a longer stretch of sleep. This is because cluster feeding usually happens in the evening, followed by a long nap.
It’s most common in newborns, though it can occur in babies up to 9 months of age. They’re also most prominent during times of rapid growth, hence the assumption that it’s nature’s way of boosting mom’s milk supply.
Reasons Cluster Feeding is Beneficial
Sure, your baby feeding every hour and not sleeping sounds like a bad thing, but there are a few positives! Here are the reasons cluster feeding is beneficial:
- If you’re breastfeeding a newborn, it will help your milk come in, provide baby with plenty of colostrum
- Both baby and mom get a nice stretch of sleep afterwards
- Helps baby through growth spurts
- Relaxes and calms baby down
- Creates a bond and feeling of trust between mom and baby
- Keeps milk supply up, even giving it the boost it needs when baby’s needs increase
When Should You Expect Cluster Feeding?
If you’re wondering if there’s a general cluster feeding timeline, you’re in luck! Cluster feeding almost always takes place during your baby’s growth spurts. You can download the Wonder Weeks app to track the times your baby may be fussy from mental leaps.
Typically though, you can expect cluster feeding to occur:
- A day or two after birth (to help your milk supply come in)
- 7-10 days after birth
- 2-3 weeks old
- 4-6 weeks old
- 3 months old
- *4 months old
- *6 months old
- *9 months old
These growth spurts usually last a day or two, but can last up to a week. Toddlers will continue having growth spurts every few months as well.
There is good news though! *Most babies no longer cluster feed after about 3 or 4 months. Of course, during these fussy stages, they might nurse more frequently, but nothing like they did in the early months of life.
The most significant periods of cluster feeding that I noticed were at day 2, and 6 weeks. And it makes sense! On day 2, your baby is suckling to help your milk come in (if you’re breastfeeding), and at 6 weeks, your supply should be regulating.
How many days does cluster feeding last? – Usually just a day or two. At times it may last longer.
How To Stop Cluster Feeding at Night
If they’re cluster feeding at night, your baby likely has their days and nights mixed up. This is very common, especially in the first few weeks of baby’s life. They will sleep all day, waking only to feed. When the sun starts setting, they’re up and at ’em!
When a newborn is cluster feeding all night, it’s extremely hard for new parents, but I promise you’ll make it through. The key is to “train” your baby to understand the difference between day and night, and slowly adjust their sleeping patterns to match up with the correct time of day.
Depending on whether you’re breastfeeding or formula feeding, I always suggest new moms pass baby off for at least a small chunk of time at night if they’re fussy. You need time to recharge too.
As far as teaching your baby to sleep at night instead of all day, here are a few quick tips:
- Lay baby down at the same time every evening, even if they’re wide awake. (Of course, you can pick them up as soon as they cry).
- Play a sound machine at night.
- Turn the lights down low and make things quiet and calm at night.
- During the day, open the blinds to let natural light in.
- During nighttime feedings, don’t play or get rowdy with the baby. Calmly feed them and attempt to lay them back down to sleep.
Essentially, you want to show your baby when it’s normal to be active, and when it’s time to be quiet and calm. When your baby is cluster feeding and being fussy all night long, it’s not easy to have any sort of consistency or “peaceful vibes” going on. All we can do is try!
Can Bottle and Formula Fed Babies Cluster Feed?
One of the most commonly asked questions: Do bottle fed babies cluster feed?
The answer: Yes, but it’s more common in breastfed babies.
The same thing goes for formula fed babies. Cluster feeding seems to be almost like an instinct for newborns. They don’t really know whether they’re drinking formula or breast milk. They’re hard wired to cluster feed to increase mom’s milk supply regardless.
There are plenty of instances where babies cluster feed while drinking formula exclusively. In fact, lots of newborns feed every hour on formula or even expressed milk.
However, it’s less common in bottle fed babies (whether it’s formula or milk), because the act of bottle feeding is so different from breastfeeding. Babies are able to suck down a bottle of milk in just a few minutes with minimal effort, while breastfed babies have to work harder and spend more time waiting for letdowns. Because baby is able to fill up on milk quickly, they usually don’t get frustrated or tired of suckling, which is absolutely a part of cluster feeding fussiness.
Cluster Feeding is Not Indicative of Low Milk Supply
I could go on and on about this issue, but the bottom line is: cluster feeding is not indicative of low milk supply. Women constantly worry any time their baby is at the breast more often, especially when they’re fussy.
As long as your baby is still producing plenty of wet and dirty diapers, and they’re gaining steady weight, there’s nothing to worry about. For more information, check out my article about experiencing a sudden drop in milk supply. I address this common misconception pretty thoroughly.
So, how long should a breastfeeding session last? Most babies take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour per nursing session. The main thing to watch out for is whether or not their latch is good, and that they’re sufficiently drinking milk.
Cluster Feeding Tips
Most of these tips are geared towards breastfeeding moms, but they can be applied to bottle feeding mamas as well! For advice on helping your fussy baby, scroll down a little bit.
Understand That It’s Going To Happen
Once you understand and accept that cluster feeding is inevitable, you’ll be much better off.
I was completely unaware that cluster feeding even existed until my first son was already born, and the nurses were warning me that it was coming at any time. I was prepared to love my son and do what I needed to do to take care of him, but I can’t help but think that I had a smoother time the second time around because I knew what was coming for me far in advance.
Being comfortable makes all the difference when you’re locked down to the couch or bed for hours at a time. Throw on your favorite light robe, grab a soft blanket, and prepare for a long stretch of time in the same place. Oh, and don’t forget a big glass of water! Even if you’re not breastfeeding, dealing with a fussy baby is exhausting, and you deserve to feel comfortable.
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If You’re Breastfeeding, Don’t Supplement With Formula If You Can Help It
Many new moms want to know: can you breastfeed and formula feed at the same time? Well, yes. In fact I did it with my first. But it’s extremely difficult to keep your supply up this way, and I don’t recommend it at all. If you’re struggling to breastfeed, I suggest exclusively pumping.
It may be tempting to supplement during these times of high stress, but I promise it’s not worth it. If you absolutely need a break, pump and ask your partner to give a bottle instead.
Stay Hydrated and Don’t Skip Out on Meals
Breastfeeding takes a lot out of you! On average, a breastfeeding mama needs between 300 to 500 more calories per day! Breastfeeding burns a ton of calories, and your body needs extra nutrients and water to make milk without leaving you feeling weak and tired. You don’t need to worry about counting calories, just follow your body’s lead, and drink a lot of water!
Watch Out For Hunger Cues
There are a few hunger cues to look out for in your newborn, and I’ll list them below. Ultimately, the point is you can keep your baby from becoming too fussy by noticing the cues right away. Crying is a late cue, and by then it can be harder to soothe them compared to catching it early on.
- Sucking on fists
- Smacking/licking lips
- Sticking tongue out/opening mouth
- Sucking on anything that comes near their mouth
- Trying to position themselves towards the breast
- Squirming/getting fussy
Turn The Negative Into a Positive
Learning how to turn this stressful time into a positive thing isn’t easy, but if you can manage it, it’s life changing! Once you accept that this is your life for the next few months, it’s freeing.
So live it up! There’s no better excuse for not keeping the house spotless than being a postpartum mama. Kick back, turn on your favorite tv show and binge watch it! Read a book you’ve always wanted to check out, or even play a video game you’ve never had time for before. Instead of feeling defeated and stuck, spin the situation into a positive.
Use A Baby Carrier
It’s absolutely okay to let the chores slide while you nurse your baby through periods of cluster feeding. But, if for some reason you’re crazy like me, and you simply can’t stand sitting still for days on end, you should learn how to wear your baby! You may need to try a few different baby carriers until you find the right one.
That was news to me. I bought the top of the line Moby wrap with my first baby, and it just didn’t work for us. This was the carrier my son enjoyed being in. (You know what I DON’T like about this carrier? It hits my postpartum belly in all the wrong ways. But hey, as long as baby enjoys it, right?)
And for my daughter, we’ve been enjoying this ring sling! It’s actually the one I wore as a pregnant belly wrap too!
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Don’t let cracked nipples get in the way of your breastfeeding relationship. Make sure you’re prepared with lanolin or nipple butter, and put together a breastfeeding basket for ultra convenience.
Ask For Help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Cluster feeding is no joke, people. After days of little sleep and lots of crying (both you and the baby), you’re bound to start losing yourself just a little bit. Please, ask for help if you feel like you need it! Besides, even just a 20 minute break can make the world of a difference. You’ll come back feeling ready to hold your baby again and tackle yet another round of feedings.
What To Do When Baby is Fussy
Hum, Sing, or Play Soothing Music
Babies love being hummed and sang to. Nothing will beat the sound of their mama’s voice, but you can always play soothing music instead. One of my favorites to sing and play is Elizabeth Mitchell. She sings a ton of kids’ songs, and most of them are great for bedtime.
Check if They’re Over (or Under) Stimulated
When your baby is crying, you’ll likely run through the usual list of causes: diaper change, burp, positional change, feeding, snuggling, etc.
What might not cross your mind is that they may be overstimulated. Or under-stimulated! If the television is turned up high, turn it down and dim the lights a bit. If it’s completely quiet, and nothing else seems to make them feel better, try turning the radio on low. Simple changes like this can make a huge difference.
Try Different Feeding Positions
I still remember the moment I first thought, “there’s no way simply changing positions is going to stop the screaming, but I guess I’ll give it a shot.”
And, guess what?
It worked! Maybe not every time, but there have been several times where a simple position adjustment worked out in my favor. Don’t forget, our babies aren’t capable of moving themselves into comfortable positions, but they’re definitely capable of feeling uncomfortable. They rely on us to make sure they’re laying the way they want to. Thankfully, they’re generally not too picky, but during the witching hour, anything goes.
Rhythmic movement is calming for babies. It’s why they fall asleep in the car so easily. (Well, most of them anyway.) It’s why we place them in swings and rock them back and forth to calm them down.
When nothing else seems to be working, sometimes simply walking around, lightly bouncing baby can do the trick.
Take a Minute To Yourself
It’s okay to take a breather if you need it. Pass baby to your partner or friend, and if you don’t have any help, I promise you it will be okay if you leave the room (with baby in a safe spot of course) for 5 minutes to cry or get it together. Sometimes all you need is to clear your head for a moment!
Want To Learn About Breastfeeding From Home?
I can’t recommend Milkology enough. And for $19, you really can’t beat it! Each course is jam-packed with a ton of information, and you can work through the “lessons” at your own pace. There are 3 courses available:
- The Ultimate Breastfeeding Course
- The Ultimate Back to Work Pumping Class
- The Ultimate Exclusive Pumping Class
Is your baby currently cluster feeding? Do you have any advice for new moms? How did you survive bunch feeding? Let us know in the comments below!
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