What is cluster feeding: 10 things you need to know

What is cluster feeding: 10 things you need to know

If you are breastfeeding your baby (or possibly even bottlefeeding), you will find that at some point your baby cluster feeds. Parents often find cluster feeding to be worrying and exhausting. Here are 10 common questions parents may have:

A white woman is sitting on a beige sofa. Her baby is cluster feeding at the breast.

1: What is cluster feeding?

As the name suggests, cluster feeding is when your baby clusters several feeds together. Usually, a baby will feed from one or both breasts, then settle and sleep for a while. However, when a baby is cluster feeding, the pattern is very different. Your baby will feed from one breast, then feed from the second, then want to feed from the first again, and so on. They don’t really settle at all, and the feeding session could last for 2-3 hours, sometimes more. 

2: How do I know if my baby is cluster feeding?

Cluster feeding usually follows a fairly predictable pattern. Your baby will cluster feed at roughly the same time every day and usually for the same length of time. Mostly, we talk about cluster feeding as that pattern that starts somewhere around the age of 2-3 weeks, with a long feeding session that usually happens in the evening. However, some babies cluster feed in the morning, or the afternoon, or at 1 am! 

It’s worth bearing in mind that babies can also feed very frequently for the first 2-3 days of life, before your milk “comes in”. You may also find that babies occasionally have growth spurts where they feed a lot more often for a day or two, before settling back down to a normal feeding pattern. Both of these patterns can also be called cluster feeding. 

A woman is sitting on a chair. Her newborn baby is cluster feeding at the breast

3: How long does cluster feeding last?

Cluster feeding usually starts at around 2-3 weeks. Cluster feeding from six – eight weeks is often quite intense, as it coincides with a baby’s fussiest time in the evening.  Most parents would say that the intense feeding in the evening usually eases off by the time a baby is 3 months old, but many babies will still have a longer period of feeding in the evening, usually just before they sleep, for many months after that.

4: Is it a sign of a problem with breastfeeding or my milk supply?

Cluster feeding is a normal pattern in breastfed babies. Even some bottlefed babies will want to cluster feed in the evening! There are some very good reasons why your baby cluster feeds: 

  • Your milk supply IS lower in the evening. Most mums will find that first thing in the morning they have a lot of milk. As the day goes on, their milk supply goes down. By evening, there is still milk in your breasts, but less than first thing in the morning. In the evening babies need to switch sides more often and feed more. But your baby is still getting milk! 
  • Cluster feeding is a very effective way of boosting your milk supply. When your baby switches from side to side more often, this triggers more production of milk. Plus, the emptier your breasts, the harder they work to make milk. So, going with the flow when it comes to cluster feeding often results in a really good milk supply down the line. 
  • Cluster feeding is very soothing for babies. Often, cluster feeding coincides with the “witching hour” when babies are naturally more fussy and unsettled. This is no coincidence. As your baby feeds loads, the sucking and swallowing, plus the contact with you is helping to soothe their nervous system. 
A man is walking around a room, carrying a crying newborn baby on his shoulder

5: Is it normal for my baby to be fussy during cluster feeding? 

It is really normal for babies to be fussy during cluster feeding! This could be because they want to feed more because they are feeling unsettled. So in this situation it’s not the feeding making them fussy, they are feeding because they are fussy. 

However, some babies will get fussy if the milk flow is slower than they would like. In this situation, your baby might pull back on the breast, or become agitated. In this case, just switch them over to the other breast more often. While you’re feeding from one breast, the other one is working hard at making milk so will contain a bit more milk when you do switch, compared to if you had kept your baby on the one breast the whole time. 

6: Should I wake my baby during cluster feeding?

Many parents will find that their baby dozes off on the breast, or will spend most of their time cluster feeding with their eyes closed. Waking them up won’t make them feed any more efficiently. Unlatching them probably will wake them up though!

Honestly? The best approach is just to let them chill out and doze on the breast, while they suck.    

7: Does cluster feeding affect my baby's sleep patterns?

There is definitely a link with sleep! As I mentioned before, most babies start a clear pattern of cluster feeding at around 2-3 weeks. This coincides with a more fussy period in the evening generally. 

The good news is that most mums find that once the cluster feeding session is over, their baby usually settles and sleeps for longer than usual! It may be that the milk in the evening is higher in fat, so takes longer to digest. However, I do think that a baby starts to develop a circadian rhythm around this age, so cluster feeding is just part and parcel of this pattern developing. 

A fussy baby is crying and sucking on a dummy

8: Can I give a dummy/pacifier/bottle when my baby is cluster feeding?

This is a tricky one! If your baby is under six weeks, then the chances are that they are using cluster feeding as a way to boost milk production and establish a good milk supply. Potentially, giving a dummy could reduce that demand for milk, which in turn reduces your milk supply. I have a separate blog post on dummy/pacifier use which might help you decide whether to give one or not: Giving a baby a pacifier/dummy: pros and cons : Rebecca Scott-pillai (rebeccascottpillai.co.uk)

You may also be tempted to give a bottle of formula in the hope that your baby settles for a few hours instead of cluster feeding. Remember that for the first four to six weeks, your baby is establishing your milk supply by feeding lots. More feeding = demand for milk = more milk being made. Any time you give a supplement of formula, this can reduce the demand for milk, potentially reducing your milk supply. 

If you do give a bottle in the early weeks, then usually the recommendation is to pump at the same time, to match that demand for milk. However, this seems like twice the work if you are going to bottlefeed AND pump. You may also find that your baby takes a full bottle of formula and is still unsettled and STILL wants to breastfeed! After all, sometimes cluster feeding is just about being soothed and cuddled. 

If you do decide to give a bottle, then using a paced feeding technique should help your baby transition between breast and bottle a bit easier: Paced bottlefeeding

A woman is sitting in a chair drinking from a mug. Her baby is cluster feeding at the breast.

9: What can I do to cope with cluster feeding?

Without a doubt, cluster feeding takes patience and endurance. Sometimes it’s hard to know when it will finish, and it can feel like a never ending process, switching from one side to another and trying to settle a fussy baby. It can be even harder to manage if you have other children to look after as well. Some tips that may help: 

  • Do any meal prep in the morning, along with household chores. Slow cooker meals are perfect as you can cook them in the morning and they will be ready, with no extra prep from you in the evening if you are stuck breastfeeding. Accept that you will have to block out a few hours in the evening where you will be stuck feeding. 
  • Invest in a good sling or carrier. It is possible to feed in a sling, so if you have to do other tasks in the evening this is one way to do it. I did solo bedtimes with my two kids, and often was tending to a cluster feeding, fussy baby in a sling, while simultaneously doing bedtime with my eldest. 
  • Make sure breastfeeding is comfortable! Breastfeeding for 2-3 hours with painful nipples is torture, so make sure that your baby has a deep comfortable latch. You can read more about making breastfeeding comfortable here: Reduce breastfeeding pain
  • If you are able to chill out on the sofa for that cluster feeding session, set up a basket with snacks, water bottle, insulated cup, more snacks, the tv remote and your phone, within reaching distance. 

10: When should I be concerned?

Cluster feeding is normal for babies. However, we need to distinguish between “normal” cluster feeding and when it could potentially be a sign that something else is going on. As I said above, there are specific times when frequent breastfeeding is more common. 

If your baby is feeding constantly, day in, day out, so that it feels like they are always cluster feeding, then you may want to ask the following questions:

  • Can you hear regular sucks and swallows (especially at the start of the feed)?
  • Are they gaining weight well?
  • Are they having enough wet and dirty nappies?
  • Do they ever settle after a feed, even if it’s a 30 minute nap on your chest?     

If your answer is no to any of these questions, or you’re not sure, then this article may be helpful: Are you making enough breastmilk for your baby? Babies shouldn’t constantly cluster feed. They should have some feeds that are shorter, and they settle after feeding from one or two breasts, even if it’s only for 30 minutes. 

If you feel like you could use some more support with breastfeeding, then you can book an appointment with me here: Breastfeeding consultations : Rebecca Scott-pillai (rebeccascottpillai.co.uk)

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