Are you feeling like there are times that your baby is constantly nursing? Cluster feeding is part of normal breast/chestfeeding, but can make some parents wonder if everything is alright or not. Looking at the bigger picture can help you determine if all is going smoothly and your baby is in fact cluster feeding or if there is more going on that needs to be addressed.
Cluster feeding is when your baby wants to nurse much more frequently, several times over a period of a couple hours. This often happens in the early evening hours, but can happen at any time of the day or night. It is often followed by a little longer stretch of sleep. Many parents report an evening fussy time accompanying cluster feeding that begins around 4 weeks old and seems to settle down around 12 weeks old.
When your baby is cluster feeding, they may be coming to the breast/chest to nurse for a snack then pop off, back on and back off again and this pattern continues for a couple of hours, you may feel like they are not getting much milk, that your breasts feel more empty. They are still getting plenty. In fact, when the breasts are less full, the milk removed is higher in fat. Often after cluster feeding, your baby may take a longer stretch of sleep because they “tanked up” and are full and satisfied.
Cluster feeding helps boost milk production. Everytime your baby removes milk, prolactin is released which is the hormone responsible for making milk. Following your baby’s cues for when they want to nurse is important communication and is protective of your milk supply.
When do babies cluster feed?
- So much is happening during the first year of life. Your baby will go from being a little bundle in your arms to a little person who is moving all around, walking, playing and engaging with you and their world in a whole new way. Often before your baby has a growth spurt, they will want to cluster feed and it will last for a few days before settling into a new pattern or returning to what feels “normal”. Each baby is a little different following their own cluster feeding timeline.
Your baby is growing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. In just a few months, your baby begins to reach for objects and grab them, roll over, smile at you and respond to your voice with cooing sounds as they develop their language skills. They will learn to sit up, imitate you, play peek-a-boo, notice if you have left the room, and so much more. All of that is a lot of new skills which require a lot of energy and reassurance with some extra cuddles from you.(1)
Growth spurts happen around ages 1 week, 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 6 weeks, 8 weeks, 12 weeks and 16 weeks. Remember, your baby is one of a kind and may differ slightly from that timeline.
- Teething can make your baby’s gums feel sore and uncomfortable. Sometimes, the only thing that seems to make it better is being able to snuggle with you and nurse. Nursing your baby offers them a lot more than just calories and nutrition. It meets their emotional needs as well. Breast milk contains hormones that are relaxing for your baby and can help soothe their discomfort.
- We all have times when we feel a little under the weather. Your breast milk does a lot to ward off colds, but sometimes your baby may catch a mild cold and want to cluster feed. It is beneficial for them to get the antibodies that are produced in your milk to help them feel better more quickly.
Return to work or other life changes
- Have you gone back to work, had a big life event or schedule change? Remember babies nurse to have all their needs met. Changes like those can be tough on you and your baby. Oftentimes, babies want to make up for time away from you by nursing more often when they are with you, which may be during the night. Keeping your baby close can allow your baby to get what they need and you to still get the sleep you need.
What is not cluster feeding?
There are situations that may seem like cluster feeding, but are an indication that something else is going on. Talk to your IBCLC to get to the root of the issue if you think that is what is going on or if:
- Your baby seems to nurse all the time and not be satisfied or have periods of being content
- Not having enough wet or poop diapers during a 24 hours period of time
- Your baby cries or fusses most of the day and is not able to be soothed or consoled
- Your baby is not able to be asleep without the breast in their mouth for the duration of most nap times and during the night
Cluster feeding tips
Early communication includes following your baby’s cues and responding to them and develops a relationship between you and your baby. This reciprocation helps you as the parent anticipate what your baby needs. You learn the cues they have and what they are trying to express to you. This synchronicity is shown to play a major role in your baby’s health, growth and development.(2)
Feeding doesn’t look the same every time your baby goes to breast/chest or every day. Just like older kids and us as adults, we may need more or less food at a particular meal. Sometimes we want just a little extra touch or to be held. Be flexible and follow your baby’s lead.
Wearing your baby in a sling keeps them close and connected to you, while allowing you to nurse them often during those cluster feeds. Being able to walk around can be nice for you and soothing for your baby. Movement helps calm babies and regulate their nervous system.(3) Singing songs while wearing your baby is a wonderful way to distract and soothe your baby (and you!). In a carrier, you are still able to have your hands free if you have an older child who also needs you.
Go outside for a change of scenery and some fresh air. Going for an evening walk can be relaxing and the fresh air or change in environment might be welcomed by your baby as well.
Of course, you can also put your feet up, get comfy and settle in on the couch or in bed while your baby is cluster feeding. Have some snacks and water handy. Being skin to skin with your baby can be calming for them and allows them to nurse as much as they would like. Sometimes being in a quiet, dimly lit environment is needed to reduce being overstimulated.
All sucking at breast rewards your baby with milk that is meeting their energy needs, nutritional needs and their emotional needs. Breast milk is more than food. Nursing is more than the transfer of milk. It is a way for your baby to receive comfort and nervous system regulation.
This cluster feeding nursing pattern will change again soon. Being flexible and responsive to your baby strengthens your bond and helps develop the communication you have with your baby. They learn that when they have a need, you will respond and meet that need. Enjoy all the milestones your baby reaches during their first year. After a round of cluster feeding, it can be exciting to see the leaps that your baby has as they grow and change and become even more wonderful.
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