What is Cluster Feeding? Learn More About Nursing a Newborn

A man in a dark grey sweater is holding a baby in his arms while bottle feeding him.

As soon as our babies are born, most of us realize we have no idea what taking care of a newborn actually looks like. Then, we start getting used to the new dynamics and finally develop some routines. BUT THEN our babies flip everything around, and it no longer seems like the so-called “routine” is working for them.

A common culprit of this disruption is newborn cluster feeding.

As if learning how to parent wasn’t hard enough, when babies start cluster feeding, it can feel like we have no clue what we’re doing. Our previous successes with feeding schedules and patterns suddenly feel less impressive. 

But are you doing something wrong, or is this another mystical milestone many of us have never heard of?

Are cluster feeds a rite of passage all new parents must endure?

Not necessarily, but many do.

Cluster feeding is basically a baby’s sudden desire for frequent feedings, usually during the late afternoons and early evenings. When your little one is going through this super fun period, you might have an extra fussy baby on your hands.

But is it a practice that needs management? Is it something your baby will grow out of?

Before you get overwhelmed or assume your newborn has a bottomless belly, why not learn more about what happens during a baby’s cluster? Read on for helpful information about cluster feeding signs, reasons why they do it, and, most importantly, tips for surviving cluster feeding!

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What is Cluster Feeding?

Any newborn baby is going to want to eat a lot; there’s no real way around it. A breastfed baby, for instance, will usually eat 8-12 times during a 24-hour period.

There’s a difference, however, between regular feedings and cluster feedings.

Typically, babies eat every few hours. However, when a little one starts to cluster, they will seem insatiable. Instead of waiting 2-3 hours to eat again, they might act like they’re starving after 30 minutes or an hour.

Your baby’s cluster can start anytime, but they’re most common around three weeks and then again around six weeks

While this might feel frustrating to you and your partner, it’s important to remember that it’s perfectly normal behavior

Want to know why your newborn is cluster feeding? There are several possible reasons:

1. Support for Mom’s Milk Supply

Are you trying to figure out how to increase your milk supply? It might surprise you to learn that cluster feeding is a great option, especially during the early weeks after birth.

The more your baby nurses, the faster your milk will come in. Extra feeds also provide a boost in the amount of milk you produce. It also lets you and your little one work on latching and breastfeeding holds to get comfortable with this new experience. 

Another interesting breast milk fact! Our milk is usually fattier at night. When your baby is cluster feeding during the evening, the higher fat content helps satisfy their needs so they can sleep longer. 

Cluster Feeding & Milk Supply: Are You NOT Making Enough Milk?

I was the first woman in my close family unit to breastfeed her baby, so needless to say, there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty about the practice. 

My mom and I often argued because she was convinced my daughter’s constant need to feed in the evening was due to low milk supply. Rest assured, my fellow breastfeeding mamas, this is not the case!

If your newborn is cluster feeding, this does not mean you’re not making enough milk!

You’re good if you notice signs your baby is well-fed and getting enough breast milk! These include:

  • Weight Gain
  • Meeting Developmental Milestones
  • Wet Diapers
  • Regular Bowel Movements
  • Appearing Alert During Waking Hours

2. Growth Spurts

During their first year of life, most of our babies will experience four major growth spurts: at 2-3 weeks old, six weeks, three months, and six months. 

As they pack on the pounds, they’ll want to ensure they’re getting enough calories, too. To achieve this, we may see an increase in cluster feeding sessions.

3. Self-Soothing

All the developing babies do during growth spurts can be difficult to handle. That’s why many start getting fussier than normal. 

Some seek comfort from us by nursing more than usual. 

Breastfeeding is not just a food source for our babies; it can also be an excellent comfort technique. The sucking action is known to produce a hormone called cholecystokinin. This hormone provides a sleepy, relaxing feeling babies love. 

4. Teething or Illness

When teething starts or infants get a cold, you might notice an increased interest in feeding. This is usually because, once again, teething provides them with the extra closeness they long for when they don’t feel good. 

Note: If your baby is teething, it could temporarily affect how they nurse. You might notice trouble with their latch because of swollen gums or even some biting as they try to comfort themselves. 

Do Babies Cluster Feed if They Drink Formula? 

When discussing cluster feeding babies, many assume it’s strictly a “breastfeeding phenomenon.” 

On the contrary, though, formula-fed babies can experience this, too. 

Remember not to overfeed your little one, though, as formula takes longer to digest than breast milk. Look for signs of a full tummy, such as splayed fingers or toes, turning away from the bottle, or milk spilling out of their mouths. 

A woman is sitting against the headboard of a bed. She has her eyes closed and her right hand on her temple while she is nursing a baby.
Does it suddenly seem like your baby is always hungry? They might be dealing with newborn cluster feeding! Read on to learn more about what’s going on!

Signs Your Baby is Cluster Feeding

To answer the question, “What is cluster feeding?” it’s essential to identify what this process looks like. 

For starters, cluster feeding doesn’t usually happen all day. Often, you’ll notice newborns starting their cluster during the late afternoon or early evening hours.

Another way to identify cluster feeds is to watch your baby’s hunger cues

In most cluster feeding circumstances, your baby will act hungry more frequently but doesn’t seem uncomfortable like they might with other conditions, such as Colic. You might notice your baby sucking on their hand, moving their head to look for your breast, or opening and closing their mouth.

During a baby’s cluster, they might also eat more times than average, but for shorter periods

Managing Your Nightly Cluster Feeds (Should You Worry About this Behavior?)

During our eldest’s first cluster, my automatic instinct was to assume there was a problem. She wasn’t getting enough milk, she was sick, she wasn’t comfortable during feeds…my list of concerns went on and on.

I contacted a lactation consultant and described the behavior. That was the first time I heard the phrase “cluster feeding.’

She comforted me by explaining that this was a natural and normal process for many babies. That said, though; she also warned me it could be a bit challenging for us parents.

Right she was.

While I was happy to help our little one through this experience, the nonstop nursing was grating on my nerves. It felt like my nipples were no longer mine but belonged to our ravenous baby instead.

Don’t feel bad if you have a hard time dealing with cluster feeds. This experience can be a challenge and might feel like a negative effect of breastfeeding for moms

Before you get completely stressed out, however, why not try some of these simple tips and tricks:

1. Use a Baby Carrier During Cluster Feeds

One of the things I had the most challenging time with during clusters was the feeling that I couldn’t get anything done. I was trapped on the couch for hours while our baby filled her belly.

If this sounds familiar, you can put your newborn in a baby carrier during their cluster periods. This way, you can keep your little one close for feeds while still getting light chores done around the house. Want to know more? Check out our tips for babywearing a newborn.

Some of our favorite baby carriers for breastfeeding moms include:

2. Create a Breastfeeding Station

When you’re stuck in the same spot for several hours while your newborn cluster feeds, you might as well make it comfortable, right?

By creating a breastfeeding area in your home, you can carve out a space to relax during your baby’s cluster each afternoon or evening. You can include items like nursing supplies, breastfeeding snacks, a remote control, earbuds, and a water bottle

Bonus points for setting up your nursing area in a spot that’s close to a plug for optimal charging potential!

3. Plan Ahead

Are you starting to notice cluster feeding patterns with your baby? Try to plan ahead! If you know your little one likes to cluster between 5 and 7 pm, for instance, take steps to get things ready ahead of time.

Do some early meal prepping, help older children with homework, and charge your phone so that you can do some “Netflix and Nursing.” If you’re a big reader, make sure you have a book downloaded and your Kindle handy!

Planning ahead will let you relax during your newborn’s cluster feed, so you’re not thinking about the other things you need to do.

4. Tag Team With Your Partner or Another Support Person

Okay, you’ve finished feed #1, and you know you have 30 minutes before the hunger cues start again. This is absolutely when you should hand off your baby to someone else. Give yourself a moment so you don’t end up feeling too stressed and touched out

5. Know When to Ask for Help

As I said, there’s nothing problematic about cluster feeding babies; it’s a natural part of being a newborn. Despite that, though, we parents can’t help feeling nervous from time to time.

If you’re concerned about your baby’s eating habits, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor or lactation consultant. 

They can help you evaluate their cluster feeding patterns and determine whether something else is going on.

A woman in light grey pajamas is laying on a bed sleeping. A baby is laying next to her and she has her hand on his belly.
If you feel like your baby is ALWAYS hungry, you might be dealing with cluster feeding. Read on to learn more!

Do Newborns Stop Cluster Feeding On Their Own?

So, we know what it is, why it happens, and what we can do to manage the cluster feeding process. Now for the big question: how long will this milestone last?

Not to worry! Most of the time, cluster feeding only lasts a few days

However, if your baby is clustering for a week or more, it might be time to call their pediatrician. This could indicate a more significant issue. 

Your Baby’s Cluster is a Normal Part of Being a Newborn

I wouldn’t say that cluster feeding is my favorite part of parenthood. It is, however, a common occurrence for many of us new parents.

Whether they’re teething, growing, or just looking for extra mama love, this change in your baby’s schedule is not usually anything to concern yourself with. Just do what you can to manage the experience, and remember that it won’t last forever! Use it as a perfect excuse to squeeze in an extra baby cuddle or two!

Did your doctor mention cluster feeding and newborns during your early days of parenthood? How are you handling this stage?

For more great information and suggestions about feeding your newborn, check out the articles below: