Cluster feeding your newborn

If you’re breastfeeding, from time to time you might find that your little one keeps you busier than usual. Occasional sudden increases in the frequency of feeds, usually caused by growth spurts, are called cluster feeding.

Cluster feeding affects breastfeeding mums in particular; however, formula-fed babies can also feed more frequently at certain stages of development.

Why do babies cluster feed? When does cluster feeding start? When might it end? What’s the best way to handle those cluster feeding periods? Keep reading for answers to these questions and more.

What Is Cluster Feeding?

Cluster feeding is a term used to describe when a breastfed baby wants to be fed more often than usual at certain times of the day, especially at night or in the evening.

Every baby is different, so it’s difficult to define precisely when your little one’s usual feeding pattern crosses the line to become cluster feeding.

As a breastfeeding mum, what you’ll notice is a marked increase in the number of feeds compared to what’s been normal so far.

But what does normal even mean, given that the frequency of your baby’s feeds tends to change anyway as he or she grows?

Well, right after birth, your baby’s stomach is still only around the size of a marble, so in the first few days it’s normal for your newborn to eat very often — perhaps every one to three hours.

This is also why, initially, your breasts produce a special, highly concentrated form of milk known as colostrum. Even a few drops of this ‘liquid gold’ is highly nourishing for your baby, so a little goes a long way.

Then, during your baby’s first few weeks and beyond, as your little one’s stomach gets bigger, he or she will gradually start taking more milk at each feed. The gaps between feeds also usually get longer.

If your baby starts cluster feeding, this trend will be suddenly reversed. When this happens, it might seem as if you’re back to square one, and your baby has reverted to the constant feeding you experienced with your newborn in those first few days or weeks. But don’t worry, this change is only temporary.

Cluster feeding is a common and normal stage in your baby’s development. While it may be a little more tiring for you, it’s actually helping your child grow and develop.

Why Does a Newborn Baby Start Cluster Feeding?

Bouts of cluster feeding can occur if your little one is having a growth spurt and needs more food to fuel this rapid development.

Despite their name, growth spurts aren’t always related to an increase in your baby’s size and weight; you could also see a spike in the frequency of feeds when he or she is working on developing new mental or motor skills.

During a growth spurt your baby may also seem clingier than usual and sleep less than before.

Do Formula-Fed Babies Cluster Feed?

The short answer is yes, they can. Although formula-fed babies usually feed less often than breastfed babies because breast milk is digested faster than formula, formula-fed babies, of course, also experience growth spurts — and the associated munchies — as well.

If you’re formula feeding your baby, there’s a chance that he or she may eat more frequently — and even start cluster feeding — during these periods, too.

It’s also possible that the interval between feeds will stay more or less the same and your infant will just want to take a little more at each feed.

You may be wondering how you’ll know if your baby wants more formula. Well, it’s probably easier to tell when your little one is full, as he or she will usually stop feeding even if there’s some formula left in the bottle.

On the other hand, if your baby has drained the bottle and is still showing any of the feeding cues described below, he or she might want some more.

How Do You Know If Your Baby Needs Extra Feeds?

Signs that your baby is hungry could include:

  • Turning towards your breast (rooting) if he or he is breastfeeding

  • Lifting or bobbing the head

  • Smacking or licking the lips

  • Sucking on a fist or fingers

  • Dribbling or drooling

  • Crying.

Rather than setting a rigid timetable for feeding your baby, you may wish to let him or her feed ‘on demand’. To do this, keep an eye out for feeding cues — the signs that your child is hungry — listed above and feed your baby when you see the signs of hunger.

How Long Does Cluster Feeding Last?

Feeding patterns can vary continuously for as long as your baby is breastfed or formula-fed, but bouts of cluster feeding generally occur during the first few weeks and months with your baby.

A growth spurt often occurs at around the beginning of the second week, and they are also common at around 3 weeks, 6 weeks and 12 weeks old, but every baby is different.

There’s no knowing precisely when your baby’s hunger pangs will strike, or how long each bout of cluster feeding will last.

How to Deal With Cluster Feeding

Bouts of cluster feeding can make those first few months — already a tiring time — seem more challenging, especially if those extra feeds tend to happen at night, which is the most common time for cluster feeding to happen.

In fact, it may be tempting to give up breastfeeding during these periods, but experts strongly advise going with the flow and riding out these periods of more intensive feeding. Remember, the growth spurts won’t last forever.

In the meantime, try and conserve your energy by getting as much rest as you can in the ‘calmer’ periods.

It’s also a good idea to take steps to avoid getting sore nipples, such as making sure your baby’s mouth is deeply latched and using different breastfeeding positions from time to time.

Talk to your health visitor or doctor, or enlist the help of a lactation consultant, if you need help with cluster feeding or any other aspect of breastfeeding your baby.

How to Tell if Your Baby Is Still Eating the Right Amount

All the changes in feeding patterns that can occur during those first few months with your newborn baby can be confusing, and bursts of cluster feeding may make this time even more disorienting. If you’re at all unsure, check in with your doctor or health visitor.

In the meantime, here are some ways to tell if your baby is getting enough milk:

  • Pay attention to your baby’s feeding cues. If you’re breastfeeding, it’s hard to be sure exactly how much milk your baby has had. Keep in mind that your baby’s feeding sessions can vary in length, and your newborn will usually stop eating when he or she is feeling full. If you’re bottle-feeding, you might be unsure whether your little one has got all the breast milk or formula that he or she needs from the bottle. Signs that your baby’s still hungry might include sucking on a hand or smacking his or her lips after draining the bottle dry.

  • Keep an eye on your baby’s growth. Babies usually lose a little weight in the first week or two after birth, and this is normal. After this, as long as your baby’s size and weight gain are on track, your child is probably eating the right amount. Your health visitor or doctor will be keeping an eye on your baby’s growth for you, but don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions or concerns about your baby’s weight gain.

  • Check those nappies. What goes in must come out, so counting wet and soiled nappies is another way of keeping tabs on your baby’s intake of fluid and nutrients. After the first 5 days, 6 or more heavy wet nappies every 24 hours is a good sign that your little one is getting enough milk. The number of dirty nappies usually changes as your baby gets older: In the first week you may see around four a day, decreasing to an average of two by the end of the first year. If you’re formula feeding your child, he or she may poo as many as five times a day at first, going down to once a day after a few months.

Will Cluster Feeding Make Your Breast milk Run Out?

Your baby’s feeding actually stimulates breast milk production, so in most cases your body will ramp up the supply to meet demand during periods of cluster feeding.

Although you may be tempted to supplement your breast milk with formula, it may not be a good idea. Your body can adapt to your baby’s needs. By supplementing with formula, your body won’t get the cues that it needs to increase supply to meet demand.

As long as your little one’s weight gain and nappies suggest that your baby is getting enough to eat, it’s usually fine to just keep breastfeeding according to your baby’s needs.

Some external factors like stress or illness may decrease your milk supply temporarily. During these periods, staying hydrated, eating healthily and getting a little more rest (if you can) may help.

Some medicines can also affect breast milk supply. Make sure your doctor knows what medicines you are taking and that you are breastfeeding so that he or she can offer an alternative.

For more on this topic, read our article on how to increase your breast milk supply and ask your health visitor or a lactation consultant for personalised advice.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • Periods of cluster feeding usually occur during growth spurts, and often last up to several days. The more intensive feeding can sometimes be demanding for you as a mother, but the extra effort is worth it as you help your baby to reach the next stage in his or her development and growth.

  • The growth spurts that result in cluster feeding are especially common when your baby is 3 weeks, 6 weeks and 12 weeks of age, but every child is different and bouts of cluster feeding can happen at any time.

  • Bottle-fed babies can sometimes cluster feed during growth spurts, too, but often they just take more breast milk or formula at each feed. If your little one still shows feeding cues – like licking the lips, dribbling or sucking on a fist – after finishing a bottle, he or she may still be hungry.

Caring for a newborn baby is a full-time job and, just like any other rewarding occupation, it can have its more relaxed and its busier periods. For most parents, times of cluster feeding fall into the latter category!

But there’s a big upside to all of this: As you watch your little one growing and changing from day to day, simply knowing that each bout of cluster feeding is fuelling the next stage of your baby’s development will make the extra effort and those few extra sleepless nights worth it in the end.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.