If you choose to breastfeed your child, the first time you latch correctly can feel like a triumph. It's the moment parents yearn for, and after so many issues that can arise in those first few days (improper latching and bleeding amongst them), having a successful latch can seem borderline miraculous.
The truth of breastfeeding is that it almost never starts—nor stays—easy. There's the endless, shiny gear that promises effortless pumping, the shirts soaked through when you unexpectedly let down, and the anxiety of wondering if you're ever even making enough.
Just when you feel like you get the hang of it, suddenly your baby is hungry all of the time, and now your nights are suddenly spent feeding them—every two hours, every hour, every thirty minutes. You feel defeated by this sudden change. What's going on?
Although it might seem like this drastic change is cause for concern, it's most likely that your baby is going through a growth spurt.
This sudden increase in feeding is often referred to as cluster feeding.
What is cluster feeding?
Your baby will go through many growth spurts in their first year that may or may not align with what's typically laid out by medical professionals. Those "normal," powerful growth spurts that cause cluster feeding in babies occur at:
- 2-3 weeks
- 6 weeks
- 3 months
- 6 months
Around these ages, you might notice a drastic increase in how often your little one is eating. Your baby might latch for just a few minutes before seeming satisfied, only to be hungry again soon after. While the length of these feedings tends to shorten, the sessions become more frequent—even as often as every thirty minutes. Though they can occur at any time of day, they are most likely to happen in the late afternoon or evening.
Since they're hungry, your baby is likely to be fussy during this time, and you'll probably notice the only way to soothe them is to feed them. Growth spurts (and cluster feeding) will usually only last a few days.
Why does cluster feeding happen?
Cluster feeding is your baby's way of increasing your milk supply as they go through sudden surges of growth. When your baby suckles (or you pump), the hormones prolactin and oxytocin are released, and your milk "lets down." Your baby's sudden increase in feedings spark further production, boosting your milk supply. As your milk supply catches up to your baby's needs, the time between feedings will lengthen again.
How can I tell if my baby is eating enough?
Cluster feeding can and will disrupt any routine you've been building up since you brought your baby home. Gone are the gentle nursing sessions every few hours as your baby is suddenly ravenous and cranky. With the predictability lost, it's normal to worry about whether your baby is eating enough.
But there are ways to tell if your baby is still healthy and just going through a growth spurt, including:
- Your baby is continuing to gain weight in accordance with growth charts and/or growth rates
- The cluster feeding occurs for a few hours a day (not the whole day)
- The growth spurt lasts around a few days and doesn't continue beyond a week
- Your baby has a lot of wet and soiled diapers and rests between feedings
- Your baby's fussiness is consistently soothed when they are fed
If you think your baby's behavior is outside of what is considered normal, consult your pediatrician. They'll be able to tell you what is—and isn't—typical for this time.
What's the best way to handle cluster feeding?
The best way to take care of your baby during this time is to take care of you. The increased needs of your new baby paired with your exhaustion from trying to keep up makes cluster feeding hard to deal with, and you'll need to stay calm and comfortable during these stressful few days.
While you are taking care of your baby, make sure you're hydrated, well fed, and if you can, tag someone in and get some rest to gear up for those demanding hours. Ask a partner or loved one if they can help you out during cluster feeding by being "on call" for snacks, drinks, or an extra set of hands. Get comfortable in a chair or bed, and find a way to entertain yourself, whether that's by counting your kid's fingers and toes or watching reruns of an old Netflix favorite.
It can feel like a test of your strength as a parent, but rest assured: cluster feeding is both normal and temporary.