If you have a new baby who spends the entire evening or night attached to your breasts, never seeming satisfied no matter how many times you feed them, you’re probably wondering what’s going on. It's likely your baby is going through a period of cluster feeding...and it’s completely normal.
Cluster feeding is most common in younger babies and often presents itself in the evening and night hours. Here we’ll discuss more about what cluster feeding is, why your young infant requires so many feeds during a short time, and how to manage this exhausting time period with your hungry, little babe.
What is cluster feeding?
Cluster feeding is when your breastfed baby nurses several times during a short window of time. With these back-to-back nursing sessions, it can feel like your baby is feeding non-stop. Formula-fed babies can cluster feed, too, but it is more common in breastfed babies.
There isn’t one reason that babies cluster feed, but it often signals the mother’s body to make more milk. If a baby isn’t getting as much breast milk as they need to get full, they will continue to nurse until they are able to get the nutrition that they need.
Growth spurts, as we write about here, are a time when a baby may be more apt to cluster feed. Typical ages during the infant stage that you may see these occur are 2-3 weeks, 6 weeks and 3-4 months. Older babies don’t generally cluster feed even when they are going through a growth spurt.
Why do babies cluster feed so much at night?
Cluster feeding can happen at any time, but it’s much more common in the evening and through the night. Probably not what you want to hear, right?! You can have a perfect day with your baby, where everything is following the “schedule” to a T, and all of a sudden 5 o’clock hits and your baby wants nothing else but to nurse.
Though it’s likely that your baby is cluster feeding due to a growth spurt or just requiring more milk from you to get full, it’s not always about nutrition. Babies also can be really tired in the evenings and nursing gives them comfort.
Though this isn’t true for all pairings, a baby may need to nurse from her mom more in the evening because she isn’t getting a full feeding from one session like she does at other times of days when the breasts are fuller. According to Lactiful, “A mother’s body typically produces more milk in the morning, and less as the day goes on. This is normal. Therefore, as evening nears it’s normal for baby to ask for more frequent feedings.”
Your baby’s need to cluster feed shouldn’t be a sign that you have a low milk supply. Instead nurse them as they need, and your body should respond by producing more milk over the course of the next several days.
Benefits of Nightly Cluster Feeding
When you just fed your baby 30 minutes ago and they seem to be asking for the breast again, you may mistakenly think that hunger isn’t the issue. If your baby is upset and nursing calms them, then that’s your sign that they need to feed again. We know these back-to-back nursing sessions can be exhausting, but it’s important that you let them happen.
(If your baby still cries when you offer the breast, you may have a situation where your baby has colic. We recommend reading, “Helping a Baby With Colic: Identifying Symptoms and 10 Soothing Tips.”)
Encouraging cluster feeding when they need it will ensure your baby has enough milk. It will also allow your body to start producing the milk required to keep up with your baby’s nutritional needs going forward. Cluster feeding is temporary, so managing it in a way that keeps you both as relaxed through it as possible, the better.
7 Tips to Manage the Nightly Cluster Feedings
Cluster feeding can run you ragged if you let it. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it, you’re not alone.
When you’re stuck in the phase where your baby is constantly latched to you it’s difficult to imagine a life beyond that where you have your body and more time back. But it is temporary - usually only lasting on and off for a month or two. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is accept that your baby will need to cluster feed and then focus on managing it in a way that allows you to stay relaxed through it as much as you can.
We’re not going to sit here and tell you to enjoy every moment, but we will tell you that setting realistic expectations for this time will set it up to be a much more positive experience.
1.) Expect It and Plan Ahead
Crossing your fingers and hoping this is the night that your baby decides to stop cluster feeding is only going to serve to let you down. It’s much better to go into your day expecting your baby to cluster feed as they have been and this will help you prepare for when that hour comes.
It’s much better to set realistic expectations for the situation so you don’t end up overwhelmed and frustrated. That way, instead of eyeing the clock and anxiously holding your breath, you can instead plan that time according to your baby’s needs. For example, if you know that your baby typically cluster feeds between 6 and 8, plan to set up shop on the couch during that time. Reframe this time as when you’re not able to get anything accomplished to a time you can just relax and provide comfort to your baby.
2.) Vary Your Breastfeeding Positions
Because your baby latches on so many times during a cluster feed, your nipples can take a beating. Not only do you want to be taking care of your breasts by using lanolin and nursing pads, but changing up the position you feed your baby in can help, too.
Changing nursing positions switches up the angle that your baby is taking your breast, meaning there’s less likelihood of a lot of irritation building in one spot. If you do find the pain to be unbearable, however, it’s important to reach out to a lactation consultant.
Side-lying breastfeeding is a great option. This allows you to lay in your bed to nurse, helping you to relax during these times when your baby won’t let you do anything else but nurse them.
3.) Keep Up with Baby's Bedtime Routine
The last thing we want is for you to feel guilty if you miss any steps of your bedtime routine. But it is important to do as much as you can between your baby’s feeds. This will continue to signal to your baby that nighttime is for sleeping, ensuring that when your baby’s cluster feeding period is over they’ll move right back into their old routine.
On top of that, your baby has come to expect their bedtime routine and it’s calming for them. Sticking with your baby’s bedtime routine is a great way to get them relaxed and ready for bed as you give them those last feeds of the day...which can extend the time before they’ll wake up to feed again.
To calm your baby at night we recommend:
- Swaddling in a Dreamland Baby Weighted Swaddle (or a Weighted Sack if your baby is already rolling over) - the all-over quilted weight of this unique sleep sack will induce feelings of calm for a baby as they top off their milk for the night and prepare for sleep
- Turning out the lights - the stimulation of light may keep your baby up and feeding, which is why we recommend doing later evening cluster feeds in your baby’s dark room
- Singing or using white noise - Utilizing music is a great way to calm your baby as we discuss in this article
Use a Dreamland Baby Weighted Swaddle or Sack to calm your baby during cluster feeds so they'll fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
4.) Try Baby Wearing
Your baby’s need to cluster feed isn’t always about getting more calories. Sometimes they just want to be close to you or have become overstimulated from the day. (It may even be that they need to be laid down for a catnap.)
If you’ve attempted cluster feeding but your baby still seems unhappy, you may want to try wearing your baby through the evening hours. If you utilize a carrier that positions your baby in a way that they can still breastfeed (the Baby K’Tan is great for this), this allows them to cluster feed at their leisure or pull off when they’re no longer hungry. Wearing your baby can get you through some tough evenings - it keeps your baby happy and you’re able to accomplish what you need to get done.
5.) Prep Dinner in the Morning
Your baby may be one of the many who insists on being at the breast starting in the early evening all the way until bedtime. This can make getting dinner ready difficult if that task falls on you. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have dinner ready ahead of time.
Making Crock-pot meals in the morning that are ready to spoon out will make this time of day much less stressful - especially if you have other little mouths in the house to feed. At the very least, having everything chopped and ready to go will cut down your dinner making time, meaning you’ll have more time to be with your baby. This will help ensure you get fed, too - because if you’re not taking care of you first, it’s very hard to give the best care you can to your little one.
6.) Utilize a Dream Feed
If you have a baby who is frequently waking up at night to feed, utilizing cluster feeding sessions in the evening alongside a dream feed before you head to bed is a great way to help your baby sleep longer stretches at night.
Essentially, you'll feed your baby one last time right before you go to bed. This will likely mean getting them out of their crib and getting them to stir just enough that they'll take a full feed. That's the gist, but we have an entire post about how to dream feed here.
A dream feed will help top your baby off one last time before bed and will reduce the number of times they'll need to feed in the middle of the night.
7.) Take a Break
Even for the most flexible, easygoing moms, cluster feeding can be a lot. It's exhausting feeling like you're doing everything you can to satisfy your baby and they're still hungry. Remind yourself that it's temporary helps, but in the moment it feels like it will never end.
It's important that you give yourself a break, even if it's short. Pass your little one off to your partner and take a bath or go for a walk. You'll want to avoid giving a bottle simply because in order for your milk supply to increase as your baby requires, you'll need that breast stimulation from the cluster feeds. But try to utilize any spare time between feeds to let chores go and give yourself a little "me time" or take a little nap. This will go along way with staying positive even when your baby needs to feed multiple times in the evening or overnight.