When N hit her first growth spurt around 10 days old, I was completely blindsided by the amount of nursing she was doing. I had heard the term “cluster feeding” and was even warned that she would be a velcro baby at some point between 10-14 days postpartum; however, I was completely unprepared for what that meant. Cut to me and 10-day old N sitting on the couch breastfeeding for close to 4 hours with nearly no breaks. N also fell into the habit of cluster feeding almost every night from 8-10 pm. This is common for many new babies. The problem is that when it’s happening, it can really rock your confidence about whether baby is getting enough and if your supply is adequate. Today, I’m going to help you understand what cluster feeding is, why it’s so important for supply, and why it typically doesn’t mean you need to supplement.
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Because so much of breastfeeding is interrelated, it also makes sense to discuss growth spurts and how they relate to cluster feeding and supply. Additionally, I will provide information about nursing during the night, which might ramp up during a growth spurt. You’ll learn why night nursing is so good for building up your supply. I will also share some tips to help you get the most sleep possible while still nursing on demand throughout the night.
Growth Spurts in the First Year
When Do They Happen?
In the first year of life your baby grows and changes immensely. They are born almost completely helpless, and by around 12 months will have their own ideas, way of moving, and agenda. There is a wide range of normal in terms of the amount they will grow and where they will be developmentally. Most kids do have some points in their first year where a large amount of physical growth occurs. These growth spurts typically happen sometime between days 10-14 of life, and then at 3, 6, and, 9 weeks, and then again at 3, 4, 6, and 9 months.
When you read it, that is a lot of growth spurts! But remember how much your little one is going to change in just one year, and it does start to add up. Keep in mind that your baby might not follow this pattern exactly, but give or take a week or so, your baby will likely experience a growth spurt. By knowing when they occur on average, you can be prepared to comfort and care for your baby during this time.
Baby Loses Weight after Birth
After your baby is born, it is normal to have a 5-7% weight loss, but baby should be back to their birth weight by 10-14 days of life. If your baby experiences more weight loss than this, breastfeeding support is likely needed. Feeding should be evaluated to ensure baby’s health and safety. Additionally, if your baby has not gained any weight back by day 5 it is a signal that breastfeeding needs to be assessed. Don’t wait to get help!
After this first week, the average weight gain between 0-4 months is 5.5-8.5 ounces per week. Between 4-6 months, breastfed babies should gain between 3.25 and 4.5 ounces per week. Remember that weight gain can have a wide range of normal. You should always discuss your baby’s unique growth with your doctor and focus on the curve and not the percentile number.
What Do Growth Spurts Look Like?
Growth spurts typically last around 3 days, but for some babies they can be upwards of a week. Usually during a growth spurt your baby will eat a lot more than usual. Breastfed babies will want to nurse about every hour, or possibly even more frequently. It is important to follow baby’s lead and nurse as often as baby desires. It sends your body the signal to produce more milk. Baby is experiencing a need for more food, and your body will adjust to provide for them. You may start to feel more thirsty or hungry too in response to an increase in nursing and a rapidly growing supply.
After a few days of increased eating, you may notice your baby sleeping a lot more or doing longer stretches of sleep. N is a high sleep needs child to begin with, but during her early growth spurts she would literally just wake to eat (a ton!) and then immediately go back to sleep. This kind of behavior is very normal. If they are alert when they wake up, are waking to eat, and are having good diaper output you likely don’t need to worry.
How do Growth Spurts Affect Baby’s Mood?
Babies may also be more fussy or clingy during a growth spurt, so baby wearing can be particularly helpful, especially for the earlier growth spurts. You should be able to calm your baby after checking their basic needs, breastfeeding, or through touch and comfort. Your baby’s fussiness is likely considered ‘normal’ if it often occurs at the same time of day, which we’ll talk about more below, and happens with the same intensity.
If your baby is crying for more than three hours a day, for more than 3 days a week, for at least 3 weeks, you may be experiencing colic. You can read more about coping with this in Trina’s Guide to a Colic Baby. If you ever have any concerns about your baby’s fussiness, do not hesitate to call your pediatrician.
What does Cluster Feeding look like?
Cluster feeding is a term associated with breastfeeding wherein baby will want to nurse multiple times in a row. They may pull off and immediately start rooting again. Cluster feeding involves just switching from side to side without breaks until baby seems satisfied or falls asleep. Cluster feeding can occur with short 15-30-minute breaks between feedings too. During a cluster feed your baby may be fussier and may appear to be pulling at your nipple in frustration. This behavior helps signal for another letdown to occur and produce more milk. It likely doesn’t actually mean baby isn’t getting enough.
When does Cluster Feeding occur?
Cluster feeding typically happens during a growth spurt or during the evening hours, even outside of a growth spurt. One reason for it being more common in the evenings is that your milk production hormones are lowest during this time. By cluster feeding at night, especially if your baby has their days and nights sorted, your baby fills up before a long stretch of sleep. If your baby is not yet doing long(er) stretches at night, you can encourage cluster feeding by offering to nurse your baby every hour leading up to bed.
Some mother’s experience better sleep by using this tactic because their babies go down with an initially fuller belly. This will also send a signal to your body to produce more milk at this time of the day so that feedings will have greater volume for baby.
Related Article: The Relationship Between Breastfeeding and Sleep
Your Breasts Are Never Empty!
A common misconception about cluster feeding is that baby is not getting enough, and that you don’t have any more milk for them. Many mother’s draw this conclusion because of the incessant nursing and fussiness. This is a myth and one that can be detrimental to breastfeeding success. It simply not true! Cluster feeding is a normal and necessary occurrence. By continuous sucking, your baby can get 2nd, 3rd or even more letdowns that you may not be feelings. These constant letdowns and continued sucking for more send a signal to your body to increase supply. The later letdowns are also likely made up of more hindmilk which has a higher fat content. This will help keep your baby fuller.
It is recommended to avoid supplementation during a cluster feed because it is so critical to increasing and building a supply that matches your baby’s needs. If you supplement with a bottle, even of expressed milk, it is a missed feeding for your body to learn to make more milk. Even if you pump during this time, the pump is not as effective as baby in extracting milk and signaling the hormones to increase your supply. Trina wrote an article all about How Milk Production Works. She takes the science behind it and makes it accessible to all mothers. By understanding the why, you will feel so much more motivated to stick with it.
Of course, if you have doubts about baby’s weight gain or aren’t seeing adequate diaper output you should talk to a lactation consultant and your pediatrician about supplementation. Fed is always best! But, if your baby was full term and is having no problem gaining, do you best to power through these cluster feeding sessions. Trust that your body is responding, and baby is getting enough.
Related Article: Avoid Nipple Confusion and Promote Exclusive Breastfeeding
Cluster Feeding is Normal
Cluster feeding is a normal part of breastfeeding. It does not indicate a problem with supply or growth, as long as you’re are not seeing the other warning signs. Extreme fussiness in the evening is also typical for babies in the first weeks and months of life. It is often called the “witching hour” because so many families know it well. I want to urge you to not let these two behaviors shake your confidence in yourself and in breastfeeding. Once your body adjusts to the new demand, and your baby finishes their growth spurt, the cluster feeds will end. Your supply will have increased appropriately to meet baby’s needs.
Take the time to educate your partner and any other help about this phenomenon and why it is normal. This way they will be able to support you and encourage more nursing during this time. Having a partner suggest that baby isn’t getting enough, or a well-intentioned in-law telling you to give the baby a bottle can really disrupt your path to exclusive breastfeeding. You don’t need them to add to your stress and worry. By making sure that they understand why cluster feeding is normal, you will avoid this.
To learn more about finding positive breastfeeding support and set yourself up for success in meeting your breastfeeding goals, sign up for our FREE breastfeeding e-mail course. You will receive 5 lessons that are full of action items straight to your inbox.
Tips to Survive Cluster Feeding Sessions
If your baby seems to be attached to the boob all day, make sure that you are prepared. Before latching N, I would take the time to quickly gather things, because I didn’t always know when it’d make sense to get back up. She fell into a pattern for around 2-3 weeks of cluster feeding every night between 7-10 pm so I learned to prepare for this time.
Have a large glass or container of cold water and snacks handy. Cluster feeding will make you feel more thirsty and hungry than usual. Snacks that were high in healthy fats were satisfying for me. Think trail mix or avocado toast. If your partner is home, enlist their help for bringing you food and other things you need, or even just their company during your nursing marathon.
I would often read while I nursed N. I chose light-hearted fiction that had easy to follow plots but kept me turning the pages. These were easy to put down and pick right back up when I needed to burp N, change sides or re-latch her. Definitely use a nursing pillow, I loved my boppy. If you don’t have one at least prop up some regular pillows under you to ensure comfort and proper positioning. I also always made sure I had a charged phone and pen and paper handy too for tracking sides.
For more information about setting up the ultimate nursing station and caddy, read about Everything to Know and Do Before Bringing Baby Home.
If you are a breastfeeding mother, then you know that your baby doesn’t just eat when the sun is up. In fact, a lot of baby’s calories and needs are fulfilled during night feedings. Babies love to nurse during the night because this is when your milk production hormones replenish. It is the opposite of why they cluster feed in the evening. During the evening your hormones are at their lowest. During the night, as they replenish, your milk quantity is high, so your baby can get a large quantity of milk. It continues to be high through the morning.
Nursing during the night should not be limited in any way for a baby under 4 months of age, and ideally even longer than this. Nursing on demand, around the clock is critical for supply. Babies younger than four months old cannot produce their own melatonin and receive melatonin through their mother’s milk. This is another benefit of nursing during the night. This melatonin will help your baby get back to sleep faster, and maybe even do a longer stretch. Breastfeeding and sleep, and sleep goals for the breastfed baby can be tricky to navigate. Read more about this relationship in my article that discusses breastfeeding and sleep.
Night Nursing Tips
When your baby wakes during the night, if they are younger than 4 months, always offer a feeding. Only change your baby’s diaper if they poop. Changing wet diapers causes unnecessary stimulation during the night. If you do need to change their diaper, keep the light dim and avoid eye contact. Get baby cleaned up and re-swaddled, if applicable, before your start nursing. This way you will be able to place them back into their sleeping space undisturbed immediately after feeding. If your baby is waking many times during the nap, it can be helpful to recruit your partner for any diaper changing necessary, or re-swaddling so that you get a break and focus only on nursing.
Even if your baby is older and still waking for night feedings, don’t bother with wet changes, and do not engage in play or talk to your baby. Keep it boring, nurse and immediately place them back in their sleep space after the feeding. Your baby will soon respond to this pattern and will likely drift right back to sleep once their needs are met. If baby does cry out or fuss, use calming techniques that involve little stimulation or offer another feed and attempt to put them back down.
Having an ideal sleep environment for your baby, whether they are still in your room or in their own room is necessary. You can read about Creating the Perfect Sleep Environment here.
More Breastfeeding Resources
Our goal here at Mom Smart Not Hard, is to be a part of your breastfeeding support team. As nursing mothers, we experienced how hard it is to find quality resources, support and advocates. That’s why we created the breastfeeding handbook. It’s a condensed, easy to follow, and complete guide to all things breastfeeding.
You can also find a wealth of other information to support your breastfeeding journey in our breastfeeding section. You can check out 30 Tips for Breastfeeding Success and tips for Breastfeeding a Newborn.
If you are thinking about your eventual return to work, read about:
If you are looking for inspiration and ways to promote exclusive breastfeeding read about Avoiding Nipple Confusion in the beginning of your baby’s life.
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Alli Wittbold is a wife, mama, blogger, and online teacher. She feels passionate about connecting expectant mothers with childbirth class educators, and supporting them to achieve the birth they desire. After having her first baby delivered by a Certified Nurse Midwife, Alli is an advocate for midwifery prenatal care. She has learned so much about labor and delivery by attending and reviewing dozens of birth classes to help mothers learn and explore options. Alli co-authored the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook, resources she is proud to share with as many expectant and new mothers as possible. Read more about Alli.