Typically, babies breastfeed every 2-3 hours in the early weeks. However, occasionally babies want to nurse much more often. When a baby wants to breastfeed every hour, or what seems like non-stop, this is called cluster feeding. These are some common incidences of cluster feeding:
The Second Night:
This usually starts on the second night of life. This is when babies wake up and realize they don’t really like life on the outside. Remember, babies don’t know if it’s caveman times or 2019. All they know is that showing feeding cues gets them to mom and mom keeps them safe. The modern newborn is exposed to dozens of people and stimuli in their first couple of days after birth, and some of these are painful experiences. The second night is usually when the recovery sleep has worn off, there are fewer visitors and baby is pretty unhappy with life so far, so baby seeks comfort and protection via breastfeeding.
Something important to note is that this cluster feeding has nothing to do with not getting enough breastmilk (if the diaper output is adequate). If mom is on the verge of a meltdown because of extreme sleep deprivation and baby won’t let mom put him down, this is the point where I recommend trying a pacifier for a short period of time. Also, while a lot of hospitals are moving away from nighttime nurseries, some nurses will keep an eye on the baby for a bit so mom can rest. This is usually helpful because baby rests, as well.
Before the milk comes in:
The “milk comes in” somewhere between days 3 and 5 after delivery. On the nights just before the milk comes in, usually the third and/or fourth nights, babies usually have one mega cluster feeding session. This is the baby telling the body “Ok! Enough already! Give me the milk!”. You will probably be rewarded in the morning with a copious milk supply. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that baby is “starving” or not getting enough. However, this is the night that most moms are losing their cool with breastfeeding and end up supplementing with formula. While this is not recommended, it’s not the end of the world. Seriously!
Several times throughout baby’s first year there will be instances of cluster feedings. These typically last 24-hours, followed by a very sleepy baby the next day. These instances of cluster feeding are typically called “growth spurts”. This is a bit of a misnomer, though. The baby is not currently going through a growth spurt at the time of the cluster feeding, but is working to increase the milk supply for upcoming growth needs. Remember how milk supply works: supply and demand. If baby works to up the demand, the supply will increase. It’s a normal and appropriate part of breastfeeding. Go with it!
If your baby is cluster feeding often, and seems to never be satisfied at the breast, it may not be normal. The best thing to do is to have your breastfeeding evaluated by a lactation consultant. Keep a log of all of baby’s feedings and diapers to help the lactation consultant get the whole picture.
So, what should you do:
- offer the breast whenever feeding cues are shown (click here to learn about feeding cues)
- be patient and remember that baby may just need extra cuddles
- offer a pacifier in limited amounts if you are feeling overwhelmed and need a short break
- follow up with a lactation consultant to evaluate feeding and ensure the cluster feeding is normal (click here to find a lactation consultant)