What Is Cluster Feeding? The Baby-Feeding Stage No One Talks About
Editor's note: We at POPSUGAR recognize that people of many genders and identities lactate, not just those who are women or mothers. For this particular story, we interviewed sources who sometimes referred to people who lactate as women or mothers.
Of the many, many things people never seem to tell you about parenthood, cluster feeding is at the top of the list. People talk about feeding an infant as though it's something that happens on a strict schedule — every few hours, draining to be sure but nothing too unmanageable. They rarely tell you about cluster feeding.
"Cluster feeding is a term used for natural periods of time when your newborn wants to feed frequently in a few hours and often for many short bursts," Jenelle Ferry, MD, director of feeding, nutrition, and infant development at Pediatrix Neonatology of Florida, says. It can happen with babies who are breastfed, formula fed, or both.
If that sounds exhausting, it's because it can be. But cluster feeding in newborns and older babies is normal — and even has benefits. "Cluster feeding helps mothers to increase their breast-milk supplies to keep up with their babies' nutritional needs," says Jessica Madden, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), and medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps.
Here's more about what cluster feeding is, when to expect it, and how to handle it without reaching a state of baby-feeding burnout.
What Is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding is a period of more frequent feedings. "Most newborns and young infants breastfeed about every two to three hours, but during cluster feeding, they might have several feeds in a row with only about an hour in between each feed," Dr. Madden says.
Cluster feeding is a normal part of lactation, which relies on supply and demand. The baby "demands" food, and the lactating person's body learns to "supply" it based on the little one's feedback about their needs.
"[Cluster feeding] is a natural mechanism for the baby to communicate needs for milk supply to mom's body," Dr. Ferry says. "These frequent feedings send a message to maternal feedback pathways that lead to an increase in mom's milk supply."
But again, it can happen with formula-fed babies as well, since it's a hardwired mechanism in babies. "Formula-fed babies can also cluster feed during growth spurts," Dr. Ferry says. "Since the supply situation is a bit different, this often isn't quite as pronounced as with breastfeeding. Often with formula feeding, the infant will start to eat more formula at each feeding."
What Are Typical Cluster-Feeding Ages?
Cluster feeding in newborns is common, but it can happen throughout an infant's first few years of life.
"There is typically a growth spurt on baby's second day of life, and babies cluster feed to encourage breast-milk production," Demi Lucas, an IBCLC with The Lactation Network, says. "Other common times for growth spurts are week one, 2 to 3 weeks old, 6 weeks old, 8 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months."
Lucas notes that these ages also typically coincide with growth spurts when babies demand more milk (or formula) to support their rapid development.
How Long Does Cluster Feeding Last?
In the moment, cluster feeding can feel like an endless cycle of putting a baby down only to pick them up to feed again. But there's good news: it usually only lasts about two to three days, Lucas says, "then babies resume their typical feeding patterns."
Lucas also says it's common for cluster feeding to happen at the same time each day. "[Cluster feeding] often happens in the late afternoon or evening," Lucas says. Dr. Ferry says cluster-feeding periods typically last "a few" hours. But if it's happening all day, every day, it may be a sign of a problem.
"If cluster feeding is lasting more than a couple of days, it is a good idea to talk to a lactation consultant and the baby's physician to see if there's another issue that needs to be addressed," Dr. Ferry says.
What's the Difference Between Cluster Feeding and Inefficient Feeding?
Lucas emphasizes that cluster feeding is normal and doesn't mean your baby isn't feeding efficiently. But the constant feeding can get stressful and cause parents to question whether the infant is getting enough. "Not being able to quantify how much milk a baby transfers during a breastfeed adds to this concern," she adds.
If there's concern, Dr. Ferry says that parents and their support teams, including pediatricians and lactation consultants, can look for key indicators to evaluate efficient feedings. Dr. Ferry says that signs a baby is feeding efficiently include the following.
- Contentment between feedings
- Having wet and dirty diapers — at least six pees and one poop per day
- Gaining weight according to their curve
Additionally, Lucas says that cluster feeding should stop after about two to three days — if a period of cluster feeding goes on for longer, it may be a sign that the baby is having trouble getting enough food.
Reasons for inefficient feeding vary, and it's not always the lactating person's supply. Hormonal issues or past surgeries can affect milk production. But Dr. Ferry says poor latches and oral restrictions or "ties" can also prevent a baby from taking in enough milk to sustain themselves. If the parent is breastfeeding, the apparent lack of "demand" caused by the baby not taking in much milk can then decrease supply as well.
That's why support is crucial to ensure the baby is fed, the milk supply is protected, and families meet their feeding goals — whatever they are.
Both Dr. Ferry and Lucas suggest setting up a meeting with a lactation consultant (like with an IBCLC) to talk through any concerns. They'll be able to determine if a baby is having a feeding problem and, if so, what's the root cause and how it can be treated. You can find a consultant through your pediatrician, local social media groups, or websites like The Lactation Network.
Consultants can be pricey but are covered by some health insurances. You can also look for group classes or support groups, which are often lower cost or even free (but may not be able to help you diagnose specific problems).
How to Stop Cluster Feeding
Cluster feeding isn't something you need to stop, really — the baby will naturally grow out of the cycle within a few days. "It's the way that our bodies increase the amount of breast milk we make for our babies, so it's not something that can be prevented, stopped, or controlled," Dr. Madden says. "We need to look at it not as a problem but as a normal part of our breastfeeding journeys."
That said, cluster feeding can be overwhelming, and if a parent is struggling to keep up, that is completely valid and should be addressed. "The decision as to how to handle cluster feeding needs to be individualized," Dr. Madden adds. "If your goal is to exclusively breastfeed and your baby is well nourished with good weight gain, then during cluster feeding, you should plan to breastfeed very frequently."
Similarly, exclusive-pumping parents will need to pump more frequently during periods of cluster feeding — once for every feed. "You might want to consider power pumping once per day to simulate cluster feeding," Dr. Madden says. Power pumping involves pumping for 15 to 20 minutes, waiting 10 minutes, then pumping again for 10 minutes. Repeat that one more time. Even if no milk comes out, it's stimulating the breasts as a baby would.
But the fact is that not every parent will be able to keep up with cluster-feeding phases, and it's not reasonable to expect them to. Sometimes, supplementing with your own milk, donor milk, formula, or a combination is necessary. "If you've been struggling with a low breast-milk supply, having an infant with an inefficient latch, significant pain while breastfeeding, and/or your baby has not been gaining enough weight, you might need to temporarily supplement with pumped milk, donor breast milk, or infant formula during periods of cluster feeding," Dr. Madden says.
A physician or lactation consultant can help you figure out a plan for supplementing and can walk you through how it might affect how you'll feed your baby in the future.
How to Support a Lactating Person During Cluster Feeding
"Cluster feeding can be exhausting for everyone in the household and can leave anyone else taking care of the baby who doesn't have a natural milk source feeling a little helpless," Dr. Ferry says. But nonlactating partners play a critical role, too.
"The nonlactating parent can support their partner by aiding in the other tasks that come with infant care," Lucas says. "Diaper changes, soothing the baby, bathing, baby wearing when the lactating parent isn't feeding, and providing snacks, meals, and water is immensely helpful."
The nonlactating person can also help the lactating person get some much-needed sleep. If supplementing is necessary, the nonlactating partner can take those feeds so the lactating person can pump or rest. They can also take the lead on finding a lactation consultant and setting up an appointment if the support is needed, Lucas suggests.
Taking care of a baby is exhausting, and it often requires a village. So try to get help when you need it, and know that the most difficult periods won't last forever.