If you’re breastfeeding your baby, you may have been warned about cluster feeding by your other mom friends. It can be a difficult phase to get through and you may even question if you are making enough milk, but we’ve got your back with all the information you’ll need.
What is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding is a normal phase, especially for breastfed babies. While babies eat often — somewhere between 8 to 12 times in a single day — with cluster feedings, a lot of those feedings will be close together. It often happens in the evening — suddenly your baby will want to be at your breast endlessly. Cluster feeding is completely normal and usually occurs in your baby’s first six months. You’ll likely see it for the first time soon after your baby is born. It’s a hard time for moms. It’s tiring, and it prevents them from getting anything else done. Cluster feeding may last just a couple days or it can last for a few weeks. Only your baby will decide that — it will know when and for how long it needs more milk. Your little one is basically telling your body to increase your milk supply with the extra stimulation at breast to meet their growing body’s nutritional needs.
What Causes Cluster Feeding?
No one is really certain what causes cluster feeding. It could be caused by a variety of reasons. Perhaps a baby is having a growth spurt and needs more milk to fuel it. And since so many cluster feedings tend to occur at night, it can feel soothing to your baby to do when they are undergoing developmental stages.
How Cluster Feeding Can Help Moms
Because your baby is attached to your breast for sometimes hours at a stretch, cluster feeding doesn’t feel like a good thing for you, even though you may love the extra snuggles from your babies. But it’s so demanding, it can leave you feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. When that happens, you need to keep the positives of cluster feeding in your mind so you feel better about your situation. Looking on the bright side can really help, so here are a couple of big positives about cluster feeding.
- It can increase your milk supply: Because your milk supply ramps up with frequent breastfeeding or pumping sessions, you’ll feel less worried about potentially running out of milk as your baby grows. You can use that extra milk to build up your freezer stash. It’s amazing how your body knows exactly what to do to meet your baby’s needs!
- Your baby might sleep longer stretches in the night: There’s an outside possibility that cluster feeding might make your child sleep longer at night, which means you could also sleep longer. While there’s no guarantee, it’s nice to have that to daydream about — a good night’s sleep.
How To Survive Cluster Feeding
Any way you slice it, cluster feeding is tough. Your baby will be so fussy, you’ll wonder what’s going on, and after a while, you’re going to be tired of being treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet. You may feel like you’re barely clinging to sanity, but there are some ways you can take the sting out of the experience.
- Make a cluster feeding kit: You’re going to be tied up for hours during these cluster feeding sessions so you need to be prepared. Have a movie ready to watch, have snacks and water nearby, and grab a few magazines or a book to keep on hand.
- Enlist help: You’re the only one with the breast milk your baby needs, but that doesn’t mean others can’t help too. Your partner should also be in on this non-stop fun. If your baby takes a break in the breastfeeding action, even just for a few minutes, hand your little one off to your partner and give your body a much-needed break.
- Don’t skimp on the food and drinks: Aim for nutritious food and don’t forget to stay well-hydrated. Breastfeeding is a lot of work for your body and it needs all the nourishment it can get. Breastfeeding torches an estimated 500 calories a day normally, and you may burn more than that when your baby cluster feeds.
- Get enough sleep: Because of all the extra feedings, you’re going to be more tired than ever. Even if it’s the early evening hours and you have a million other things you’d rather be doing, lay down when your baby does and try to get some power naps in there.
- Let your baby dictate what it wants: You might be so tired of breastfeeding after a few days of cluster feeding that you’ll look for other ways to soothe your baby. Babies know what they want and what they need when it comes to how much milk they take in, so feed them as often as they need it.
- Give your arms a rest: Put your baby down whenever possible — in a baby swing, a crib, or a pack ‘n play. Babies may be light, but they feel super heavy on the arms after a while. You could potentially be holding your baby for hours, so you need to pencil in a break for your arms whenever you can.
- Let the chores go: Your house may look like a disaster zone during cluster feeding episodes, and you’ll have to be okay with that. You can ask your partner to pitch in more during this time. If that’s not possible, just let it go and do your best to catch up with it when things are back to normal.
- Don’t turn on the lights at night: If your baby gets up frequently in the night during cluster feeding episodes, make it your goal to get your baby back to sleep as soon as possible. Keep those lights off, don’t make any loud noises, and change their diaper before the feeding begins so they can be put in their crib as soon as they get their nourishment.
Making Sure Your Nipples Can Handle It
Even if you sail through the exhaustion and all the sitting you’re going to have to do, you still might have other issues with cluster feeding. Your mind might be strong, but your nipples could be feeling like they have been dipped in lava. What’s a girl to do when her nipples are cracked and possibly bleeding but her baby is screaming for more? First of all, ensure that you have the baby latched properly at breast to prevent nipple trauma. It’s not about having baby on like a “bullseye”; it’s more about the proper latch. If you are concerned baby is only getting the nipple when latching, reach out to a Lactation Consultant for help.
Outside of proper latch and positioning, here are some solutions when you feel like your nipples have gone around with sandpaper.
- Put nipple cream to work: Nipple cream can be soothing. You can either use coconut oil, creams available in stores, or you can even try rubbing a few drops of breast milk over your nipples when feeding time is done. If you use a cream, make sure to wash it off your nipples before feeding your baby again if that’s required on the instructions.
- Skip the tight bras: While your nipples are sore, you should avoid tight bras or ones that are made of scratchy material. That will just make you feel even worse.
- Use warm moisture: Keeping your nipples hydrated will help and using warm, not hot, water will feel soothing and keep them from drying out. You can put a damp and warm towel over your nipples for a few minutes and see if that helps.
- Ditch the shirt: If you don’t have any older children living with you and you have shades or blinds up over your windows to block you from any nosy neighbors, you can go shirtless too. That will stop any unnecessary chafing.
- Use different positions while breastfeeding: Changing the angle slightly during each session may protect your nipples a bit.
Should You Be Concerned?
When your baby deviates from their established routine or what is normal for them, of course, you’re going to be worried. You’ll wonder if something is wrong with your baby or if you’re doing something incorrectly to cause them to act that way. To make yourself feel better and cover your bases, make sure your baby is still frequently having wet and dirty (stool) diapers in case you are suddenly having problems with your supply. You should see at least five very wet diapers a day from your baby — if you don’t see this many, call your doctor. It may also be a good idea to call your doctor or Lactation Consultant if your baby’s cluster feeding has gone on for more than a few days. While it can be normal for it to last longer than that, you’ll probably be really worried by this point and a quick doctor’s visit would be worth it to ease your mind.
You Can Do It, Super Mom!
Cluster feedings are just a minor speed bump during all the years you’ll have as a parent, so it’s helpful to keep it in perspective when you’re in the midst of it and it feels insurmountable. You’ll be through this challenge in just a few days and you’ll feel more confident that you can get through anything.
About the Author
Jenny Silverstone is the mother of two, and breastfeeding advocate and an editor and writer for the popular parenting blog Mom Loves Best. Jenny’s loves helping inspire and educate other mothers on all topics related to breastfeeding, pumping breastmilk, and dealing with low milk supply.