What is it and is it normal?
By Emma Biggar, IBCLCLast updated 5th September 2019
In a nutshell, cluster feeding is just a period of frequent feeding. It commonly occurs in the evening or early hours of the morning. Your baby may want to remain attached to the breast for several hours or frequently appear to request another feed despite finishing the last feed perhaps only 20 minutes ago. It can often, but not always, be accompanied by a long stretch of sleep.
As an example, your baby may request a feed every hour between 6pm and 11pm every evening followed by a four to six hour stretch of sleep.
There are stages during normal development where it appears to be more likely this pattern of feeding tends to emerge such as in the newborn period or at six weeks and again at four months, but really, it can happen at any time as your infant grows. Some babies might only do it in the newborn period. Some might do it periodically such as during times of increased growth and development or illness and others might always have a time each day when they cluster feed right the way through until they wean. Cluster feeding generally appears to occur along side your babies fussy period.
This marathon feeding may undermine your confidence in your parenting or milk supply. It is common for mothers to become concerned that this is an indication of insufficient/low milk supply or that there is something wrong with their breastmilk. Sometimes mums worry it is happening because they are "out of milk", especially if their breasts are feeling softer, which is normally the case later in the day compared to the morning.
There are times when frequent feeding can be a sign of breastfeeding challenges but for the majority of normal, healthy mothers and babies, cluster feeding is a common and normal experience. It is not usually a sign of low or poor quality breastmilk. In fact your breasts are never truly empty no matter how long or vigorous your baby breastfeeds. At most, only two thirds of milk is ever removed at any one time. Plus you are always making milk, even while you are feeding.
There are several theories as to why it occurs. Sometimes babies can have a strong desire to suck and cluster feeding or long feeding sessions can provide just that comfort. The fat concentration in the milk is generally higher later in the day continuing to provide the necessary calories your baby needs, even if the volume or speed of the flow is lower. Sometimes the slower flow can frustrate our babies. They know what they want and they want it now. Another theory is that it is a way to boost and maintain your milk supply, a bit like putting in an order for tomorrow's milk.
Sometimes they are tired but haven't yet learnt what this sensation means. Their instincts tell them that cuddling up close to mum with a breastfeed is the best place to be and so cue for a feed as an attempt to resolve that uncomfortable feeling of being tired. Sometimes feeding while standing, rocking/bouncing or trying other settling techniques can help. Biologically, the hormones that regulate your own circadian rhythm have also been found in breastmilk. The hormones that are higher in the evening to help you wind down for bed are also higher in your milk and so will aid in regulating your infants day/night cycle. It makes sense that regular feeds in the evening would then be followed by a longer stretch of sleep.
Interestingly, studies looking at the feeding practices in traditional societies where babies are carried all day and breastfed several times each hour have reported that these babies don't appear to display this later in the day fussy period. For many babies, this fussy time is likely due to the babies need to have small but frequent quantities of milk in addition to lots of closeness through holding, cuddling and movement. Even bottle fed babies can display this exact same behaviour where the baby takes a small amount of milk, has a snooze, cues for another feed and repeat.
Whatever the cause, it is not uncommon for mums to report feeling exhausted and touched out. On the other hand, some mums relish the opportunity to sit down and be excused from other responsibilities while they tend to the baby. It can be helpful if you and your partner can plan ahead to work together to manage this period. Perhaps your partner takes on preparing meals or caring for the other children during this time. Perhaps you could cook meals ahead of time so that you are not trying to split your attention between meeting yours and your babies needs.
when to worry:
- if your baby appears miserable much of the day outside of this fussy period
- low weight gains leading to dropping down percentiles on the growth chart
- not enough wet and dirty nappies
Emma Biggar is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Registered Nurse and mother of three. Emma provides in-home breastfeeding and early parenting support to families in the Eastern and South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Click here to read more about the types of services available or here to visit the online booking page. Contact Emma by email here or visit her website or Facebook page.