3 Ways To Manage Cluster Feeding
IBCLC Lactation Consultant Sarah Siebold talks about newborn cluster feeding — what it is, why it happens, and ways to cope when you’re feeling touched out.
I was 6-weeks postpartum, and itched to get back to yoga class. It would be a space to move freely– sans baby– for the first time in a very long time. So one seemingly uneventful January evening, I squeezed into yoga pants, left the baby with my husband, and drove to my first hour of alone time in 11 months.
I was convinced that everything would be fine. Our son had just finished a series of back-to-back breastfeeds. He seemed milk happy with a full belly and even fuller diaper. He fed for the better part of three hours, punctuated by fits and starts of squeals and cries before popping on for more. Minutes before grabbing my mat and heading out the door, I de-latched him gently. He was not happy with me.
Our sweet little boy was deep in a cluster feeding frenzy, and my new-dad-of-a-husband was overwhelmed and boob-less. Despite his best efforts, he just couldn’t calm our son down.
Why Do Babies Cluster Feed?
Cluster feeding is arguably one of the hardest parts of breastfeeding in the early weeks. Though a normal newborn behavior, it’s nevertheless exhausting for new parents: babies feed, suckle, cry, fuss, latch back on, fall asleep at breast, and do it all over again, and again, and again.
Babies cluster feed for a few reasons:
Babies usually take in more milk in the early hours of the day when milk supply is highest, then snack for a few hours at a time — sometimes incessantly — in the early evening. The goal is to stock up on the rich, creamy milk they need for a longer sleep stretch. Your baby, who fed efficiently earlier in the day and napped without protest, is suddenly a hangry, inconsolable bundle of adorable fuss. Time at breast will keep him fed, less agitated, snug, and warm. He’ll snack, take a short break, ask for another snack shortly thereafter, and continue the cycle more times that you’d like to count.
Babies go through four major growth spurts in the first 6-weeks of life — the first on the second night of life, another around days 7-10, still another from weeks 2 to 3, and the last around week 6. During these periods of immense growth, babies need more time at breast to take in extra calories, and they are irritable from actual growing pains. They seek refuge at the breast, because it is their safe place and habitat.
Babies get overstimulated and dysregulated, just like the rest of us. What we call the toddler meltdown is akin to the newborn “Witching Hour,” a term mom blogs and search engine results define as a period of intense fussiness in the early evening. Stimuli from the outside world are overwhelming, even to adults. Babies are especially sensitive to noise, light, and a flurry of activity and tend to melt down, as it were, just before nightfall. Time at breast soothes, regulates, and relaxes.
Some sources suggest that because milk supply isn’t as high later in the day, the rate at which milk flows from the breast might slow. A baby who is already fussy might also not love a breast that requires more work to suckle effectively.
Cluster feeding is hard, for all of us. We may feel touched out, our bodies may feel creaky and sore from how they’ve been positioned on the couch, and we are entitled to want to eat a warm dinner for more than three seconds before our bodies are being summoned again. It can be a Groundhog’s Day experience of latch, recline, repeat.
New parents often worry that cluster feeding means something is terribly wrong, usually that there isn’t enough milk and baby needs to be supplemented. But even lactating parents with very robust milk supplies report periods of cluster feeding, because cluster feeding is a developmentally normal behavior and has no bearing on milk supply. If baby’s diaper output continues to be in range, sucks and swallows at breast are rhythmic, and access to the breast is not restricted, chances are that the only thing wrong is the realization that having a baby is unbelievably hard work.
What’s the new parent to do who feels touched out and too foggy to think of ways to cope? Here are a few suggestions:
You can replace a breastfeed with a 15-minute pump session. Use your hands during the pump session to push milk from the chest wall towards the nipple line to help the pump access more milk. Then have your partner or other caretaker use paced bottle feeding to offer baby small quantities of your expressed breastmilk at a time, mimicking the snack feeds at breast. Then give yourself permission to shower or eat your now cold dinner in peace.
Give your partner or other caretaker a lesson in babywearing. If you have a wrap, sling, or structured carrier, rocking and swaying in a contained space is neurologically grounding for babies. While I never clinically recommend putting off a feed when a baby is showing clear hunger cues, babywearing is an effective and temporary soothing tool to buy everyone time before the next feed starts.
Setting up a command center is pivotal, so that when you are camped out on the couch for a breastfeeding marathon, you have everything you need in arm’s reach. A large glass of water, snacks, and access to a book, remote control, and phone can make cluster feeds more manageable. If you’re practicing laid back breastfeeding — also called biological nursing because of how innately comfortable it is — it’s helpful to also have a low back pillow so your body is supported appropriately.
Here’s perhaps the good news you need to see some semblance of light at the end of a hazy postpartum tunnel: your baby will grow out of this phase, because nothing in parenthood is forever. Despite how long the days feel and how frustrating some feeds may be, the years go by in a flash and this phase will be a blip in time. Savoring the snuggles with your nursling is a silver lining in all of it.