When Melanie Herschorn’s first child was about 3 months old, she breastfed every hour around the clock for two days straight. The Phoenix mom was worried and exhausted. Why had her daughter suddenly changed from eating every three hours to every hour? Was her daughter getting enough to eat? Was she not producing enough milk? Within two days though, her daughter returned to her regular eating schedule, says Melanie. Unbeknownst to her, Melanie had just survived her first cluster feeding.
“Cluster feeding is typically used to describe a change in feeding habits by a newborn or young infant when they shift from feeding every two to three hours, to feeding every hour or feeding in spurts for a day or so or even longer,” explains Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s and The Everett Clinic and author of Mama Doc Medicine.
Some moms notice that cluster feeding happens more often at night, a time when babies are sleepy and looking for ways to self-soothe, says Dr. Swanson, or it may happen over the course of an entire day, like in Herschorn’s experience.
Cluster feeding in newborns
Cluster feeding can pop up at various times in an infant’s first six months of life, but often the first time occurs shortly after birth, says David L. Hill, M.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like A Pro. “These feeds stimulate the breasts to make more milk, and they can be an important part of ensuring good milk production,” he adds. Other common times for cluster feeding to occur, due to development, include when a baby is 10 to 12 days old and then again at three months old. “By the time the infant is 4 to 6 months old, cluster feeds are usually over.”
Causes of cluster feeding
Cluster feeding can be initiated by the child or the mom. Here are some of the most common causes — and reasons for — cluster feeding.
1. Growth spurt
“Many babies will cluster feed during a growth spurt,” says New York City-based lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor. Growing takes more energy and babies get their energy from milk, so they’ll eat more often.
2. Developmental leap
Your baby goes through a lot of developmental changes those first six months. In the midst of all this change, feeding can feel comfortable and familiar, says O’Connor.
1. Build-up milk supply
“Breast milk supply is based on the demand from your baby or from pumping with a breast pump,” says Dr. Swanson. So the more baby eats (or the more you pump), the more you produce. “I typically tell moms that within 24 hours your breasts will respond by making more supply for an asked demand.” Some mothers may wish to up their production if they are trying to stockpile milk for heading back to work or going on vacation.
2. Help baby sleep longer at night
There’s a small chance that cluster feeding may help babies feel fuller longer and therefore sleep for longer stretches of time. “However, most research shows it’s not hunger or nursing schedules that facilitate babies learning to sleep through the night,” says Dr. Swanson. “It’s good sleep habits, such as allowing babies to learn how to self-soothe.”
Coping with cluster feeding
Whether cluster feeding is initiated by you or the child, your body will be working overtime. “It’s exhausting!” says Herschorn. “It’s important to remember that it will end, but in the meantime, you have to take care of yourself.”
1. Stay hydrated and fed. Your body uses energy to create breast milk, so if your baby is feeding overtime be sure that you are drinking water all day long and eating small meals and nutritious snacks every few hours; great options include an apple with peanut butter, hummus and whole-wheat crackers, and string cheese and a small handful of almonds.
2. Make sleep a priority. If your baby switches from sleeping four-hour stretches at night to waking up every hour, you’re going to get exhausted pretty quickly. So, as hard as it can be, make sleep your top priority, recommends Swanson. Skip the dishes and Facebook check-ins and sleep when your baby does.
3. Get support from other moms. Cluster feeding can either be lovely for bonding or entirely exhausting and frustrating for a mom, says Swanson. Talking through techniques and tips, as well as your feelings and frustrations, can help you feel less alone and gain valuable support.
4. Don’t take it personally. Your baby’s desire to cluster feed does not mean you are doing anything wrong! And, it usually doesn’t mean that your milk supply is insufficient, says Dr. Swanson. (You’ll know your baby is getting enough to eat if he has at least five very wet diapers in a 24-hour period and he’s gaining a healthy amount of weight, as determined by your pediatrician.)
5. Ask for help. If you’re worried about your breast milk supply or your baby’s weight gain, contact your pediatrician. If you’re stressed about your baby’s weight gain or feeding schedule, don’t hesitate to see your pediatrician for support and a weight check.
6. Don’t fight the feeding. You could try soothing your baby in other ways, such as holding her or walking with her; however, if the feeding change has come on suddenly, it’s probably a cluster feeding episode and it’s best to feed the baby, says Dr. Swanson. “Babies follow instinctive cues and are smart enough to ask for what they need when they feel it.”
When you should call the doctor
Although cluster feeding can be worrisome and inconvenient, it is normal for babies to do. However, if your baby is feeding for over an hour at a time or the cluster feeding lasts more than about 48 hours, it may be a sign that your milk production is not keeping up with the baby’s needs, says Hill. If this happens, contact your pediatrician or lactation consultant for an appointment.
Note: Dr. Hill would like to thank Shannon Keeley, IBCLC for her help with this article.