When you enter the world of motherhood, you may find yourself having many questions regarding the ins and outs of breastfeeding, including how to breastfeed, what comes with the life of a breastfeeding mom, when to implement a breast pump, how breast milk supply works, how to soothe a fussy baby, and when to seek a professional for breastfeeding support (and so much more!) One interesting topic that comes with breastfeeding and your baby’s growth spurts is cluster feeding.
What is Cluster Feeding?
When feedings take place seemingly, and quite literally, one right after the other, this can be due to the phenomenon, “cluster feeding.” This can often occur first at around 2-3 weeks gestational age, and last 5-7 days. Feedings, individually, will still often last 10-20 minutes for a breastfed baby, but will have a noticeably smaller space between, at times only 45 minutes versus the 2-3 hours in between average feeding pacing.
Expect at least 2-3 different cluster feeding weeks in the first year of your little one’s life, the second happening around 4-5 months of age, and more occurring during the other developmental and growth leaps.
Why do Babies Cluster Feed?
Because breastfeeding is based on demand to gauge supply, cluster feedings, or breastfeeding back-to-back, tell the body in real time the following: milk production, amount, and period of time changes are needed, which antibodies required in a particular environment, and what the neurological needs are. Communication is occurring of the baby’s needs when cluster feeding happens, which is essentially why it is recommended by breastfeeding and lactation professionals and lactation consultants to feed “on demand” and have a slightly looser schedule for nursing sessions versus a stringent schedule.
There are clear results from studies showing the difference in long term milk supply from setting the bar high through cluster feeding and feeding on demand during the first 4-6 weeks. This is when the body regulates to the amount required that it can fluctuate between, as well as how many mouths to feed, in the case of having multiples.
Differentiating Cluster Feeds and Poor Feeding
There are various signs that overlap cluster feeding and poor feeding, so it’s important to know the differences.
Cluster feeding babies should not act lethargic. They may show signs of fussiness and be harder to settle down, which may mean longer stretches of baby being around the breast, but still feed well. After a few nursing sessions, a nice sleep stretch should occur, lasting no longer than 3.5-4 hours, so as not to let breastmilk sit too long in the breasts or let the baby’s own caloric needs surpass what they can make up in a reasonable amount of time.
Keep in mind that there is a difference in milk flow in the evening hours. Feedings may take longer at first. It’s also important to not skip night feedings or encourage sleeping through the night as that is when hormones for making milk are at their highest, and rely on that nightly stimulation.
Watch for milk transfer. This helps ensure your baby is getting enough milk. Visible drinking and swallowing without milk leaking from the mouth. There should also be a nice rhythm to their drinking, along with no clicking or popping sounds, dimpling in the cheeks, or frequent letting go.
Seek medical advice and attention from a lactation professional like a lactation consultant when:
- Clicking / popping sounds occur during feed
- Frequent letting go/ detachment
- Lethargic; extremely sleepy, unable to feed for significant durations
- Development of jaundice or recurring
- Plateauing weight or weight loss charted at the pediatrician
- Diagnosis of tongue and / or lips ties; ankioglossia
- Active feedings lasting without a break for longer than 25-30 minutes (could be using too much energy to feed)
- Anytime there is worry or concern or questions
How to Cope and Navigate
While it is difficult for new parents to navigate the difficult schedules during cluster feeding, it’s important to note that cluster feeding is normal and an important part of infant development and milk supply. Feeling overwhelmed and unsure is also normal, especially coupled with normal lack of adequate sleep when raising an infant. The difference between someone giving up and sticking with breastfeeding goals can be having access to: knowledge, support, and coping mechanisms.
In the case of dealing with the seemingly around-the-clock feeding schedule, knowing ahead of time to plan on planning virtually nothing is a huge step. Giving yourself permission to heal postpartum, feed and bond with your baby, and delegating outside tasks to others is critical to having the most rewarding and mentally healthy experience. When upcoming cluster feeds come, stay home, rest, and feed. This is a time to sit, or lay, and just be.
While some have access to help through a partner, parent, family member or friend, there are certainly instances where outside help is needed due to lack of the aforementioned. Hiring a postpartum doula or nanny is a great option, and many exist for free in exchange for experience to get certified. Contact your local IBCLC or doula professional for resources.