Sometimes, the only thing your newborn baby wants to do is eat. Well, eat and fuss. Maybe a few diapers here and there, but mostly just eat and fuss on endless repeat.
Cluster feeding, or bunch feeding, is normal—and it’s not a health problem. With cluster feeding, the baby clusters his feedings together instead of spreading them out like usual. He may nurse several times an hour, or even near-constantly, and this can last for hours.
But it won’t last forever. Not this cluster, and not this phase. And cluster feeding doesn’t mean something is wrong with your baby—or with you.
(If you do think something is wrong with your baby, trust your instincts and call your pediatrician.)
Cluster feeding: An exhausting/exasperating but common phenomenon
Cluster feeding is most common in the late afternoon and evening, and it can be an extremely frustrating way to end a long day. You may feel like you’ll never have a peaceful night again. You might feel trapped under a grouchy, hungry baby.
Maybe this happens occasionally. Or maybe this is just your life right now, and every evening is the standard eat-and-fuss-and-eat routine.
But I promise, it’s temporary.
When will cluster feeding end?
Newborn cluster feeding usually starts around 3 or 6 weeks after birth—classic times for some of the biggest growth spurts of the first year. It may continue on and off from the first month until the baby hits about 3 (or sometimes 4) months.
That might seem like it is forever. So meanwhile, keep in mind that cluster feeding can actually help your baby sleep longer (once she finally stops eating). Because she ate so much all evening, she might not need as much afterwards. You might have a tough evening, but it might be followed by longer stretches of actual rest.
Can you stop your baby from cluster feeding?
Unfortunately, you can’t set your baby on a different track. If this is what baby needs, this is what baby will demand.
Speaking of demand, It’s important to feed your baby on demand. (Even if breastmilk demand is far outpacing mama’s patience supply.) This is the best way to establish a sufficient milk supply and to make sure your baby is healthy and satisfied. So whenever she shows hunger signals—rooting, sucking on her hand, opening and closing her mouth—give her the breast.
Why do babies cluster feed?
There are a lot of theories, and if you add them all together, you can get a pretty clear picture of how your baby feels in the evenings. He’s really just doing the best he can to help you meet his needs.
Milk volume is lower at night (maybe)
Hormones fluctuate throughout the day, and hormones control milk production. Some health professionals believe milk production is lower during the evening, based on the evening flow of hormones. That means your baby has to work harder to get enough milk.
Other experts say that milk production stays stable. Plus, the Australian Breastfeeding Association explains, fat and calorie content in the breastmilk is higher when the breasts have less milk (although they’re never fully empty). So even if your milk production is lower, it should even out and satisfy your baby’s tummy sufficiently.
So why is he fussing? Four more possible reasons…
Babies suck for comfort
Sometimes, babies just need extra soothing. We’re not sure why this happens in the evening, specifically, but cluster feeding is a good way to get extra snuggles, skin-to-skin contact, and comfort. This could be another reason why babies sometimes sleep better after cluster feeding.
Frequent feeding increases milk supply
If your baby eats all evening, it signals to your breasts that they need to create a lot of milk overnight. That way, when your baby wakes up hungry, your body is ready to keep up with his nutritional needs all day.
Overstimulation leads to crankiness
If your baby had a big day, he might be overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of it. His nervous system is immature at this stage, and it’s harder for him to handle stimuli.
If he’s feeling dazed and cranky, he might need extra help calming down and feeling settled.
Your stress level sets a mood
If you’re trying to get a lot done in the evening—cook dinner, put other kids to bed, do a little housework, take advantage of the time with your spouse—then your stress level could affect your baby, who picks up on more than you might think.
Things that don’t cause cluster feedings, i.e., things you shouldn’t worry about
Breastfeeding moms tend to worry whether breastfeeding itself is the culprit, and maybe they should switch to formula to get some peace and quiet. Or they worry that they have a low supply of breastmilk and aren’t making enough to satisfy their ravenous babies.
There’s no need to worry—or to make a big change! This section may provide some comfort. (You certainly deserve some, you’ve been giving your little one plenty.)
Formula-fed babies often do the same thing as breastfed babies: eat frequently and fuss all evening. It’s not a disadvantage of breastfeeding, it’s just a fact of infancy.
Low milk supply
Many moms wonder if cluster feeding signals that their baby isn’t getting enough milk. It actually works the other way around; cluster feeding is exactly how the baby makes sure there is enough milk. More breastfeeding = more breastmilk.
Of course, it’s possible you have a low supply apart from this, but cluster feeding isn’t a sign of low production. Consult your IBCLC-certified lactation consultant or your pediatrician if you’re not sure.
(And if you're worried, keep an eye out for warning signs of low supply: your baby makes fewer wet diapers than usual, or he gains less weight than expected. If you notice these signs, ask your healthcare provider for medical advice.)
Meanwhile, don’t turn to bottle-feeding with formula. This will go the opposite direction and decrease your breastmilk supply. Then you can’t keep up with your baby’s needs after all.
In the same way, don't use a pacifier to redirect your baby during cluster feedings. If he's showing hunger signs, he needs to eat (yes, even if he just ate). Your milk production keeps up with his eating.
Ultimately, cluster feeding is actually a sign that your baby is growing and developing. Don’t be discouraged.
What's the difference between cluster feeding and colic?
Cluster feeders and colicky babies both cry a lot, but the baby with colic cries nearly constantly for hours, rather than switching between crying and eating. And it's more of a loud yelling than a general fussing.
Colic also tends to last longer - at least 3 days a week for at least 3 weeks.
How to soothe your hangry baby (and yourself)
Although you may have to live with cluster feeding sessions for a while longer, you might be able to help your baby feel less fussy during the cluster period.
Whether you're new parents or this is your 7th child, the fussiness and endlessness of cluster feeding can be overwhelming. So don't forget to take care of your needs, too, and find ways to cope with the situation.
In case your fussy baby is feeling overstimulated, keep the room dim and quiet, or use some soothing white noise. You could also try a warm bath.
(Try to) relax
It may seem impossible, but test out ways to lower your stress level. Trim your to-do list or rip it up, and give yourself permission (as far as possible) to do nothing but sit and relax while baby nurses. Sit in your comfiest chair. Turn on your favorite TV show (on low). Breathe.
Give your baby permission, too. It’s easy to start to feel frustrated or even bitter toward him, but your baby is just following his instincts to get what he needs. Try to accept this phase as a temporary part of your life.
And keep reminding yourself that your baby WILL sleep. Eventually.
Ask for help
If you have a partner, older kids, or anyone else living with you who might be willing to help, ask for help. If your mom could make dinner, your husband could put the kids to bed, or your 9-year-old could get you a glass of water, that leaves you free to sit and breastfeed without stressing about everything else.
Wear your baby
Some babies squirm and yell when you put them in a baby carrier, but many will find it comforting and snuggly. Worth a try. Even if she doesn’t like it normally, she may like it during the cluster feeding time, when she needs extra comfort.
Keep yourself fed and hydrated
Keep one-handed snacks and plenty of hydration on a side table right next to the chair where you breastfeed (which should be as comfortable as possible!). A breastfeeding supplement may help you feel healthier, calmer, and more energetic, too.
The bottom line about cluster feeding
Cluster feeding can be massively frustrating and exhausting, but it’s not a medical problem, just a normal baby procedure. If you’re feeding your baby on demand, and trying to make space in your life for your baby’s cluster-feeding schedule, then you’re doing everything right.
It really, honestly won’t last forever.