What is cluster feeding
Cluster feeding, also called bunch feeding, is the kind of feeding when infants feed frequently in short intervals of time at certain times of the day or night and then go longer between feeds at other times. This usually happens in the evenings, and is in fact, very common.
While some babies, do sleep longer after cluster feeding, some don’t. As an example, if you cluster feed your baby every half an hour between 7 PM to 9 PM in the evenings, they may sleep for longer hours, during the night, or even through the night!
Why does cluster feeding occur?
Experts believe that cluster feeding is a way of boosting breast milk production, though the exact reasons why it occurs is still a mystery. Since the baby’s stomach is growing rapidly during the first few months of its life, the mother’s body needs to produce enough milk to meet this higher demand, and cluster feeding may be nature’s way of producing higher milk.
The other reason why cluster feeding may occur is that it may be the baby’s way of filling up its stomach before sleeping longer, through the night. That is why cluster feeding occurs is more common in the evenings.
Coincidently, cluster feeding usually occurs during the baby’s fussy time, which means that mothers often worry if they are producing enough breast milk or is it something else, may be something the mother ate, which is causing the baby to the fussy! In reality, it is nothing to worry about at all.
So there is cluster feeding which can be baby initiated due to the following reasons
- Growth spurt
- Development leap
It can be mom initiated due to the following reasons
- Build up milk supply
- Helps baby sleep for longer intervals
Cluster feeding is absolutely normal
Cluster feeding often causes loads of worry and anxiety in mothers - whether their breast milk is enough at all, or whether their milk needs to be supplemented. Experts say that cluster feeding is an absolutely normal phenomenon and it has nothing to do with the lack of milk.
If a baby is happy through the day and is not suffering from colic, just soothing the baby and letting the baby nurse as long as he/she wants is the key to counter cluster feeding. Some babies may pull on and off the breast, some may cry and fuss in between feeds, while some may just cluster feed peacefully. All this is normal and one should not get too worried about it.
Is my supply of milk less?
One of the biggest concerns mothers have is whether their breast milk is adequate to satisfy their baby’s needs or should they start off with formula feeds. Most experts are of the opinion that do not give formula to the baby because this supplement will only result in your body producing lesser milk.
Most babies do tend to be fussy in the evenings, even formula fed ones. So just starting off with formula is not the right way to tackle cluster feeding.
One of the easiest ways to reassure yourself is to check the number of wet diapers your baby has in a day. If the baby has four to five very wet diapers and three to five poop diapers a day, then your breastmilk is more than adequate for your baby.
What are the experts saying?
Most lactation experts believe that cluster feeding is just a phase and is nature’s way of letting the baby and mom decide how much milk is enough for the baby.
Dr. Jennifer Lincoln who is a lactation consultant quotes in the website CafeMom that
When babies are going through a growth spurt, they require more milk. In order to communicate this to their mother, they cluster feed. This tells the breasts that more milk is needed, and within a few days, voila: production increases and baby gets exactly what he asked for!
Dr. David Hill, a fellow of the American Academy of Paediatrics and author of the book Dad to Dad: Parenting like a Pro, mentions in the Momtastic website that
Cluster feeding can pop up at various times in an infant’s first six months of life, but often the first time occurs shortly after birth. These feeds stimulate the breasts to make more milk, and they can be an important part of ensuring good milk production. Other common times for cluster feeding to occur, due to development, include when a baby is 10 to 12 days old and then again at three months old. By the time the infant is 4 to 6 months old, cluster feeds are usually over.
Fussiness and cluster feeding
Some people believe that a baby fusses in the evenings because the milk volumes tend to be lower in the evenings due to nature’s hormonal cycles. However, experts say that milk volume is really not low in the evening. Even if it is low, the fat content which satisfies the baby’s hunger is much higher so the baby does get sufficient calories.
Pediatricians suggest that a baby is usually fussy in the evenings because the baby’s nervous system is still immature and this fussiness stage usually ends by the time the baby is 3 to 4 months old. Research shows that a baby’s fussiness can be overcome by feeding small quantities of milk at regular intervals, cuddling the baby, carrying the baby around and moving with the baby. This frequent need for feeding often results in cluster feeding. Hence, usually cluster feeding occurs in the evenings and when the babies tend to be fussier.
How to handle cluster feeding
There are many ways you can overcome the tiredness and the anxiety caused due to cluster feeding.
- Wear the baby in a sling which means the baby can touch and feel your body warmth all the time, giving him/her a sense of security.
- Drink enough water and be well fed so that you can feed the baby whenever he/she asks for milk.
- Sleep when the baby sleeps to give you enough strength to tackle cluster feeding.
- Get support whether it is your spouse, parents, or anyone else who can handle the baby for a while.
- Let the baby feed as long as he/she wants. Don’t fight it out. Cluster feeding stops eventually.
- Use a nursing pillow. It makes life much easier.
- Keep yourself busy while the baby feeds regularly, like read a book or listen to some soothing music or chat with someone on the phone.
Check out Cloudmom’s video where she talks about Cluster feeding and how to tackle it.
Another mom gives tips to survive cluster feeding.
Try and express your milk and see if your baby would have that. While cluster feeding is often related to your baby wanting your warmth and that feeling of security, pumping milk and feeding to the baby via a bottle may help give some respite to the whole cluster feeding scenario. Breastmilk can be pumped and stored for up to three months in a freezer and often pumping milk and storing it makes it easy to feed the baby.
All you have to do when the baby demands milk is to remove the milk and use a good quality bottle warmer to warm the milk and feed your little one. This makes it easy for the mom to even take their babies out even if it is feed time or just take a break from cluster feeding.
When does cluster feeding really stop
Of course, the most pertinent question for every mom is – when will this really stop?
Usually, babies start to cluster feed by 6-8 weeks, as their growth spurts, but most of them outgrow it by the time they are 4 months old. Some experts believe it usually lasts up to 6 months, depending on the baby’s growth spurts, but apart from few days of occasional cluster feeds, most babies adjust to a schedule by the time they are 6 months. Some babies are known to cluster feed even in the late afternoons or evenings, but usually, most of them do have a longer sleep after they cluster feed.
Cluster feeding can often be the cause of concern and anxiety to new mothers. Often mothers lose their confidence and succumb to formula feed for their babies. But the key point to remember is that it will not last forever. Cluster feeding stops by the time the baby is 4 months old.
The best way to dealing with cluster feeding is to be patient, find some support in form of a spouse or parents and keep looking for cues from the baby, who will definitely indicate his or her choice.
Do not get upset if your baby is fussy. That is how babies grow!
Do you have any stories to share about cluster feeding with our readers, do let us know in the comments section and tell us how you dealt with it?