The Ultimate Guide to Cluster Feeding: What Is it, How Long Does it Last, and Why Does it Happen?
Fact-checked by Hehe Stewart, founder of Maternity Concierge, Doula and Birthing Service in the Boston area.
Ahhh! You’ve just had a baby! Congrats! You’re wondering if this little human is going to eat like this forever? Not quite, but there will be times where your baby eats more than usual. This is called cluster feeding and it is normal, even expected, as your baby develops.
Cluster feeding is defined as your baby nursing more frequently, but not necessarily for longer. It may look like ‘snacking’ or it may be more of a constant nursing session. These seemingly random days of cluster feeding are perfectly aligned with your baby'sgrowth. We can use these cluster feedings as insights to what is happening with your baby!
When Will Your Baby Cluster Feed and What Does it Mean for Development?
- 1-2 days old - Sensory system is developing to adjust to life on the outside.
- 7 days - Physical growth spurt (your baby is also sloughing off the neurons they don’t need on the outside - opposed to being in the womb).
- 2 weeks - Physical growth spurt.
- 4 weeks - Emotional development (you may notice they respond to their environment and are settled by soothing sounds).
- 6 weeks - Physical growth spurt and eyesight develops (you may notice your baby looking around more than normal).
- 8 weeks - Physical milestone of holding their head up.
- 12 weeks - Language development (their receptive language is always on at this point!)
- 16 weeks - Physical milestone - learning to roll.
Why Does Cluster Feeding Happen?
Your baby is growing! There are some major milestones that happen in those weeks. The above schedule is the developmental milestones your baby will hit - physically, emotionally, and intellectually. In the first four months of life, your baby will begin to develop language, hold their head up, roll over, and so much more!
For example, at six weeks old, your baby’s eyesight will develop rapidly. They will go from having the ability to see black, white and red to having the ability to see all the colors. They will also see much clearer. It’s amazing to think that your baby can now see clearly for the first time since birth. However, one thing parents also need to understand is that this development will result in heightened cortisol (stress hormone) production. In other words, your baby is going to be stressed to the max. They are going to need to nurse often because the stress will burn calories, but you may also notice them do what we refer to as "comfort nursing."By being skin to skin with you and latched, they are getting rushes of oxytocin (feel good hormones that are comforting since their cortisol levels are so high).
As your child grows and develops in other ways than just physical (emotional, intellectual), they will require increased calories to support this advanced development. This is exactly why you see them eat more frequently. You may also notice that they nap more frequently (yet shorter spurts). Their bodies are eager to learn and master whatever development they are working on so they will wake, but then, they get so tired so quickly because they are mastering a new life skill.
What Else Can You Do When Your Baby is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding may also appear to be linked to fussiness and irritability, but those are both common behaviors associated with growth spurts. So, when you notice your baby beginning to cluster feed, you can also begin to expect a growth spurt to be approaching. Here’s how you can support your baby during this time:
- Babywearing will not only provide your baby sensory support, but is also a great time to sneak in some skin to skin time. (Keep your baby in their diaper, just in case!)
- Feed on Demand: Be sure to know what the signs of hunger are and be mindful of when your baby is exhibiting them. You may see your baby do things like rooting, pushing their tongue out of their mouth, smacking or licking their lips, or turning their head back and forth.
- Swaddle your baby most of the time. This will help keep their proprioceptive sensory system grounded. The compression of a tight swaddle will be calming to your baby and allow their body to relax.
What to Do for Your Nipples During Cluster Feeding?
Remind yourself that this is temporary and that cluster feeding spurts are usually short lived! 24-48 hours and you’ll be done!
- Nipple Balm is going to be a saving grace! Be sure to keep your nipple slathered in this stuff so they can stay moisturized to heal! We recommend Earth Mama’s organic nipple butter on Amazon. (If you purchase this item, we may earn a small commission for it.)
- Silverette Cups are one of the best inventions and I wouldn’t dare tell anyone to breastfeed and not mention these magical things! They are antibacterial and silver has natural healing properties that will promote healing. Hot tip: you can store these in the fridge and they will feel heavenly on your nips! You can purchase them on Amazon. (If you purchase this item, we may earn a small commission for it.)
- Hydration! Staying hydrated will allow your body to heal and rejuvenate faster. Be sure you are consuming 80-120 ounces of water a day.
Other Less Common Reasons for Cluster Feeding
- Low supply (your milk should come in around days 2-5 following birth and make 1-2 ounces every 2-3 hours for the first month after birth)
- Baby might need to be burped
- Baby might be overtired
Cluster feeding is a normal and expected part of your baby’s development. Rest assured that it is short lived and just a temporary phase in their growth! It is also a great indicator that your baby is going through a growth spurt so be patient. They are working really hard on growing up to be just like you!
New to breastfeeding? Check out Common Concerns During the Early Weeks of Breastfeeding.