What is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding is a group of feedings, spaced very closely to each other. Normally breastfed babies feed every 2-3 hours, but cluster feedings can be spaced as close together as every 30 minutes! They can happen at any time during the day or night, but normally happen in the evening. Babies who cluster feed can nurse for 2-3 hours at a time, and are typically irritable and needy during cluster feeding periods.
What Causes Cluster Feeding?
Many mothers worry that cluster feeding means that they aren't producing enough milk, but this is rarely the case. Cluster feeding is very common in newborns and has a variety of possible causes. Evening breast milk isn't as rich or plentiful as milk made earlier in the day, so it is normal for babies to nurse more in the evenings. Also, throughout the day, babies feed and then sleep, and cluster feeding is their way of catching up on milk in the evenings. Some babies are also more clingy than others and like the comfort feeding gives them. Babies are born with a sucking reflex and like to nurse because it is a way of calming and soothing themselves in the evenings. Colic can also be a cause of cluster feedings, as colicky babies often want to nurse more often.
How long does it last?
Cluster feeding usually stops after the first month, but all babies are different and some will continue after this. Cluster feeding can return when your baby goes through growth spurts.
What can I do about it?
The way to cope with this is to let your baby drink as much milk as she wants. Don't supplement your milk with formula, as this will reduce your milk flow. Remember that your body produces the right amount for your baby, so snuggle down with your baby and let her suckle on demand. Refusing milk will only make your baby more upset. Occasionally, a need to suckle constantly is caused by acid reflux, so take your baby to the doctor to rule this out. Cluster feedings often follow a pattern each evening, so when you think a cluster feed is going to happen, try to make sure you've eaten beforehand, as cluster feeding can take a long time. Try and use this time to sit down and relax, read a book while breastfeeding, chat to a friend on the phone, or catch up on your favourite TV show. Alternatively, lie down to nurse your baby and get some rest. You could try breastfeeding your baby in a sling, which will free up your hands.
Cluster feeding can be extremely tiring for mothers, especially as it happens at a time when most parents want to start winding down and looking forward to getting some time to themselves. Rest assured however, that this stage will pass, and try and embrace the closeness feeding gives you and your baby. There is a silver lining to cluster feeding; babies who cluster feed normally sleep for longer during the night, giving tired parents a much needed rest!