You just gave birth to this miraculous little human being. You’re exhausted. You haven’t showered in days and you’re in full postpartum mode. And yet, your sore nipples won’t catch a break because baby wants to feed ALL. OF. THE. TIME. Don’t worry, mama, this phenomenon is called cluster feeding and it is a.) perfectly normal and b.) temporary. ?
Cluster Feeding Video by Genevieve Howland
What Is Cluster Feeding?
Does it seem like baby wants to nurse all the time? Forget every two hours—it seems like your baby is ready for that milk every 20 minutes! Sounds like cluster feeding, a time when baby needs to nurse frequently in order to satisfy his appetite. Though cluster feeding can happen at any time of the day, it often happens in the evening and is accompanied by a period of fussy and restless behavior that can last for a few hours.
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Why Do Babies Cluster Feed?
A schedule sounds nice, right? New parents learn very quickly that you can’t always count on an infant to follow any sort of schedule, no matter how hard you try! It’s normal to experience irregularities to your sleeping or feeding routine with a newborn (or even toddler!)
When baby wants to cluster feed, it’s generally to satisfy the nutritional demands of a growth spurt (also known as a wonder week)—a time when baby is growing and developing both mental and motor skills.
After a bout of cluster feedings, mom’s breast milk output or supply will usually be higher to support baby’s bigger size.
How Long Do Babies Cluster Feed?
Your baby may want to cluster feed anywhere from a few days to several weeks at a time during a significant growth or development period.
According to La Leche League, baby experiences the most rapid growth during the first two months of life. Significant growth spurts (and hence, cluster feedings) most often occur at these times:
- Day 2
- weeks 2-3
- weeks 4-6
- 3 months
Navigating these lengthy periods of increased feedings can be difficult. It’s crucial to remember that this too shall pass—your baby just needs a little extra help in order to fully develop into the healthy, beautiful child that he is destined to become.
How to Take Care of Yourself During Cluster Feeding
When baby wants to eat every 20 minutes, your focus narrows on making sure he gets enough to eat. But don’t forget to take care of yourself! Cluster feeding can be a trying time for Mama, too. Here are some ways to ease the emotional and physical burdens:
Take care of your breasts
Even if your baby has a good latch, frequent nursing sessions can be brutal for your nipples. The good news: There are many effective remedies for sore nipples that are safe for both you and your baby. Here are some ways you can take care of yourself:
- Use nipple creams: Buy creams, use coconut oil, or try my DIY recipe.
- Apply a warm compress: Cover your breasts with a warm, damp towel for about 10 minutes to ease any tenderness and increase blood circulation.
- Avoid underwire bras: Underwire can put unnecessary pressure on breasts, causing even more soreness.
- Go topless: It’s your house and you can do what you want! Loose clothing—or no clothing at all—will eliminate any extra chafing and can do wonders for irritated nipples.
- Rotate breastfeeding positions! This will help “wear and tear” to your nipples as each breastfeeding position affects the nipples in slightly different ways.
Eat well and stay hydrated
If you’re tempted to scrimp on meals in attempt to lose that baby weight, now is not the time. Your body can burn up to 500 calories a day breastfeeding! That means you really need good calories (high protein; high fat) coming in. (Here are some yummy meals for inspiration.) It’s also important to stay hydrated—a breastfeeding mama needs extra water to keep up with the demands of creating more milk. Shoot for at least 8 cups of water a day, if not 12.
Get professional help
Don’t go at it alone! If you have questions about cluster feeding, are experiencing pain, or feel stressed, find a professional who can help. Lactation consultants and organizations like La Leche League or Breastfeeding USA can offer professional advice as well as support groups for new moms.
Lean on family and friends
Utilize your partner to make cluster feeding more manageable. If find yourself stuck in an unusually long feeding session, don’t be afraid to ask your partner to bring you a glass of water, readjust your pillows, or even tidy the house while you feed baby. You may also want someone to cook for you! Or find some healthy takeout places.
Practice babywearing & skin-to-skin
When baby wants to nurse constantly, put him/her in your baby carrier! Baby can nurse away and you can actually get a few things done around the house. Even better, do it while practicing skin-to-skin contact. This simple practice boosts milk supply, endorphin levels and calms a fussy baby.
Embrace the bonding time
We know it’s tough Mama! But you got this. Try to focus on the biggest benefit of frequent nursing sessions: extra snuggles with your beautiful baby. Believe it or not, you will blink and baby will be heading off to kindergarten. (The days are long but the years are short!) By having the “long view,” you may be able to cope better during this tough time.
A positive attitude can do wonders for your baby, too. When you’re more relaxed, baby tends to be more relaxed and nursing sessions will run smoother (your breasts won’t want to letdown if you’re high stress).
No matter what methods you employ to cope with the demands of cluster feeding, keep in mind that this too shall pass—it’s a common phase in the development of your child.
How to Handle Cluster Feeding at Night
Since cluster feedings can happen round the clock, but are especially common during the night (Grrrreat!), here are some extra strategies if you find yourself up all night…
Carve out a space for yourself
Set up a dedicated location in your home where you can nurse and relax in peace. Make sure you have a cozy chair and leave everything you may need for added comfort—a nursing pillow, a blanket, snacks, a big jug of water (!), nipple cream, etc.
Use soothing techniques
Try to keep your baby as relaxed as possible when nursing by swaying, rocking, and utilizing ambient sound machines to keep baby in a sleepy mode. Avoid bright lights, loud sounds or too much stimulation. You can nurse skin-to-skin to help boost your milk supply, support calming oxytocin levels, and keep baby happy and calm.
Having flexibility in your daytime schedule can help make staying up at night feel more manageable. Sleep when the baby naps during the day. The household chores can wait and scrolling on Instagram isn’t going to give you energy.
Or, ask a friend or family member for help. Adequate sleep (and a proper diet!) can go a long way towards making you feel more refreshed and capable of managing any late evening cluster feeding.
Do Formula-Fed Babies Cluster Feed?
Formula-fed babies can exhibit this behavior, although usually to a lesser extent than those that are breastfed. Luckily many of the same tips and tricks will work for formula-fed babies as well.
Can Baby Be Overfed?
While it is technically possible to overfeed your baby, it’s very unlikely that a breastfed baby gets too much milk as it takes work for him/her to extract milk from your breast! (Have you ever noticed your baby sweating during a nursing session?!) Your baby will generally guide you, offering cues that he/she needs more food or is satisfied.
If you are bottle feeding, try a slow flow bottle and practice paced bottle feeding to prevent overfeeding your baby.
Am I Making Enough Breast Milk?
Cluster feeding can lead new moms to wonder if they are struggling with low milk supply. In most cases, cluster feeding has nothing to do with your milk supply. Rather, baby just needs extra nutrients to fuel all that growing he’s doing!
You can certainly add in special foods or teas that boost milk supply to help during the extra demands of cluster feeding, but don’t be concerned unless baby is showing signs of being underfed.
Signs Something Else Could Be Wrong
Sometimes, baby’s constant desire to nurse or overall fussiness may be due to other issues like colic, baby reflux, needing a good burp, or simply overexhaustion.
Signs that you want to pay attention to include:
- Baby is losing weight
- Baby has fewer wet/dirty diapers
- Baby has fever
- Your breasts don’t seem empty after feedings
If these signs are present, call your pediatrician or a lactation consultant for help. During bouts of cluster feeding, baby should be gaining weight and maintaining strong diaper output, so these symptoms could indicate another issue.
How About You?
Did your baby cluster feed? Please share your experiences and any strategies that helped you manage a more demanding nursing schedule!