A sample early morning feeding schedule of a cluster-feeding newborn:
Wake: 5:00 am; Eat 5:15 am
Sleep 5:30 am
Wake 7:00 am; Eat 7:15 am
Sleep: 7:40 am
Wake 8:10 am; Eat 8:15 am
Sleep: 8:20 am
How many of you feel exhausted just reading this? I know I do. Cluster feeding is very important if you plan to exclusively breastfeed. It is very normal, but can be extremely discouraging for new moms who are unsure if they are making enough milk.
Let's talk about what cluster feeding is, what's not normal (and a reason to talk to your doctor about potential milk supply issues), and how to survive one of the hardest parts of postpartum recovery.
What is Cluster Feeding?
Cluster feeding is when a newborn eats frequently, sometimes every 30 minutes. It typically happens in the late afternoon or evening, but really it can happen whenever.
When this happens, it's normal for moms to wonder: am I making enough milk? Why is my baby wanting to eat all the time? Is there something wrong?
Babies cluster feed for many reasons. Some include:
Growth spurts or developmental leaps
Helping to establish your milk supply
Need comfort or feel over-sensitized from the day
Cluster feeding can look different for different babies. In some cases, babies want to feed frequently but never take a "full feeding." In other cases, babies take a full feeding, but just simply want a lot of them. The common theme between all of them is this: your baby just wants to eat all the time.
Your baby may latch and then pull off within minutes. Your baby may cry often & seem fussy. You may wonder - what does this baby want?! 😩
This can be so exhausting! Your breasts, which were at one point engorged and full, may feel flat & like you don't have any milk. You may wonder if you'll be able to breastfeed long-term. You may feel at your wit's end, frustrated at your partner for not being able to take over, and like it will be this hard forever.
Here are some tips
First of all, in most cases, you DO have enough milk. It's normal for your breasts to feel soft after the first couple of weeks. Soft breasts do not mean "no milk". Your body is capable of making more milk relatively quickly. Your baby is simply helping that process happen faster, and all of this eating will help your milk supply be established for the many months ahead.
If your baby is fussy and pulling off your breast, sometimes it's because they want milk FAST. Especially if your baby is used to a bottle or a fast let-down, they may get frustrated at your milk coming out so slowly.
When bottle-feeding, try paced bottle feeding.
You can pump for a couple of minutes to stimulate your let-down faster so your baby won't be so frustrated.
Keep trying! If your baby pops off and gets frustrated - try a different position. Sometimes they just need a few tries before settling down.
If your baby is falling asleep while feeding and then waking up shortly thereafter - don't despair! You need to focus on giving your baby a full feed. Here's how:
If your baby goes to sleep within a few minutes of eating, do what you can to keep your baby awake. Try things like:
Stroking your baby's feet, cheeks, tummy
Changing positions & latching again
Undressing down to his diaper
Feeding in a brightly lit room
Singing or talking to your baby
When to Talk to a Doctor
During times of cluster feeding, the main concern for moms is whether or not their baby is getting enough milk. Here's when to talk to a doctor:
Your baby is not having enough wet or poopy diapers
Your baby is eating a full feed but doesn't sleep or seem satisfied
Your baby is not gaining weight
How to Survive It
Another aspect of cluster feeding that isn't talked about enough is mom's mental health. Cluster feeding can exacerbate postpartum depression or anxiety and it can be just really difficult to manage. It's okay to feel frustrated and need support. Here are some ways that your partner and others can support you:
Coordinate all meals & bring your meals to your breastfeeding station
Make sure that your water cup is always full
Take over feedings at night
After you're done giving a full feeding, give your baby a pacifier and let your partner soothe your baby to sleep
Ask a mom friend to come and hold your baby while you shower & care for yourself
Take an hour or two away while your partner or a grandparent cares for your baby
You are not selfish for needing this time!
Baby-wearing saved me during the early newborn weeks. It takes some getting used to, but you can also breastfeed while baby-wearing.
Put lanolin or another nipple ointment on after every feeding to protect your nipples
Swaddling your baby can help lengthen his sleep cycle
Remember that it is just a season. The days feel long - I remember them well. But your baby won't cluster feed forever.
If your goal is to exclusively breastfeed (EB) long-term, then stick with it. It really does get easier once your baby is older.
It's also okay to decide that EB is not for you. Combination feeding is a great way to continue breastfeeding while also supplementing with formula.
You got this!