You’re a new mum and baby is cluster feeding: here’s what you need to know
Cluster feeding: it’s pretty tough, isn’t it? When you were pregnant, you probably had an idea of what breastfeeding would be like. You imagined feeding your baby for 20 minutes every three hours. But now that your baby is here, the reality is somewhat different!
Is my baby getting enough milk?
It is quite possible that your baby is feeding every hour or two. This is really normal! However, what is often really hard to manage is the cluster feeding. This is where your baby just wants to feed constantly for several hours, often in the evening.
It’s completely understandable that you’d start to worry about your milk supply and whether your baby is getting enough milk. If that is the case, it’s always good to cover the basics and make sure your baby IS getting enough milk. I’ve written about this before, you can read that article here.
Why babies cluster feed
There are a few reasons why babies cluster feed:
To increase your milk supply
Cluster feeding prompts your body to make more breastmilk. In the first few weeks, your milk supply increases rapidly. The more you breastfeed, the more your breasts are stimulated to make milk. It’s a tough reality, but you need to do the hard work in the first few weeks, to see the pay off further down the road. You have to breastfeed lots in the first few weeks, to have a generous milk supply later on.
You do have less milk in the evening!
You’ll probably find that first thing in the morning, your milk supply is quite abundant, your breasts feel fuller and your baby is probably full after a reasonably short feed. As the day goes on, your milk supply does decrease and will probably feel their emptiest in the evening. This doesn’t mean that you have no milk at all. Your breasts are always making milk.
Sucking is soothing for babies. Cluster feeding helps soothe their nervous system. There are nerves that run into the face and mouth involved in breastfeeding – these nerves are connected to the Vagus nerve which helps to regulate our emotional response. Essentially, when your baby sucks at the breast, they are keeping themselves more calm. It’s no co-incidence that cluster feeding seems to be happen at the same time that babies are more fussy – usually the evening. This is often known as the “witching hour”. Although it would be more accurate to call it the “witching hours” as it can last for several hours!
Babies also rely on contact with an adult to regulate their nervous system. Cluster feeding gives them plenty of opportunity to stay cuddled in close to you.
To “tank up” for nighttime
Babies often cluster feed in the evenings then sleep for a longer stretch immediately afterwards. It’s like they’re fueling up before bed. When your breasts are emptier, the concentration of fat in your breast milk tends to be a bit higher. Babies that are cluster feeding often get fattier milk than they get first thing in the morning. This higher fat milk takes a bit longer to digest. You will probably find that after that big long cluster feeding session, your baby goes a bit longer before their next feed.
It’s the start of a sleep pattern
There seems to be a link between fussy behaviour in the evening, cluster feeding and babies starting to sleep for a longer stretch in the evening. This may be the start of your baby starting to develop a pattern that will eventually turn into a circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is the body’s ability to consolidate their sleep and spend most of their time sleeping at night time, with more awake time during the day. Newborn babies do not make their own melatonin (the hormone that influences the circadian rhythm) until around 8 weeks. However, your breastmilk contains melatonin in higher levels in the evening! Therefore, when you are cluster feeding in the evening, you are giving your baby some melatonin to help them sleep better! You can read more about newborn sleep here.
How to prepare for cluster feeding
Reframe your response
It can feel exhausting when you are sitting on the sofa for hours. It is really hard if you are not used to staying in one place for hours at a time, or if you like being busy and getting stuff done. If you feel like you should be tidying your kitchen, or spending some quality time with your other children before they go to bed, I get it. It really is difficult to sit there, seemingly doing nothing. Of course, you ARE doing something, and you are doing something important!
It may help to reframe what is happening. I’m a big fan of affirmations. You could try saying something like:
I can rest and bond with my baby while he/she feeds
This is hard right now, but it won’t last forever
My baby is helping to build my milk supply
My baby will sleep well after this cluster feeding session
Often, we adopt feeding positions that are uncomfortable or lead to a sore back or neck. A reclined position often is much more restful, plus it helps baby latch on a bit better. Therefore, if you have also been finding feeding a bit uncomfortable and dreading those hours with your baby being latched on, a reclined position can also be really helpful at making the latch feel more comfortable. You could try some of these positions for feeding.
Make sure you have a basket nearby with a water bottle, or insulated mug. Keep snacks, the tv remote, muslin cloths, your phone and a charger at hand.
You can’t really stop your baby needing to cluster feed. If you need to prepare food for an evening meal, consider doing this in the morning. Often babies are more settled in the morning, and you can get a meal thrown together while your baby naps in the sling. Either cook it in the morning and reheat at dinner time, or use a slow cooker so that the food is ready in the evening. Try to get as much of your essential housework and laundry done in the morning too, or if possible, leave it for your partner to do!
Avoid giving a bottle instead of cluster feeding, if possible
This is a tricky one, because I do completely understand why mums do this. However, I often find that babies will gulp down a bottle and STILL be unsettled and want to feed. That’s because cluster feeding isn’t just about getting more milk, it’s also about the soothing action of sucking and the need to be close to you. Additionally, if you give a baby a bottle on a regular basis it can potentially reduce your milk supply. For the first few weeks, your baby needs to feed very regularly to establish your milk supply. If you do have to bottlefeed before your baby is 4-6 weeks old, ideally you would pump at the time that they get a bottle. This keeps the demand for milk high.
If you decide to give a bottle of formula in the evening around the time your baby would normally cluster feed, this may take some of the pressure off you. Just bear in mind that any time you give formula instead of breastfeeding, you reduce the demand on your body to make milk.
Ask for help
Have your partner bring you food/drinks and take over some evening chores. If you have other children, ask your partner to do the evening routines with them. Hire help if you can afford it. Even if you are on your own, then it is still possible to accommodate cluster feeding. Not easy, but it is possible! I was solo parenting with two children when my second was born. I used the sling a lot and learned to cluster feed on the go. I often fed my second child while my eldest was in the bath, reading her bedtime stories, and waiting for her to fall asleep. I did a lot of things one handed, and my baby just travelled with me, from the bathroom to the bedroom.
Make the most of the calm after the storm
Your baby will probably go for a good long sleep after the cluster feeding session. If possible, just go to bed yourself and enjoy a few hours of rest. Leave the messy kitchen and unfolded clothes. You can sort them out tomorrow morning when you feel a bit more rested and your baby is settled.
It does get easier
Cluster feeding is hard work, but it is a normal feature of breastfeeding. Most mums find that the evening feeds become less intense over time. It would be fairly normal for babies to want to feed more in the evening and to be a bit unsettled, even when they are older than 3 months. However, as baby gets older, the intensity of those early cluster feeding sessions does settle.
If you need some help with your newborn baby, I offer one to one consultations to parents. You can get expert help with breastfeeding, sleep and adjusting to parenting. Have a look at my newborn page!