Chances are you already know what cluster feeding is. If you are currently breastfeeding a newborn or about to begin your breastfeeding journey, cluster feeding is a phase you simply must accept, understand and be prepared for! To do that you need to know when it usually happens and how to deal with it, because it’s really hard!! And as with everything, there’s several mistakes most news moms (including me!) make when baby decides it’s time to cluster feed.
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Non Stop Nursing = Cluster Feeding
A “normal” breastfeeding session lasts however long your baby desires, honestly. It could be as short as 3 minutes or as long as 30 minutes or more. And sometimes babies satisfy their hunger but choose to stay at the breast for extra snuggles, to keep warm or just to relax in the safest place they know.
But cluster feeding is different than that and happens at key times of development. You know you’ve been overtaken by cluster feeding when baby wants to nurse round the clock–like way more frequently than you think you can handle–and fusses or seems cranky when they are removed from the breast without themselves choosing to be done.
Rest assured, every time your baby cluster feeds, great things are happening!! Okay, you may get to a point where you want to cry and run away, but your newborn (or 6 month old baby) is gaining so much from it. In this article I explain when to watch for cluster feeding, how to prepare for it and common mistakes moms unknowingly make. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but coping with cluster feeding can actually be somewhat easy and very, very worth it.
Why Does My Baby Want to Constantly Breastfeed?
There is a fabulous supply and demand system that is triggered every time newborns breastfeed. Every suckle tells your mammary glands to keep it coming, exactly the type of nutritional content is needed and which antibodies are needed at that very moment. And that’s just part of it. But, it’s not easy on Mom. You may be thinking, will this baby drain me dry? And you’ll wonder if your milk will ever catch up. It will. But if you’re like me, always trying to be one step ahead, a bit of an over-achiever–you’ll find expert tips in this post I wrote about increasing your milk supply.
Cluster feedings literally can go on for an entire week, if not more. So if you’re on day 3, DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT worry that your milk supply is disappearing. It isn’t! The more your baby nurses – or rather, the better you are at LISTENING when your baby wants to nurse – the more milk you’ll make and the better the quality will be (even if there isn’t a drastic increase in quantity).
One thing that works for a lot of nursing mothers is establishing a Lying-In period. This involves just a little bit of planning and I wrote a guide that helps you do that, plus what to tell your family and friends you’ll need in that time.
Don’t you dare try to fight cluster feeding! You will learn the hard way that mother nature has some very convincing tactics for making sure baby gets what he or she needs. When I first began my breastfeeding journey with my son I hadn’t heard of cluster feeding and panicked when it happened to me. My nipples felt like they were going to drop off that first time! So I begged baby for a break as I listened to my elders and set him down. But he cried like I had committed a crime! I truly felt his urgency in those real tears, so I LISTENED. He was happy as can be as soon as I gave back my breast. Yes, it was excruciating and yes, I developed some hard areas and even blisters at times. And that’s when I took to google and discovered that cluster feeding is normal!
Benefits of Cluster Feeding
Aside from telling your body exactly how much milk baby needs, cluster feeding does some more magical things that you’ve probably already heard of. Here’s just a few benefits that breast milk provides for babies:
• Vitamins, minerals essential for brain, bone, teeth, nerve and digestion
• Antibodies and unique compounds only found in human breast milk that prevent deadly diseases, asthma, allergies and digestion disorders
• Hormones (for both baby and Mom) that facilitate hundreds of bodily functions
• That mother-baby bond that lasts a lifetime!
*see below for more details
It helped me to focus on why cluster feeding us an essential part of the experience. It wasn’t easy, but reminding myself that cluster feeding serves a purpose got me through those very long, sometimes painful, most times dreadful cluster feeding periods.
Ages That Babies Cluster Feed
Honestly, from my own experience, cluster feeding can happen at any time. But usually it will happen around big growth spurts. For us, I noticed LONGER cluster feedings at the following ages:
• Day 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 of life after birth! Granted some days cluster feeding happened all night long versus during the day. Jolene actually slept most of the days away in the beginning whereas Jake Jr slept long periods at night and nursed frequently throughout the day.
• Around 3 weeks old
• 4 weeks old
• 6 weeks old
• 9 weeks old
• 12 weeks old
• 4 months old
• 6 months
• 8 months, 12 months, you get the idea…
We experienced cluster feeds almost on the exact day they turned one of the ages above. It really happens like clockwork for some people!
I have an entire post about newborn cluster feeding and it breaks down what it looks like when newborns cluster feed, how long it lasts and what you can do to survive it.
Can You Overfeed a Baby on Breast Milk?
Its absolutely going to seem like your baby is taking in way too much milk. Like, how can’t he if he’s nursed 23 out of 24 hours?! In a really interesting way, mother nature is capable of auto-rationing milk so that baby gets what he truly needs. And from what I’ve read, it’s more about the communication pathway that’s happening as a result of cluster feeding and not baby saying “Oh, I’m starving, give me all the milk!” So, although baby may be more gassy around this time, you shouldn’t worry about overfeeding.
Do Formula Fed Babies Cluster Feed Too?
Yes! In short, this supply and demand communication behavior is a natural instinct every typical baby is born with. It’s part of a survival strategy and according to medical studies, even formula fed babies go through phases described as cluster feeding. That being said, I don’t have more details on this since I never formula fed.
How to Survive Cluster Feeding
I am going to be totally honest. 2 babies in, 3 years and going…I still find that I get touched-out when Jolene cluster feeds. We are going through it now and its day 3 and I’m over it. But what ALWAYS gets me through is knowing it’s normal, beneficial and super necessary for her health-now and for years to come. I keep myself comfortable and well fed. Oh, and water!! Lots of water. Be a couch potato or stay in bed all day. I even use cluster feeding as an excuse to get out of cooking or events I don’t particularly care to attend. Here’s an *old* video I made all about cluster feeding and how I deal with it!
What NOT To Do When Baby Cluster Feeds
I am in several mom groups on Facebook, Reddit and Baby Center and I see a lot of moms unknowingly making their situation so much worse by trying to control cluster feedings or fighting against them. If you want to have the smoothest experience, you must accept that this is part of the journey and not do these things!
1. Do not try to time feedings, strictly keeping to your desired schedule of every 2 hours. When it comes to breastfeeding, baby is in charge! And boy do babies mean business! This was hard for me to accept as normal. I really wanted a “normal” baby who ate at set times like I’d heard. And the worst advice I got was “Just give him a paci” Obviously, doing that interrupts the necessary supply and demand system and you WILL have trouble with your milk supply as a result.
2. Do not pump. I made this mistake my first time around. When you pump-on top of nursing-you are telling your body you need MORE milk as if you have twins! I was told by family to pump, pump, pump and ended up with an over supply. My milk was gushing and Jake Jr choked for the first 5 minutes of every breastfeeding session. That being said, if you leak hard core use something to catch the milk in the opposite breast from the one baby is feeding on. I used a simple, small hand held one (find it at Target) and I was able to build a small stash in my freezer.
3. Do not panic that baby isn’t getting enough milk. People who grew up in the previous generations were made to believe too frequent breastfeeding and a fussy baby were signs that you had inadequate milk supply and most of them switched to formula because of it. Nowadays we have medical experts who have proven that actually the opposite is true. When babies cluster feed it’s a sign that all systems are working properly!
4. Do not supplement. When you supplement you disrupt that supply and demand system we’ve talked about and your milk’s nutritional content will also change. Of course, if your Mama gut tells you baby isn’t getting what he or she needs and your doctor suggests supplementation I would do more research and then make the decision. Just understand that once you start supplementing, you will likely begin the process of weaning your baby shortly after. I say this because I have known (and seen numerous posts of) other moms who claim supplementing resulted in a decreased milk supply and ultimately ended breastfeeding before they had planned to. If you must supplement for a length of time, you may be able to switch back to breastfeeding!
5. Don’t allow too long of a separation between you and baby. He or she will get very upset and the functions of cluster feeding will be interrupted and cause cluster feeding to last even longer!! You don’t want that!
Cluster feeding is normal and an important part of the breastfeeding journey. Don’t fight it, get comfortable and ride it out! It will end…and then return. Haha! But you can do it Mama! Good luck!
If you’re concerned about your milk supply or you just want to learn about the best ways to increase your breast milk supply, enter your info and I’ll share my best tips!
For more tips to survive those newborn days of breastfeeding, check out this blog.
More medical studies all about BF (my source for the above claims)
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical expert and most of the information above is given in combination of personal experience and medical studies, opinions, theories, etc that I have researched. It’s best to seek medical advice from your doctor before following any advice from a non-expert.