Cluster feeding can be one of the more frustrating parts of breastfeeding. It can take a confident, well-informed mom and reduce her to a heap of self-doubt and worry.
So what does it mean to cluster feed?
Cluster feeding (or bunch feeding) is when a baby feeds closer together at certain times of the day (often that is in the evenings or for some of us it can be all day). Basically, it is referring to the times that your baby doesn’t seem to want to do anything but breastfeed.
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Why Your Baby is Cluster Feeding
Why Your Baby is Fussy at Night (and what that has to do with Cluster Feeding)?
When my first son was born, I immediately started to notice that come 7 pm all he wanted to do was breastfeed and cry.
He would breastfeed for a few minutes, then pull off.
Latch again, breastfeed for a few more minutes, then pull off.
And then repeat. over and over again for several hours.
I remember the discouragement, the frustration, the desperation that I felt every night.
(Related: Read about Reverse Cycling and how to survive it)
I had people close to me telling me all kinds of things like,
Your breast milk is bad and is bothering his tummy.
He is not getting enough milk, you should give him formula.
It is something you ate, you need to cut stuff out.
He’s overtired. You shouldn’t let him sleep so much during the day, then he would go to sleep earlier.
While well-meaning, none of the so-called “advice” was helpful or accurate.
My son was doing something that had nothing to do with my breast milk quality or supply. He was cluster feeding and that coincided with his fussy time.
This was NORMAL behavior.
The LLL best-selling guide for breastfeeding moms, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, says it perfectly:
… nursings often cluster together, maybe especially at certain times of the day. Cluster feeding means a clock is pretty useless in a normal breastfeeding relationship… Evening especially is often a time of ‘nursing marathons,’ when nothing but another time at the breast seems to work… So long as your baby is gaining well, cluster feedings are absolutely normal. (Womanly Art of Breastfeeding)
The “why” is still a mystery. It is not known why babies have fussy periods or why cluster feeding is often associated with that time.
As I have read more about cluster feeding and studies done on it, I was surprised to learn that it did not have a lot to do with low milk supply.
I always assumed I was not making enough milk in the evening and that is why my baby cried.
(Related: 20 Ways to Increase Your Milk Supply!)
On the contrary, studies show that milk volume is not necessarily lower at that time of the day and even if it was, the caloric content of the milk in the evenings is actually the highest than any other time of the day.
So your baby is still getting the same if not more calories from your evening milk.
Dr. Katherine Dettwyler, who performs research on breastfeeding in traditional societies, has found that babies in Mali, West Africa, and other traditional societies do not have colic or evening fussiness.
It is interesting to note that these babies are traditionally carried all day and will nurse as often as they wish sometimes multiple times per hour.
Some relate these findings to a baby’s fussiness being less about milk and more about comfort and being held.
Formula fed babies have fussy periods as well and would not have the issue of a mother’s low milk supply as an explanation so perhaps Dr. Dettwyler was on to something.
Whatever the reason, it is not an easy period for a breastfeeding or pumping mom.
3 Reasons Cluster Feeding is Important
Now that we understand that a baby’s fussy period often coincides with cluster feeding, let’s get to why Cluster Feeding is actually important.
1 – Cluster Feeding Helps Comfort Your Baby
A baby’s emotional well-being is as important as her physical well-being.
As we talked about above, a baby’s fussy period is probably more likely associated with the need to be held and cuddled.
Breastfeeding offers so much more than just nutrition. It is also providing your baby with a safe, familiar, comfortable, warm, and soothing place to be close to you.
2 – Cluster Feeding Helps Baby Store Up Fattier Milk
Often times your baby will cluster feed and then sleep a long stretch (not always, unfortunately) but evenings are a typical time for a baby to start storing up for the night’s sleep.
What is interesting about breast milk is that it is ever-changing.
When your breasts are very full, the foremilk is lower in calories and watery. As your breast drains, the milk becomes fattier (hindmilk).
Your breast is never truly empty. You are making milk constantly but when your breasts are drained, your milk will be made at a faster pace to replenish it.
As your baby cluster feeds, they are getting more of the hind milk because there is less foremilk in the breast. The calorie content is higher so even if they intake less milk in one feeding, they are actually getting more calories.
So allowing your baby to cluster feed in the evenings may be your ticket to longer stretches at night!
3 – Cluster Feeding is Important for Your Milk Supply
One of the best ways to increase and maintain a healthy milk supply is to allow your baby to breastfeed on demand as often as they need/want.
You cannot overfeed a breastfed baby because they can control the milk flow with how they suck. Even comfort sucking is stimulating your body so that your breasts make more milk.
As a baby grows, their demand for milk grows with them. Cluster feeding will allow them to get the milk intake they need in a 24 hour period while naturally increasing your milk supply to fit their growing body.
Cluster feeding is good for both mom and baby!
How to Survive Cluster Feeding (Especially when Baby is Fussy)
There are certain times in your life when you just need to give into the situation at hand. Cluster feeding is one of those.
Your baby is only small once (I know it annoying to hear that cause it seems silly/neverending when you are living it) and this period of time will be gone in a blink. But also because, as stated above, it is beneficial to both you and your baby.
Try some of these tips:
- Wear your Baby – Invest in a good wrap and learn to breastfeed while wearing it. You can then nurse on the go with your hands free so you can do other things
- Reduce Stimulation – Dim the lights, reduce background noise, swaddle your baby
- Soothe your Baby with Sound – Shushing, humming, singing, etc can help calm baby
- Change Nursing Positions – Try holding your baby in different ways while nursing (football hold, side laying, etc)
- Nurse in Motion – Walk, bounce, rock, or sway while nursing your baby
- Hunker Down – Plant your self on the couch and have Dad bring snacks! Put on a good movie and settle in for some extended cuddles if baby content to just nurse.
Should You Give a Bottle?
One immediate response most parents have to cluster feeding (and fussing) is that their baby must not be getting enough milk and that is why they are fussy and wanting to nurse so much.
Again, as long as your baby is growing, the cause is likely NOT your milk supply.
Cluster feeding is normal and is important for establishing and maintaining a healthy milk supply.
There is no need to give your baby a bottle during this time. Your breasts are never truly empty and your body will continue to make more milk. Trust your body.
Giving a bottle will lead to supply issues as you are not telling your body that your baby is demanding more milk and thus it does not know to produce that amount. You should avoid supplementing unless necessary.
If you are supplementing or have been advised by a doctor or Lactation Consultant to do so, click here to learn how to supplement correctly to rebuild your milk supply.
In the end, cluster feeding is important for your baby and your milk supply. It can be hard to deal with the fussiness and the constant nursing but just know it is completely normal!
Once I realized that my baby’s fussy times and cluster feeding had little to do with my milk supply, I was much more relaxed. It helped ease the entire situation.
I was able to calmly offer the breast each time he wanted it and allowed him to nurse as long as he wanted. Sometimes that meant achieving 3-4 letdowns from one breast in a nursing session rather than juggling him from breast to breast like a hot potato (which was keeping me from achieving multiple letdowns).
My milk never stopped flowing. It would slow and then letdown again after a while.
It was never empty like I had thought at first.
Realizing this has helped me be more confident and not second guess that my body was in some way failing.
Cluster feeding is normal.
It sucks. But it’s normal.
Hang in there!
Have questions, comments, or want to share your experience with Cluster Feeding? Drop me a comment below!
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Heidi O says
Currently cluster feeding my 6 week old baby boy..number 3 after two beautiful girls. Thank you for this encouraging post! ~tired mama soaking in the snuggles
Heather Grace says
Awwww! Congratulations! I wish I could say that it gets easier with each kid but nope. I think we as moms are just more prepared! My 4th baby is just 3 months old and is still cluster feeding occasionally but has grown out of the crying from 5pm-11pm, thank goodness! It’s tough. Hang in there. Solidarity, momma!
Nicole - NursingtheBaby.com says
I love this article! You’ve given seriously good info here. Cluster feeding may be completely normal, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. I personally like the baby-wearing and “hunker down” techniques. (Especially when dad’s bringing snacks!!!) Awesome post!
Heather Grace says
I agree! Dad bringing snacks is the way to go. That and a good Netflix series haha. I am glad you found it helpful!
My 2.5 week old has been cluster feeding and is also fussy around this time. I understand that this is normal but the difficult part is that during theses times she is also fussy at the breast. She is tugging, squirming, and pulling off the nipple without breaking the suction first. I’m afraid that she is going to do damage to my nipples. How can I get her to stop tugging and squirming while breastfeeding?
Heather Grace says
I am so very sorry you are going through this! I know it can be incredibly frustrating. Have you consulted with a Lactation Consultant? Has your baby been evaluated for a Lip or Tongue Tie? This can cause a lot of issues with latching and nursing efficiently as well as issues with gas and colic. Have you tried pumping? How much are you able to pump in a session? Do you have inverted nipples?
My recommendation is if your baby is constantly doing this, I would make an appointment asap with a LC to have them observe you nursing your baby, help you with your latch and positioning, do a weighted feed (where they weigh your baby before and after you nurse to see how many ounces your baby is taking in), check the lip and tongue to ensure no tie, and give you some suggestions to help your baby stay latched.
There are many, many reasons a baby may refuse to latch so it’s just about putting the pieces together. If you are not sure where to start in getting an LC, I would start with calling the hospital you delivered at. They often have Lactation Consultant clinics that you can go to or have one they can refer you to. Otherwise, this article may help in finding one in your area.
Please feel free to email me with any follow-up questions – Contact Me. And also to let us know how you are doing!
Thank you so much for this! This is so helpful and reassuring. Up to what age do they typically cluster feed? Or how long did your baby cluster feed?
Heather Grace says
I would say that cluster feeding is most noticeable for the first several months. After about the 12 weeks mark, your milk is more established. As your baby grows, you will notice they want to nurse more often as they hit growth spurts. But cluster feeding, later on, isn’t as demanding because your baby becomes so much more efficient at breastfeeding. As infants (0-3 months) they can take forever to nurse/drain your breast. It is hard work for them. As your baby gets older, they can drain the breast in 5-10 minutes at times. After about the 3 months mark, all of my babies were able to nurse in less than 10 minutes (I always had a forceful letdown and fast flow).
The key to increasing your supply is to drain the breast often which is the point of cluster feeding. It triggers your body to produce more. But if your baby is draining your breast in less than 10 minutes vs 1 hours (like a newborn at times), you can see how the time they spend cluster feeding is greatly reduced.
As they get older, not a lot changes in what your approach to breastfeeding should be- offer the breast often or whenever they want and let them lead the way. You supply will naturally adjust to their demand. I hope this helps give you hope that there is an end in sight if you have a baby who cluster feeds often! It will get better/easier as they grow!