Cluster Feeding Your Baby

Mother feeding baby daughter
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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, and some babies are more likely to eat this way before a long nap or during growth spurt phases. 

Cluster Feeding

Cluster feeding is when a baby groups several feedings closer together at a certain point in the day. Normally, cluster feeding occurs with breastfeeding babies, but bottle-fed babies can cluster feed too. The most common pattern of eating for babies is to take a large feeding, and then space out the next feeding a few hours later. With cluster feeding, however, the baby may nurse several times at very close intervals. Cluster feeding can be described as one big spurt 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. As the mother, 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 fussy or irritable, such as with teething or minor illnesses.

How to Handle Cluster Feeding

It is recommended that you practice "on-demand" breastfeeding when you feed your baby. In other words, you should feed your baby when he or she wants to be fed. Sometimes, babies want to be fed because they are hungry, and sometimes, it's for other reasons, like comfort, or even because they are sick. If you are breastfeeding, this can make you feel like you are constantly feeding your baby. 

Breastfeeding can feel unpredictable, and cluster feeding adds another unpredictable element. 

Cluster feeding might just be the way your baby eats -- and that's perfectly fine. 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 your baby just taking small feedings with only a small amount of milk may not give him the optimum nutrition that he needs to gain weight, and it may cause comfortable engorgement if your breasts are not fully emptied also. 

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, parents should contact a pediatrician or a lactation consultant. There are many causes for a drop in wet diapers, such as not eating often enough, an issue with 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.

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

Updated by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN

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