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Cluster feeding

Cluster feeding, as the name suggests, is a pattern of nursing in clusters. These clusters may be long, intense and frequent. A lot of babies cluster feed in their newborn days. Even though each baby is different and therefore manifests this usual and normal behaviour of cluster feeding in a different and unique way; there are some similarities that many babies show. Here are some typical scenarios of cluster feeding :

  • A generally happy and content baby suddenly wants to feed very frequently and for long hours at a stretch.
  • Baby becomes especially fussy in the evenings and wants to nurse continuously.

This is completely normal and usual behaviour by newborns and babies in their early months. However, it can be challenging for the mother as most babies are also fussy when they cluster feed. This can leave the mother confused about her supply and worried about her baby’s this kind of behaviour. A lot of mothers complain that by evening their milk production becomes low and that’s why their baby becomes fussy and demands to nurse all the time. The important thing to keep in mind is that – evening fussiness and cluster feeding go hand in hand. It’s a normal phenomenon. It doesn’t indicate that the mother’s supply is low. Some babies cluster feed even in the mornings and afternoons.

Cluster feeding also occurs along with growth spurts. There’s a popular theory that babies grow in spurts. (It is a controversial topic as it’s not entirely backed by significant supporting data.) This theory suggests that there are some specific phases that occur at specific ages wherein babies grow more and thus nurse more. It is also suggested that babies cluster feeds in order to boost the mother’s supply to keep up with their growing needs. It is also said that babies cluster feeds in the evenings to load up on calories to prepare to sleep for longer hours. Whatever the reason, cluster feeding is very common and babies develop a strong bond with the mother and a sense of security when they are nursed on demand. Nursing on demand takes care of a wide array of problems that anyone can face in their breastfeeding journey. When babies determine how frequently and for how long to nurse, their nutrition, growth and satiety is optimal. Therefore, it’s recommended to always breastfeed whenever the baby demands.

Another essential thing to consider is that – it is a phase which usually passes by 3 to 4 months of age. However, older babies sometimes cluster feed too. They do it when they are unwell, during teething, during developmental milestones or when they need warmth and a sense of security. Nursing on demand helps at all ages.

Coping strategies :

Cluster feeding can be overwhelming and exhausting for new parents, especially the mother. There are some techniques that may help in managing it better.

  1. Nursing lying down can enable the mother to catch up with some much needed rest and sleep during the long hours of cluster feeding.
  2. Babywearing can be very useful when the breastfeeding parent is busy with chores or other work at the time of cluster feeding.
  3. Giving a lot of skin to skin to the baby while cluster feeding can calm a fussy baby down.
  4. Accepting that cluster feeding is common, normal and beneficial.
  5. Keeping in mind that it’s a phase and will pass. It may come back again, but will pass again.
  6. Preparing for cluster feeding sessions by keeping some healthy snacks and water ready for the mother.
  7. Not doubting one’s supply and not replacing breastfeeding by artificial breast milk substitute.
  8. Avoiding pacifiers as it can hamper the establishment of supply.

Cluster feeding is a need; not a habit and most certainly, not an unreasonable demand. A baby can’t be spoilt by merely having her needs met.

When is cluster feeding alarming?
There may be cases when babies cluster feeds all the time, yet don’t have enough pee and poop count. The weight gain is poor. When babies are fussy round the clock and aren’t sleeping much. In such circumstances, it is very important to take professional help. Either of a lactation professional to get the latch and milk transfer checked, or of a paediatrician, if needed.