Cluster feeding can be very challenging for mothers.
Your newborn has just finished a feeding marathon.
She has literally been attached for the past few hours or more.
She might have fallen asleep at the breast but when you tried to put her in her cot, she kept waking and crying and showing feeding cues again, and so the feeding marathon continued.
What’s more, you’ve discovered these feeding marathons are a regular occurrence.
They happen once or twice every 24 hours!
This sort of behaviour can cause you to doubt your supply and you might wonder whether it’s normal, or not.
But what we’re describing here are cluster feeding periods.
They are very common (and normal) in babies, particularly those under the age of 3 months.
Cluster Feeding & Why Your Baby Needs To Feed So Often
Before you throw in the towel, give up on breastfeeding and order your partner to go and buy a tin of formula, make sure you read on, to find out the facts about cluster feeding periods. I’m sure you’ll find them reassuring.
#1: Cluster Feeding Helps Babies Regulate Themselves
Breastfeeding is so much more than just nutrition. It is also about nurturing, and providing a place of comfort, security, warmth, closeness and familiarity. Your baby’s emotional needs are every bit as real as as her physical needs, and having them met is important to her overall development.
So, when your baby wants to cluster feed it’s most likely a way to seek comfort and to help her regulate herself. Cluster feeding is less likely to be about your baby being ravenous, but more about the close contact between a mother and her baby. It could be how she processes all the new brain connections she has made.
#2: Cluster Feeding Is Important For Your Overall Milk Supply
Your baby’s cluster feeding periods are an important part of her overall nutritional needs during a 24-hour period, and also important in establishing your supply. The more often your baby feeds early on (and the more milk that is removed) the greater your milk-producing capacity will be for the entire course of your breastfeeding relationship with your baby.
#3: Cluster Feeding Can Help Babies Tank Up On Higher Fat Milk
When a mother is breastfeeding, her breasts are never completely empty – just either more or less drained. The less drained (fuller) your breasts are, the slower the rate more milk is made. Whereas, the more drained (less full) your breasts are, the faster the rate more milk is made.
Also, if your breasts are very full, then at the start of the feed your baby gets a higher percentage of lower fat/calorie milk. Whereas, if your breasts are well drained (as they often are during cluster feeding periods), then at the start of each feed your baby gets a higher percentage of higher fat/calorie milk.
After the first couple of months, a baby typically has her longest stretch of sleep during the first part of the night. For this reason, a baby might cluster feed in the late afternoon/early evening as a way to obtain more feeds in a shorter time, as though she is ‘tanking up’ on higher fat/higher calorie-rich breastmilk to prepare for a longer sleep.
It’s important to know you cannot over feed an exclusively breastfed baby. This is because a baby who feeds from the breast is in control of how much she drinks. She can suck in a way in which she gets the milk or she can suck in a way in which she doesn’t get any milk. She can also be at the breast and not suck at all, or she can just detach herself.
On the other hand, when a baby drinks from a bottle (regardless of what is in the bottle), the firm bottle teat in her mouth provides a strong stimulus for her to suck, and when she sucks, she gets milk whether she needs it or not. The relatively fast and continuous flow of milk from a bottle means she needs to keep sucking or be flooded with milk.
For this reason, if your baby is being bottle fed, it’s perhaps best to try to settle her in ways other than with a bottle during cluster feeding periods.
Next time your baby has a cluster feeding period you can feel reassured it’s normal and beneficial. As exhausting as these periods can be, try to revel in the time you spend with your baby and feel empowered that no one can soothe your baby the way you can. And remember: ‘This too shall pass’….eventually!
Recommended Reading: Read more about how to cope with cluster feeding periods here.