Written by: Cally Worden
A young baby will normally breastfeed every 2-3 hours. Cluster feeding is the name given to a group of feeds that are spaced very closely together, often as frequently as every half an hour. The result is an on-off feeding session that can last several hours. Cluster feeding can occur at any time of the day or night but seems to happen more often in the evening. Babies exhibiting the behaviour can be quite irritable and needy.
What Causes It?
Cluster feeding occurs more commonly in newborn and very young babies. Many mothers who experience it are concerned it may mean they are not producing enough breast milk, but this is not thought to be the issue in most cases. Experts have not identified any single cause of cluster feeding, but a variety of factors which may lead to the behaviour, as suggested below:
- Evening breast milk is often less rich and plentiful than that which is produced earlier in the day. As a result demand tends to increase as night falls.
- Daytime feeding routines in young babies often follow a pattern of eat:sleep:eat:sleep and so on. Extra night time nursing can be way for them to catch up on any feeding they missed because of too much snoozing during the day.
- Some babies just adore the closeness that feeding brings and may be more clingy and needy at feeding time in general.
- Just as giving a baby a dummy can soothe those who have a strong sucking reflex, nursing can provide these babies with the comfort and closeness they need at the end of a long day.
- Colic has been linked to cluster feeding.¬† Babies suffering from colic can struggle to nurse comfortably for sustained periods, and may prefer a “snacking” approach instead.
When Will It Stop?
Cluster feeding is most commonly seen in babies who are up to 4-6 weeks old. Most will settle into a more regular feeding pattern beyond this age, but not all. Some babies can adopt a grazing approach to feeding right up until they are weaned. In other little ones cluster feeding may vanish, and then reappear during growth spurts.
What Can I Do?
The only solution that really helps is to allow your tiny baby to drink as much as he wants, when he wants it. Supplementing feeds with formula will only result in a decline in breast milk production. The body is designed to produced just the right amount of milk for your baby, so if he is demanding more feeds, then allow him to nurse. Seeking to force your baby into a feeding routine at this point will generally be counter-productive, and succeed only in making your baby, and you, very upset.
Very occasionally, cluster feeding can develop as a result of acid reflux in your baby, so if it persists then a visit to the Doctor may be a good idea in order to rule this out.
Sense a pattern
As evening approaches you will probably sense a pattern forming in your baby’s demand for cluster feeding. Trying to anticipate this can help. Make sure you have a good meal before the cluster feeding starts, and get ready to settle down for a long period of time. Make sure you are comfortable, and use the time to relax. Read a book, watch a favourite film, or catch up with a friend on the ‘phone. If you are very tired, nursing lying down can help you to get some much needed rest, and if you are comfortable using a sling these can be a great way to position your baby for nursing whilst keeping your hands free for other things.
Cluster feeding is generally a short-lived experience. It can be very tiring for the mother, but it will usually pass within a few weeks. It is a time for giving in to rest and feeling close with your baby. An additional benefit is that following a cluster feed most babies will settle for a longer period during the night!