Cluster Feeding Your Baby

Mother feeding baby daughter with bottle

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Cluster feeding is a pattern in which a young baby eats several times within a few hours. There is nothing wrong with cluster feeding (it's not a sign of anything dangerous). Some babies are more likely to eat this way before a long nap or during growth spurt phases. 

Usually, cluster feeding occurs with breastfeeding babies, but formula-fed babies can cluster feed too. The most common eating pattern for babies is to take a large feeding every few hours. With cluster feeding, however, the baby may nurse several times at very close intervals. Cluster feeding can be described as one big batch of small feedings. 

More often than not, cluster feedings occur in the evening hours during the baby's fussy period. During this time, the baby may want to be fed several times over the course of a few hours. It may feel as if you are breastfeeding your baby so frequently that you can't get a break. Parents often wonder why the baby is constantly hungry.

Why Babies Cluster Feed

Cluster feeding is more commonly seen in newborn babies. These bunched feedings serve the purpose of helping to build the mother's milk supply and of increasing the baby's daily calorie intake.

Older infants may cluster feed during a growth spurt. And, as a baby ramps up his evening feedings, it may allow him to have a longer stretch of uninterrupted nighttime sleep. Babies may also want to cluster feed when they are irritable and need comfort, such as with teething or minor illnesses.

How to Handle Cluster Feeding

"On-demand" breastfeeding is usually best for your baby. That means feeding your baby whenever he or she wants to be fed. Breastfeeding can feel unpredictable, and cluster feeding adds another unpredictable element. But you may notice a pattern to the clusters, and your baby may also grow out of them.

Just be sure to note if your baby is finishing each feeding fully. This is because the hindmilk, which is the milk at the end of a feeding, is very important for your baby's growth and development.

Cluster feeding that results in small, incomplete feedings may not give your baby the optimum nutrition needed to gain weight. It also may cause uncomfortable engorgement if your breasts are not fully emptied. 

If your baby is cluster feeding, it is best to try to figure out the pattern and to adapt if possible. You can also try to gradually shift your baby's feeds to a time that is more convenient for you. If you have a partner, consider pumping to give yourself a break if you need it.

When to Worry

Parents who are concerned about whether or not their baby is getting enough milk can keep track of the number of wet diapers the baby has in 24 hours. If diaper counts drop, contact a pediatrician or a lactation consultant. There are many causes for a drop in wet diapers, such as not eating often enough, a low milk supply, or metabolic issues.

However, if your baby is gaining weight well and if cluster feedings continue for a long period of time, it might be a good idea to consider whether your baby's fussiness is the result of something else, such as colic, in which case interventions other than feeding could be considered.

If your baby seems to be displaying extreme signs of irritability, a fever, or change in behavior, call your doctor or schedule a check-up to make sure there is nothing else going on with your little one.

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