Cluster feeding - what is it, what to expect and how long does it last

Cluster feeding is totally normal behavior - here are helpful tips on how to manage it

(Image credit: Getty images / Future)

Cluster feeding is a term you’ll no doubt hear about as a new mum, as feeding is - along with sleep - a huge topic of discussion among parents of newborns. 

These first few weeks - which some people call the ‘newborn bubble’ are a great time to get to know your baby, especially while you're both working out how to breastfeed. Where possible, try to ensure that feeds are limited to parents or main caregivers, keep your baby close to you, and embrace skin-on-skin contact. These steps will all help the baby to feel more secure and really bond you together.

And, while all newborns need to eat every 2–3 hours in the first few weeks of life, sometimes it may seem that baby suddenly wants to feed more often than before. This has been termed cluster feeding, it’s nothing to worry about, even though cluster feeding is exhausting, it's normal and a phase that will pass. Breastfeeding expert and author Rachel Fitz-Desorgher tells us; “Cluster feeding is a very modern term, and was first coined by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) in around 2010 before that [midwives] just talked about evening crying behavior - in many breastfeeding manuals it will be referred to 3-month colic or sporadic crying behavior.” 

Find out more below, on what cluster feeding is, how you navigate it as a new parent and what experts really think of the term...

 Cluster feeding - what is it? 

Cluster feeding is a term given to a pattern of feeding, when baby seems to demand feeds closer together during a similar time frame each day, usually late afternoon or early evening. These are usually for short periods, where baby detaches from the breast and then reattaches while fussing. Many experts believe that cluster feeding usually happens in early development when they are going through a significant growth spurt.  While other experts don't agree with other term cluster feeding, as they think it's more about soothing - read more in our 'cluster feeding isn't a thing' article from former midwife Rachel Fitz Desorgher.

Registered midwife at My Expert Midwife, Lesley Bland tells us, "advice from healthcare professionals is to ensure baby has 8-12 feeds in a 24-hour period. But what you may not know is that some of those feeds will be clustered together, and that this type of feeding pattern is more likely to happen on an evening or at night, although can still happen during the day."

If your baby is having a lot of short feeds close together over a few hours, you are cluster feeding. If you are cluster feeding, you might also find that your baby: has short rests or sleeps between these feeds. The act of cluster feeding usually happens during the first 3 to 4 months. It's when your baby wants to be close to you more frequently (sometimes constantly) over a period of time - this could be to feed, or it could be to merely suckle and feel calm. It's very normal and nothing to be concerned about. Your baby may want to cluster feed during the day or night (or a bit of both). 

Cluster feeding in newborns - what does that look like?

In the early days following birth your baby will be working really hard to establish a milk supply to meet their needs - sometimes different breastfeeding positions can help. Lesley tells us; "Commonly, the first 24 hours will be quite slow on the breastfeeding front but just wait for the next day and night. The second night is famed for babies tending to want to feed constantly but why? Well, quite simply, your baby has woken up from their post-birth exhaustion and are aware that they need fuel."

Your milk, however, usually doesn’t come in until day three or four, "so there’s a period when your newborn will have to work their little socks off to stimulate the breast tissue to meet their increasing demands," Lesley says. "Over the next few days (possibly weeks) until your milk supply meets baby’s demands you are likely to experience bouts of cluster feeding." 

Baby may also increase their demands during growth spurts which typically happen around 2-3 weeks, 3 months and 6 months old so don’t be surprised if you find your baby reinstating those cluster feeds again.

Cluster feeding can be tricky for parents to spot as newborns don't tend to show a predictable eating or sleeping schedule - it's very baby led with parents meeting needs as and when. However if you're baby fits the below they may be cluster feeding.

  • Baby is no older than a few weeks
  • Baby won’t stop crying until they’re fed
  • It seems they feed very frequently for short sessions each time
  • nothing else seems wrong and they’re content when eating
  • they have regular wet and dirty diapers

Cluster feeding tends to happen more in the evenings. If your baby is older though, there may be several days in a row when they feed more than usual across a day. This could be down to a growth spurt or looking for comfort while teething.

What causes the cluster feeding response?  

Truth be told, experts don’t fully understand why babies cluster feed. And there are many unproven theories. Though it seems to be unanimous that cluster feeding probably meets a combination of needs that your baby has at this developmental stage.

"There are several theories as to why babies appear fussier and want to feed more often on an evening, one of them involving Prolactin," Lesley tells us. "This is the hormone responsible for telling the breasts to produce more milk. Prolactin levels peak during the night and in the early hours meaning that biologically babies will take advantage of those peaks and top themselves us whilst the milk is freely available."

Psychotherapist and author of The Happy Sleeper Heather Turgeon agrees; “Cluster feeding is likely a way for babies, who have maturing nervous systems, to regulate. What we do know about breastfeeding is that it’s a supply and demand system. When little babies want to feed, that’s a good sign and we should let them, because trying to schedule or space feedings out doesn’t give that supply and demand system the right feedback."

“So even though there are theories about why baby might cluster feed, what matters is that we let baby do it — it establishes and maintains mom’s milk supply.”

Cluster feeding can be exhausting and leave you wondering when to stop breastfeeding. You may hear people stressing the importance of a schedule for baby, but cluster feeding is a normal part of the development of many babies. Your baby may cluster feed as a result of feeling overtired, and over-stimulated paired with the fact that they have an immature nervous system - being only a few months old - being a brand new human is hard work.

 How long does cluster feeding last? 

Cluster feeding ages vary for each baby, but it usually happens around 3 weeks and 6 weeks, when they have growth spurts. It may last for a few days at a time. Talk to a lactation consultant if cluster feedings spans much longer because your child might not be consuming enough calories.

Lesley explains, "Cluster feeding can last throughout the duration of your breastfeeding journey but is likely to ebb and flow. Cluster feeds can last a few days or even weeks until the milk production is at the right level for the demands of your baby. You can expect cluster feeding to happen at various developmental stages such as periods of intense growth or when they start to crawl, walk and generally enter a new phase of their lives and need more fuel ‘in’ to compensate for the energy ‘out’. The most important thing to remember is that your baby knows exactly what they are doing and although it may seem like it lasts forever, it doesn’t and it is a normal stage of breastfeeding."

 How to manage cluster feeding? 

Get to know your baby and recognise their cues. Learn - through observing - the difference between y our baby’s hunger cues and soothing cues. Before assuming hunger, try some skin-to-skin time, or other soothing methods, baby might really just want to be with you. And, remember babies have immature systems and can be overstimulated easily. Sooth your baby, feed your baby if needed, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you can. Clusters usually don't last long...

You can cluster-feed formula milk, and it's important not to overfeed. Watch your baby and follow the cues for when they need a break. These signs will be different from one baby to the next, but may look like;

  • Splay their fingers and toes
  • Spill milk out of their mouth
  • Stop sucking
  • Turn their head away
  • Push the bottle away
  • Fall asleep at the end of the feed
  • Stay hydrated. Keep water and snacks handy, your nourishment is just as important!
  • Change positions as needed so you don’t get muscle aches or sore nipples.
  • Plan ahead – if your baby is often waking and cluster feeding at similar times each evening, mentally and physically prepare for this time.
  • Have some entertainment handy. Netflix, podcasts, music.
  • Skin to skin and if not possible then use a baby carrier
  • Cluster feeding can be exhausting. When you’ve finished feeding, pass baby to a partner or loved one to settle if needed.

When is cluster feeding considered ‘normal’? 

 Cluster feeding can start in the first few days after birth and continue for much of the first year of life. It will often reappear when baby is going through growth spurt or developmental leap.  

  • When it lasts during a limited time period of 3-4 hours in 24 hours.
  • The breastfeeding mother’s milk has come in and it’s an adequate supply.
  • When it happens alongside baby creating plenty of dirty and wet diapers.
  • Baby is gaining enough weight.

 When is cluster feeding not normal?

All babies are different and all family set-ups vary however pay attention to the below to make sre that your baby’s frequent feeding isn’t flagging up anything that might require advice from your doctor.

  • A baby who is breastfeeding non-stop, despite having a perfect latch and swallowing confirmed before the onset of copious milk production in the hospital.
  • A baby who cries endlessly unless they are breastfeeding and continues to exhibit hunger cues.
  • A baby who is jaundiced becomes lethargic or has tremors after long periods of non-stop nursing, or at ANY time.
  • A baby who has a 7 percent weight loss at any time.

If you are unsure about any of these listed, contact your Health visitor or paediatrician. 

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Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.