Cluster Feeding: Everything You Need to Know
September 29, 2021
By the time baby arrives, you’ve probably mentally prepared for the frequent wakeups you’re about to endure. Sleep deprivation as a new parent is par for the course, after all. What may come as a surprise, however, is the pure exhaustion that accompanies newborn cluster feeding. It’s one of those new parenting things you won’t truly understand until you actually experience it; but it’s totally normal and, thankfully, doesn’t last forever (though it won’t feel like much of a consolation when you’re in the thick of it). Still, it’s helpful to know what to expect so you can mindfully manage the situation rather than panic when the feeding frenzy begins. Ready to get the lowdown on all things newborn cluster feeding? We’re sharing what it is, why it happens, when it starts and how long it’ll last—plus, some tips for how to cluster feed and prepare yourself for the nonstop breast or bottle buffet ahead.
In this article:
What is cluster feeding?
Why do babies cluster feed?
When does cluster feeding start?
How long does cluster feeding last?
Signs of cluster feeding
Tips for how to cluster feed
How to stop cluster feeding
You may have heard the term thrown around by other parents, or perhaps a lactation consultant said it during a blurry bedside visit at the hospital. So what is cluster feeding, exactly? Baby cluster feeding is pretty much what it sounds like: when your little one wants to be fed in “clusters” throughout the day. Cathleen Hemphill, RN, a nurse and lactation consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina, explains that in their first few days of life, babies typically need to be fed a minimum of eight times in a 24-hour span. But before you set your clock and your expectations, know that newborns typically don’t follow a predictable feeding schedule. “Most infants will want to feed more often than this and will cluster or group several feedings in a shorter amount of time,” Hemphill says.
In general, a typical feeding for a newborn will last between 15 and 20 minutes, leaving baby nourished and satisfied for about three to four hours, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). In contrast, when they’re cluster feeding, “a baby has several feedings within a short amount of time followed by a longer stretch of sleep,” says Amy Peterson, IBCLC, a lactation consultant in Jerome, Idaho. You’ll know that baby is cluster feeding—and that it’s not just their preferred eating schedule—when their routine suddenly changes for two or three days and then just as swiftly returns to a more regular feeding pace.
Cluster feeding is completely normal, and while not every baby cluster feeds, it can happen with any newborn, regardless of whether they’re breastfed or formula-fed. That said, it’s often harder if you’re a nursing mom, as your milk is likely still coming in, and you may be struggling with breastfeeding—physically or mentally. If you’re exclusively pumping, it may feel like you can’t keep up with baby’s demands—especially if you don’t have a reserve of milk ready to go yet. That said, if you formula feed, you’ll still notice baby’s increased appetite but will have the convenience of being able to supply more milk on demand, which the AAP says is a safe and appropriate way to manage cluster feeding.
No one knows exactly why babies cluster feed, says Dyan Hes, MD, a pediatrician in New York City, but there are several strong theories. A common belief among experts is that it happens when a newborn is going through a physical or developmental growth spurt. Newborn cluster feeding could also correlate with baby’s routine in utero. “Most pregnant mothers know from fetal movements that as soon as they go to bed, their baby starts moving, and then about four hours later, they have to get up to the bathroom. This is a biological rhythm of activity that continues for the first weeks of life. We see infants feed well around a mother’s previous bedtime, then four hours later they will perhaps start to cluster feed,” explains Hemphill.
If you’re breastfeeding, newborn cluster feeding may cause you to worry or wonder if baby’s increased appetite is indicative of low milk supply or if you’re just not feeding them enough. It’s understandable why your mind would jump to that conclusion, but in reality, the opposite is happening. “In the first few days, a baby’s cluster feeding helps to increase and establish mom’s milk supply,” explains Jerrianne Webb, RN, a nurse and lactation consultant in Raleigh, North Carolina. “The baby’s frequent nursing assists in the hormonal process of transitioning mom’s first milk, colostrum, into the abundant mature milk, a transition that usually occurs between postpartum days three and seven.”
Oftentimes, babies cluster feed in the early evening, according to Hes, which also happens to coincide with the infamous “witching hour” for babies. Since the only way cluster-feeding babies know how to express their need to eat is through crying, it can be difficult to discern whether they’re being fussy because they’re hungry or because it’s just that time of day. If baby is inconsolable in the early evening but doesn’t seem to want to eat, it could be the result of overstimulation or possibly colic.
Now that you understand what it is and why it happens, you may be wondering: When does cluster feeding start? Sorry to say, you may not get much of a breather after the exhausting work of labor and delivery. According to Hemphill, newborn cluster feeding can start as early as baby’s second day of life. While this may be the last thing you want to deal with while recovering and trying to get the hang of this whole breastfeeding thing, it can actually be very helpful. “[Cluster feeding] is the principle of supply and demand in breastfeeding,” explains Webb. “Baby’s demand [for milk] increases, which, in turn, increases Mom’s supply.” In those first few days after baby is born, the body is working hard to produce milk and increase supply as needed, and since this is triggered by baby feeding from the breast, the more often they feed, the more milk the body will ultimately produce.
You’re sleep-deprived and desperate for relief—so you want to know: Exactly how long does cluster feeding last? Baby cluster feeding happens in bursts; each usually lasts a few days at a time, says Webb. However, during the first few weeks of life, as your supply continues to build, you can expect baby to want to cluster feed more often than not. After this initial stage, though, you’ll be more equipped to determine if and when baby will go through another cluster feeding phase based on typical development charts. “After the first few weeks, breastfed babies become more predictable,” she says. Cluster feeding ages typically align with growth spurts and occur at three weeks, six weeks, three months and six months. That said, the first three weeks of newborn cluster feeding is often the longest consistent stretch and the most intense for parents.
As babies grow, they slowly start needing more and more milk in one feeding to satisfy their appetite. So how do you know if their increased need for milk is, in fact, cluster feeding or just part of their normal growth and development? Here are some common signs of cluster feeding to look for:
- Having a normal, full feeding, and then wanting to be fed again 30 to 60 minutes later—often eating just as much as they would in a regular feeding
- Sleeping deeply for long stretches of time after two or three close feedings
- Acting frustrated during feedings, searching for the nipple when it’s right in front of them or latching on and off
- Acting fussy or irritable when they’re awake but not on the breast
- Eating in frequent, short spurts close together
- Perpetual feedings often occur in the early evening and nighttime hours
For a breastfeeding parent, cluster feeding is exhausting in every sense of the word, especially if you’re still trying to get the hang of nursing. Here are some things you can do to make it a little more manageable:
- Keep track of how many feedings the baby has had. Peterson says, “Cluster feeders still have the expected number of feeds, just not spaced evenly throughout the day/night.”
- Have your partner or a support person help by doing as much as possible between feedings so you can rest
- Avoid trying to force or delay feedings in an effort to get baby back on a schedule, as this will just make them fussier
- Monitor their weight gain if you need peace of mind that they’re getting enough milk, suggests Peterson. “Expect babies to gain about an ounce a day (or more) once mom’s milk shifts from colostrum to milk,” she says
- Stay hydrated and nourished to keep yourself healthy and your supply ample throughout this phase
You may be eager to get a little break, but if you’re wondering how to stop cluster feeding, the truth is: it just has to run its course. The best thing you can do is surrender and let baby take the lead. Hemphill stresses the importance of not forcing or delaying feedings in an effort to make cluster feeding end: “The American Academy of Pediatrics, WHO, and UNICEF recommend that infants feed on demand and as often as they want, day or night.”
Newborn cluster feeding is hard on parents, but you can take comfort knowing that it won’t last forever. Until it passes, lean on your support system and rest as often as possible. You’ve got this.
About the experts:
Cathleen Hemphill, RN, BSN, IBCLC, is a nurse and lactation consultant at the University of North Carolina’s Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Dyan Hes, MD, is a pediatrician and the medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City. She earned her medical degree from the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel-Aviv University in 1997.
Amy Peterson, IBCLC, is a lactation consultant for Evenflo Feeding and co-author of Balancing Breast and Bottle: Feeding Your Baby. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and works out of Jerome, Idaho.
Jerrianne Webb, RN, IBCLC, is a lactation consultant for the University of North Carolina. She earned her nursing degree from Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.