Just when you thought you finally got the hang of this whole feeding thing, your baby all of a sudden becomes ravenous and desperate for the breast or bottle seemingly 24/7. Don’t worry—a sudden increase in the amount and frequency of newborn feeds, also known as newborn cluster feeding, is totally normal, and it actually serves an important purpose. Cluster feeding a newborn doesn’t last forever, these short feeding spurts happen when newborns are looking for more food.
What is Cluster Feeding?
Clustering feeding is the name for the period of time, typically between three and six weeks after birth, when a newborn baby starts to feed frequently for short spurts over a period of time, explains Dr Régine Brioché, Board Certified Pediatrician and Bobbie Medical Advisor. It can start out of nowhere—one day your baby, who’s been feeding constantly every two or three hours, starts showing signs of hunger multiple times within a single hour.
You may have heard of the “witching hour,” which is an endearing term for the constant crying (not to be confused with colic in babies) that occurs in the late afternoon and early-evening hours of a newborn’s early life. This tends to coincide with cluster feeding, and is often associated with a period of accelerated growth or development, notes Dr. Brioche.
Infant Growth Spurts
Just as every baby is different, so is their cluster-feeding behavior, which means this can start as early as 2-3 days post-birth (when most infants begin regaining their birth weight) and during growth spurts (3 weeks-1 month of age, 3 months of age, and 6 months of age). Lucky for tired new parents, cluster feeding usually comes to an end, lasting an average of 2-3 days, but it very well may reoccur in a week or so.
How often does a newborn eat when cluster feeding?
While newborns are in the thick of cluster feeding, it’s common for them to feed for 10-15 minutes at a time and then rest for a few minutes before resuming feeds. This may last for 2-3 hours in the evening.
Signs of a Cluster Feeding Newborn
Cluster feeding is pretty easy to point out. Here are a few of the key signs that your newborn may be in the thick of cluster feeding:
- They’re showing their usual hunger signs, including mouthing, rubbing their face against your breasts, smacking their lips, or rooting.
- They won’t stop crying until you finally feed them and are not easily soothed with anything but food.
- They want to eat constantly or eat very frequently for short sessions each time.
- When your baby does eat, they take short breaks before resuming their feeds.
- They still have a regular amount of wet and dirty diapers (a minimum of 4).
Why Babies Cluster Feed
There’s no hard-and-fast answer to the question “why do babies cluster feed?” That being said, researchers believe that it is a common occurrence during developmental leaps or growth spurts, when your baby’s energy demands increase significantly. Others believe that cluster feeding may serve to increase a lactating parent’s milk production.
How Frequently Should Newborns Eat?
Newborns (as described from birth to 2 months of age) typically eat for 10-30 minutes every 2-3 hours (8-12 feeds per day), according to Dr. Brioche, and this is primarily due to their limited stomach capacity. “As they get older, their stomachs get larger, and their digestive systems become more efficient, they can consume and absorb more leading to longer stretches between meals,” she says.
During periods of cluster feeding, however, this frequency speeds up significantly to the point where a baby may eat several times in a single hour.
Pros and Cons of Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding is sure to be a challenging time in your life as a parent, but it comes with its own set of pros and cons. Here is a look at some of them.
Pro: Cluster feeding may lead to longer sleep cycles at night.
We bet you’re excited about this one. Yes, your barely-sleeping infant may sleep for longer stretches while she’s cluster feeding. While this is unlikely to occur during the actual period of cluster feeding, if she cluster fed all morning, for example, she may be more fed and less hungry in the nighttime hours, which may make her less likely to wake to feed.
Con: Cluster feeding can happen any time of day.
Just as you’re finally adjusting to your newborn’s feeding schedule, she’s bound to switch things up on you. That’s the trouble with cluster feeding: It’s unpredictable. This can be especially challenging for new parents who are trying to adjust back to work—or just life in general. You may have to spend four hours straight just feeding your baby every 10 or 20 minutes, which can put a damper on any plans you had to work, do laundry or catch up on the day.
Pro: It may help increase your milk supply.
Because cluster feeding increases the amount of milk an infant takes during that period of time, it may stimulate your breasts to actually produce even more milk. It does this by releasing more of the hormone prolactin which is responsible for milk production and let down, Dr. Brioche explains.
Con: It might lead to increased nipple soreness or chaffing
If you’re breastfeeding, you probably remember those early days where your nipples were constantly sore and chapped. Unfortunately, cluster feeding can bring all those memories racing back in the form of reality because your feeding baby is all of a sudden sucking 24/7.
Pro: It may help babies emotionally, metabolically and neurologically regulate.
Anytime a baby is placed on one’s chest, this act helps to sync the baby. It has been shown that skin to skin can help with thermoregulation, it lowers stress hormones, and stabilizes baby’s breathing rate, heart rate, and blood sugar.
Con: It can be exhausting
Taking care of a newborn is tiring—no ifs, ands or buts—but cluster feeding can be even more physically and emotionally taxing. This is especially true if you’re nursing, according to Dr. Brioche. “Making sure one stays hydrated and consumes enough calories to meet your increased metabolic demands is crucial.”
Things to Look Out For When Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding is totally normal and usually no cause for concern; however, if you notice any signs that your baby is not gaining weight or that they aren’t producing at least 4 wet and dirty diapers every 24 hours, it’s a good idea to call your pediatrician to rule out anything more serious.
How to Practice Self-Care With a Cluster Feeding Baby
Cluster feeding makes an already-challenging time in your life even more challenging, so it’s important to prioritize a little self care. A great way to do this is to enlist help, whether it’s your spouse, family, friends or a hired childcare provider. “Family and friends can help bring fluids and food, get chores done, and allow you to rest when you are not feeding your infant,” says Dr. Brioche.
While you’re actually feeding, try to find a comfortable spot and position having fluids nearby so you don’t have to worry about getting up. It’s also OK to have distractions while you’re feeding your baby, whether it’s TV, speaking on the phone with a family member/friend, or simply scrolling through your Instagram feed.
As hard as it is, try your best to rest whenever your baby does give you a break. Some days that might be the mornings and other days it may be the evening hours. Dr. Brioche also recommends that nursing mothers try to learn how to nurse their baby in a carrier so they’re not stuck in one area of the home for a significant period of time.
Should parents consider supplementing with formula?
“Supplementing with formula is an option when a lactating parent is feeling exhausted, frustrated or just needs a break during the period of clustering feeding,” says Dr. Brioche. “It can be very draining on an individual’s body so having an opportunity for someone else to feed the baby may be helpful.”
How long does cluster feeding last for newborns?
The most common time period for cluster feeding to last is about 2-3 days.
How can I help my newborn with cluster feeding?
Just as it’s important to make sure you’re comfortable and relaxed while cluster feeding, consider how your baby is positioned. This is especially important when breastfeeding, as an improper latch can cause babies to have excess gas and tummy troubles that can lead to spit ups.
Can you overfeed a newborn?
Yes, it is possible to overfeed a newborn, especially when they are bottle fed, according to Dr. Brioche. “Since it is generally easier to eat from a bottle, babies can intake more volume quickly.”
Can you overfeed a breastfed baby?
If you’re nursing, one perk is that it’s far less likely that you’ll overfeed your baby. “Babies have a self-regulation system that usually tells them to eat when they’re hungry, and to stop when they’re full; however babies also like to suck for comfort,” says Dr. Brioche. “Sometimes after a feed, the infant will remain latched to the breast and they continue to receive breast milk, which can lead to stomach discomfort, distention and spit ups.”
Can a pacifier help with cluster feeding?
If you’re already using a pacifier, you know how much of a saint these tiny devices can be. This is especially true during cluster-feeding periods. Not only can they help soothe a fussy baby, but it can help parents distinguish between cluster feeding and comfort. “If a child is truly in need of comfort, pacifiers are helpful at giving parents a break,” says Dr. Brioche. “If the infant is hungry, they would routinely spit the pacifier out.”