If you are breastfeeding a new baby, congratulations! I promise you’re doing great. But if you’re worried because it seems like your baby is feeding every hour at night, it’s okay. Your newborn is just cluster feeding.
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What you should know:
- Cluster feeding is a totally normal behavior for newborns and older babies. If your baby wants to cluster feed, let them.
- Cluster feeding usually happens in the evening, but may stretch in to the night or even last all day during growth spurts!
- Cluster feeding is not a sign that you aren’t making enough milk or that you need to supplement with formula.
- Cluster feeding usually lasts for several days at a time, and then your baby will go back to a more spaced out feeding schedule.
- When your baby is cluster feeding, make sure you take care of yourself with nutritious food and plenty of water. If possible, take naps while a support person takes care of the baby during the afternoon.
Don’t worry, cluster feeding is not bad. In fact, most newborns (and even older babies) cluster feed at night. This is totally normal; in fact, it’s important to helping your little one grow. Cluster feeding usually stops after a few days.
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However, if your baby’s all-night snacking is causing you to lose sleep, you may be wondering, How long does cluster feeding last? Will I be doing this forever? Don’t worry; after breastfeeding four babies of my own, I have all the tips to get extra rest and manage your home so you stay sane.
What is cluster feeding?
Cluster feeding is when your baby feeds almost constantly for a stretch of a few hours. You may feel like your little one is constantly on your boob.
If your newborn feeds for a little while, unlatches, maybe dozes, then gets fussy and wants to nurse again… only to do the whole cycle over and over again, that’s cluster feeding.
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Cluster feeding is frustrating not only because your little one wants to nurse constantly, but they also seem to be fussier during times that they’re cluster feeding. But don’t worry; everything is okay.
Why do babies cluster feed?
Babies cluster feed for all sorts of reasons. We’ll discuss some of them here.
Cluster feeding during a growth spurt
The most common reason for it (especially if you feel like your 3 week old is feeding every hour) is simply a growth spurt.
Your baby has periods of super rapid growth, both physically and mentally. And when they have these growth spurts, they have to get the extra energy from somewhere… That would be you, mama.
And while cluster feeding at 6 weeks or 9 weeks may be most noticeable (that’s because it coincides with a fussy developmental phase known as purple crying), it actually can happen at several times of your baby’s life.
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Of course, your baby can cluster feed for other reasons too. You may simply have a breast structure where you have lower breast storage capacity. While you never “run out” of milk, it might be that you run low more quickly than some other moms.
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Think of breast storage like two people working in the garden: Each has a water hose, and each has a bucket. Both of their hoses produce a gallon of water per minute. But one person has a one gallon bucket, while the other person has a 5 gallon bucket.
Both of them can take 10 gallons of water from to their garden in 10 minutes. The difference is, one person will have to make 10 trips to the garden, while the other person only makes 2 trips.
So whether you have a small breast capacity or a larger one, it’s okay. It just means your baby may nurse more often.
Baby is teething or sick
If your baby is unwell, they may nurse more often. First of all, they need to stay hydrated, so they need to nurse often. Secondly, you produce antibodies and white blood cells in your breast milk that are specifically designed to help them fight off germs.
Baby wants to connect
Simply put, breastfeeding is comforting for your baby. Breastfeeding causes you both to release oxytocin, the bonding hormone that calms you down and even relieves pain.
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And if you work outside the home, your little one may take fewer bottles during the day, instead cluster feeding at night once you’re back together. Unfortunately, this behavior can be really hard to deal with when you’re already exhausted from work and baby.
Is cluster feeding bad?
Even if it feels scary, cluster feeding is a good thing! Here’s what you need to know:
- Cluster feeding is not a sign that your milk is drying up or that you should supplement
- Cluster feeding is your baby’s way to signal your body to increase milk production
- Milk supply is generally lowest in the evening and at night. This is why your baby tends to “snack” at night while nursing.
- Prolactin (the hormone that boosts milk production) levels are highest in the middle of the night, so night nursing is actually a good thing.
In addition, cluster feeding often occurs before a growth spurt, where babies need extra nourishment to support their rapid development. So rather than viewing cluster feeding as a nuisance, try to see it as a natural part of your baby’s growth process.
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The cluster feeding timeline
No matter how hard it is, cluster feeding doesn’t last forever. The cycle below gives a good idea of the “timeline” for cluster feeding.
How long does cluster feeding last?
While it may seem like cluster feeding will never end, the good news is that it typically only lasts 2-3 days. You may feel like you have a tiny piranha for a few days, but after that, your little one may actually sleep extra.
After this intense period of feeding, your milk supply will increase, but with your baby snoozing instead of eating, it has nowhere to go!
For this reason, your breasts may become engorged and tender. It is important to continue to breastfeed or pump regularly to avoid any discomfort or complications like a clogged duct or mastitis.
At the same time, don’t pump so much that you signal your body to continue this level of milk production. Instead, only pump (or hand express) just enough to get relief. Acetaminophen can take the edge off of the worst engorgement pain, but make sure you mostly focus on emptying your breasts as needed.
When do babies cluster feed?
Although cluster feeding only lasts for 2-3 days at a time, that doesn’t mean it’s a one and done deal. Your baby will have these growth spurts at several stages of their development. Here’s the cluster feeding timeline.
Their first cluster feed will come quickly – at 7-10 days old. After that, you can follow the rule of 3 for cluster feeds and growth spurts:
- 3 weeks,
- 6 weeks,
- 9 weeks, then
- 3 months,
- 6 months,
- 9 months, and
- 12 months
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So if your 3 week old is nursing every hour, that’s totally normal. Exhausting, but normal.
How to cope with cluster feeding at night
Any parent of a newborn knows that cluster feeding is a common occurrence, especially at night. This can be frustrating for exhausted parents who are trying to get some rest, but there are some things that can be done to help cope with the situation.
First, it is important to stay calm and realize that this is only a temporary phase. I know, easier said than done, but if you can remember that it will get better, it will help a lot.
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Another important note if you have a partner at home with you: The two of you are on the same team. It’s easy to become short tempered with one another and blame each other for everything when you’re tired.
While you’re likely the only one feeding your baby, you can get help in other parts of life. See if someone else can take care of older siblings’ bedtimes while you nurse.
If you have family or friends who are willing to bring you a meal or even have carry out deliver, that would be great. Even better would be if they made a double batch: One meal for now, and one to freeze for later.
Hydration is everything, especially when you’re nursing! It’s easy to forget to drink anything when you’re holding a baby all the time, but that’s why you should always have a giant water bottle on hand.
Set up a nursing station with your water, some snacks, a few burp cloths, and whatever else you may need. Snuggle down for the evening (until your bed time), find a favorite show to binge watch, and just relax.
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NOTE: If you are so tired that you are afraid you will fall asleep with your baby, do not stay in a recliner or on a sofa to try to keep yourself awake. If you fall asleep and your baby gets wedged in between cushions, it could be disastrous. It is safer to fall asleep with your baby on a flat, firm surface than on a couch or chair.
Consider how to co-sleep safely
It is much easier to handle the frequent wakings of a cluster feeding baby if you are room sharing with them. For many parents, the easiest thing is to have a co-sleeper beside the bed (these are my favorites).
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I know bed sharing is a very controversial topic in the United States. With that said, if you are exclusively breastfeeding, there’s no smokers in your home, and you are free from the influence of drugs or alcohol, there are ways to co sleep with your child safely on a firm surface.
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Tips for getting through the cluster feeding stage
If your baby is cluster feeding all night, remember that it’s a normal and developmentally appropriate behavior for your baby. It can be exhausting, but it won’t last forever. You can do this!
If you need some extra support, my Breastfeeding 101 quick start guide can help get you off to a great breastfeeding relationship with your baby. Remember – cluster feeding won’t last forever. Hang in there!