Newborn babies eat a lot. They may have small tummies, but they have a lot of growing to do, especially in the first year. Usually, newborns need to eat every two to three hours, but you may notice your baby nursing even more often, especially in the evening.
What does this mean? Does it mean you aren’t producing enough milk? Generally, once breast milk replaces colostrum, as long as your baby is gaining weight and continuing to produce wet and dirty diapers, your baby is getting all the breast milk they need. So, why all the fussing come late afternoon/early-evening?
Sometimes, babies may have difficulty differentiating between day and night, or it might be the case that there’s too much going on while your baby is trying to fall asleep. However, your baby may be preparing for a longer sleeping period than usual by cluster feeding.
What is cluster feeding, and how can you help your baby settle down for bed? Let’s find out.
What Is Cluster Feeding?
When your baby nurses for lots of short periods over a few hours, they might be cluster feeding. Some cluster feeding babies will feed every hour, but they may also want to nurse every 30 minutes instead.
Additionally, you may notice that your infant will fall asleep and fall off the breast or the bottle, depending on which method you use, and then try to reattach soon afterward.
Although your baby may cluster feed at any point during the day, cluster feeding is more common in the afternoons and evenings. Your baby may also start cluster feeding around the time they hit a growth spurt since they’ll need more food to grow.
Is It Normal for Babies To Cluster Feed?
Cluster feeding is fairly common for all babies, whether breastfed or bottle-fed. It may mean that they’re getting ready to sleep for a longer period of time, so they want to store up some extra breast milk.
In the afternoon and evening, the flow of breast milk tends to slow down (it doesn’t come out as fast), so it will take your baby a bit longer to get all the milk they need, specifically if you’re breastfeeding. (Breast milk production is generally highest around 2 to 5 am.)
The slower flow can actually help babies since the rhythmic nature of sucking during nursing helps them relax more. They also love human contact, and being held gives babies a sense of security and calmness. Plus, the smell of mom can also help infants calm down and fall asleep more easily.
Why Do Babies Cluster Feed?
There are multiple reasons for babies to cluster feed. One potential reason is that they want to eat as much as they can before sleeping for longer periods, although newborns still need to wake up every few hours to eat.
Another theory is that it’s beneficial for the mother’s milk supply. Since the baby is eating more often during this period of time, it signals the mother’s body that more milk needs to be produced. It would have a similar effect to power pumping.
It takes a few days before your milk supply becomes consistent, and your body needs to know how much to produce. Your body will take its cue from how often and how much your baby nurses. With some guidance, you can try pumping breast milk to build up a larger milk supply.
Another potential reason for cluster feeding is that your baby has hit a growth spurt and needs more food. The most common ages for these growth spurts are:
- Two to three weeks old
- Six weeks old
- Three months old
- Six months old
Every baby is unique: Your baby’s growth spurts may happen at different times, either sooner or later than others.
How Do I Know if My Baby Is Cluster Feeding?
If your little one’s nursing sessions occur close together over the course of a few hours, they could be cluster feeding. If your newborn nurses every two to three hours, they have regular intervals between feeding sessions.
Although how often your baby eats is the main sign of cluster feeding, you may notice a couple of other things that your baby does when they’re cluster feeding:
- They might be fussier during this time
- Sleeps or rests for short periods
- Pulls on your breast for a few moments before reattaching
When To Seek Out Medical Advice
Generally, as long as your little one is gaining weight and has plenty of wet and dirty diapers, they’re likely doing well. If you are concerned about supply, talk to a lactation consultant or another healthcare provider like your baby’s pediatrician. Beyond low milk supply, these professionals can help advise you about other FAQs you might have, including latch, infant sleep, and more.
Cluster feeding can be tiring, though, and even though you may not have a low breast milk supply, it can feel like your breasts are empty. Fortunately, breasts are never completely empty, so even if they feel that way, you can rest easy knowing there’s probably still breastmilk.
Tips for Handling Cluster Feeding and Fussy Evenings
Evenings with a newborn can be tricky. They might still be adjusting from being in the womb, where mom was moving around, lulling them to sleep during the day, and nighttime equaled playtime.
Newborns are processing a lot of new information. They have new experiences to consider, new things to see and learn, and their brains are growing too. It can make it difficult for your baby to relax and wind down when it’s time to sleep.
Once your little one is around six weeks, they’ve probably learned to distinguish night and day, but you still may have a fussy baby on your hands. What can you do? We have some suggestions that may help.
1. Take Care of Yourself
Although spending time with your baby can be a wonderful experience, sometimes, it can be incredibly draining, especially cluster feeding. Your little one is probably super fussy during this time, and they can seem like they don’t know what they want.
When helping your little one fall asleep, try to create a moment of calm for yourself. If you’re relaxed, your baby will find it easier to relax. You’ll also need some energy: If you’re tired, it’s easier to get frustrated.
One method is to rest earlier in the day, especially if your baby tends to cluster feed in the evenings. When your baby is napping, it can be a great time for you to nap too.
If you need a break, don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones for help. Your little one may also respond to another family member or caregiver; they’ll still have human contact and the closeness and security they feel when being held.
Babies will naturally head towards their mother’s breasts if they can smell it, even if they aren’t hungry, so having someone else hold the baby can prevent some confusion when your baby gets angry that they are getting food.
However, if your little one is still hungry and you need a break, you may want to consider having some pumped breast milk on hand so Dad or another relative can lend a hand. With a BabyBuddha Electric Breast Pump, pumping milk can be easier and more comfortable.
2. Be Prepared
Eat before your baby normally starts their cluster feeding period, and you might want to have snacks and water on hand. With some food and drink, you can help keep up your energy since breastfeeding can take up a lot of it.
Plus, if you decide to bottle feed, you’ll want to have a bottle prepared.
3. Pay Attention To the Clues
When your baby is upset, it could be for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it might be because they’re hungry, but it may also be because they’re overtired or they have a wet diaper. Perhaps they’re not hungry and are frustrated. Fussiness has a number of causes.
Your baby has different types of cues for various problems, and while you may take some time to figure them out, you can help your little one by listening to them and watching them.
Your baby will let you know when they’re full, but they may need extra comfort to help them fall asleep. If you try offering the breast or bottle, and they pull away crying, it’s probably best to move on to another method of comfort, like patting the back, rocking, or bouncing.
If your baby is upset prior to eating, they may also need to calm down first. Babies with colic tend to feel extra agitated at night and generally won’t feed until they calm down.
Once they’re soothed, they may be ready to eat. Look for hunger signs, like sticking their tongue out, rooting, and closed fists.
4. Putting Your Baby to Bed
When your little one is done eating and ready to nod off, you’ll probably have a new problem, putting your baby down to sleep. Babies are finicky, and they know when something in their environment has changed. There are some tricks that can make this process easier.
The best way to make sure your infant stays asleep before putting them down is to let them rest in your arms for around 20 minutes. Hopefully, your baby will be in a deeper sleep by then, which means they’re less likely to wake up.
You can also try:
- Leaving your hand on your baby’s chest for a few minutes to help them settle
- Using sheets or something near the crib or bassinet that smells like you
- Rocking their crib or bassinet
- Singing a lullaby
- Using white noise
- Dimming the lights in the room
Learning To Read Your New Baby
Figuring out a baby's needs can be difficult, especially for new parents. Your baby’s cues can be hard to figure out, but they’re also trying to figure things out. Patience is a helpful tool for all parents, so by preparing what you need beforehand, you can spend more time focused on your baby’s needs.
Cluster feeding can be a draining period for a parent, but with help, you and your little one can get through this time. Maybe your baby is getting ready to sleep for longer stretches, or maybe they simply need more food to grow, or they’re helping increase your milk production. It’s a perfectly normal way for your little one to get the nutrients they need.