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Newborn Cluster Feeds: What to Expect and How to Stay Healthy

If there’s one thing we try to normalize at Nest Collaborative, it’s this:

“Natural” doesn’t always mean easy.

While this statement applies to breastfeeding generally, it’s especially applicable to newborn cluster feeds.

The lack of sleep. 

Feeling like a human pacifier. 

Worrying about whether your baby’s getting enough milk. 

Newborn cluster feeding is easily one of the most overwhelming stages of any breastfeeding journey.

Are you in the thick of a feeding frenzy? If so, you’re in the right place. We’re digging deep into what causes cluster feeding—and how to make the process more comfortable for you and your baby. 

What is cluster feeding?

Cluster feeding is when babies breastfeed in frequent, short bursts, often in the late afternoon or evening. It’s very common for newborns. 

Signs of cluster feeding

Your newborn might be cluster feeding if they:

  • Show hunger signs shortly after eating
  • Act frustrated while rooting, even when your nipple is right there
  • Alternate frequently between eating, fussing, and resting

How long does cluster feeding last? 

When your baby is glued to your chest, it feels as if cluster feeding lasts forever. And truth be told, newborns may cluster feed more days than not.

While there’s no way to know when your baby will kick off another round, one thing’s for sure: cluster feeding is just one season of parenthood, and it will (eventually) come to an end.

Myths about why newborns cluster feed

Newborns engage in cluster feeding for many reasons. Let’s get some of the myths out of the way. 

Newborn cluster feeding is NOT necessarily a sign of: 

  • Low milk supply
  • Milk that’s not fatty enough
  • Colic
  • An unhappy baby
  • A spoiled baby
  • A sick baby (though many babies, even older infants, do cluster feed when they are ill)

Instead, it’s a normal and natural part of newborn development. 

Reasons for cluster feeding

Most often, babies cluster feed for the reasons below.

Establish your milk supply

Your breasts may not be able to predict the weather à la Karen Smith from Mean Girls, but they have special powers of their own. 

Every time your baby drinks their fill, your body produces more milk. This supply and demand “teaches” your body exactly how much milk your baby needs to thrive, and it shifts over time.

Sustain a growth spurt

New babies grow exponentially and usually experience three major growth spurts before they’re two months old:

  • 7–10 days
  • 2–3 weeks
  • 4–6 weeks

During these times of rapid growth, your baby needs extra nutrition—and they often get it through cluster feeding.  

Seek soothing

Being a baby is exhausting, and newborns can’t calm down and go to sleep on their own like adults. After months inside the womb, your baby craves the familiarity of your warm, cozy body and mature nervous system to help them drift off to dreamland. 

Cluster feeding can act as a way for babies to seek comfort and fill up their tummies before a night (or an hour) of rest. 

Is it cluster feeding or colic?

Babies’ feeding patterns shift frequently. It can feel like as soon as you get used to a certain rhythm, they’re on to the next one. 

This can make it tough to tell when something’s amiss. Many parents understandably feel concerned over normal signs of cluster feeding and wonder how to distinguish between “normal” feeding and other feeding-related issues, such as colic or reflux.

If your baby seems fussier than usual or spits up in large amounts after feeding, you could be dealing with reflux or lactose overload. If your baby’s fussiness lasts for hours on end and this happens more than 2–3 days in a row, colic could be to blame.

Seek a second opinion if you’re concerned your newborn isn’t just in a normal cluster feeding phase. An International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) can help you determine whether your baby has a feeding-related issue and, if so, recommend solutions.

Surviving the newborn stage

Cluster feeding is natural for newborns. But it can feel supernaturally exhausting to parents. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make the process more comfortable for you and your baby. 

Consider your own needs

Choose a cozy space to breastfeed. Keep all of the necessities within arm’s reach—snacks, water, and entertainment, too! Try to use these extra-long feeding times to relax if you can. Catch up with a friend, watch your favorite shows, or listen to an audiobook.

When feelings of frustration or exhaustion arise, offer your baby—and yourself—compassion. Don’t be afraid to leave your baby in a safe space and briefly step away to collect yourself if you need to. If you’re feeling stiff or crampy, try different breastfeeding positions.

Monitor your milk supply

Your breasts may feel softer during cluster feeding sessions. Soft breasts don’t necessarily mean your milk supply is low, but you can take steps to support your milk supply by:

Many companies market “supply-boosting” snacks and supplements to new parents, but they aren’t clinically proven to work. If you think your baby’s appetite is bigger than your milk supply, ask your IBCLC for evidence-based advice. 

Seek support

Your partner or other support person may not be able to breastfeed the baby for you, but they can help lighten your load by:

  • Changing diapers 
  • Soothing the baby with rocking or skin-to-skin 
  • Bringing you snacks and drinks 
  • Massaging sore shoulders 
  • Helping you stay entertained during marathon breastfeeding sessions

Feed on demand

Feeding on demand is important for newborns, so follow your baby’s lead. Don’t try to limit or schedule feedings. Instead, offer the breast whenever they show hunger cues

You may find that pacifiers comfort your baby, but they shouldn’t be used to skip feedings. Ask an IBCLC how to introduce a pacifier without affecting your baby’s latch or feeding patterns. 

Switch nursing and breast compression

Even if your breasts feel empty, there’s always some milk inside. However, milk flow slows down toward the end of a feeding.

If your baby wants to stay latched but isn’t actively suckling, breast compressions can help. Place your hand over the top of your breast and under your breast with your thumb on top. Then, press gently to push milk toward your nipple and into your baby’s mouth. Your baby should start swallowing again.

When your baby no longer reacts to breast compressions, it may be time to switch sides. During a particularly long cluster feeding session, you may need to repeat this entire process several times. 

When to seek professional guidance

Frequent feedings and evening fussiness don’t always mean your newborn is unwell, but you should call your child’s healthcare provider immediately if you notice: 

  • Extreme fussiness
  • Poor weight gain or weight loss 
  • Dry mouth 
  • Sunken eyes 
  • Infrequent wet diapers

Don’t overlook your own needs, either. Cluster feeding isn’t always comfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt. If breastfeeding becomes painful, an IBCLC can help you figure out why (and how to feel better).

Concerned about cluster feeding? Nest Collaborative can help!

Bouts of cluster feeding with a newborn can feel overwhelming and even isolating, but you don’t have to go it alone. The IBCLCs at Nest Collaborative are here to answer your questions and provide lactation support when and where you need it. 

At Nest Collaborative, our unbiased, evidence-based, multi-lingual team increases access to lactation support by providing virtual appointments, offering flexible appointment windows, and even assisting patients with insurance billing.

Book your convenient online video appointment with a Nest Collaborative IBCLC today.

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