One of the most confusing behaviors a breastfed baby can do is cluster feeding! We start to question why our baby is breastfeeding so often. Or whether their frequent feeding is an indication that they are not getting enough. Or is it just normal breastfed baby behavior? This article will help clear up when you should be concerned . . . or not!
What You Should Know About Cluster Feeding
Let’s start with the normal feeding patterns of breastfed babies. We often hear that babies will breastfeed between 8-12 times within 24 hours. However, research shows that the patterns and frequency of how babies breastfeed vary significantly between populations and within populations of people. This is because many things can affect feeding patterns, including the advice that women receive about feeding on demand (Saki et al., 2012). Your baby might breastfeed very frequently. It’s not unusual for a baby to feed every 20 minutes for a few hours in the early evening but then sleep for three hours straight before their next feed. Breastfeeding patterns are usually not very nice and neat, and they can be all over the place! This is entirely normal.
What is normal?
The following is when cluster feeding is considered normal. A VERY IMPORTANT aspect to consider is that when going through this list, you are also making sure that baby is meeting the minimum diaper output (at least five heavy wet diapers and at least two poops per 24 hour period). Also, make sure baby is gaining weight as expected, staying at around the same percentile on the growth chart. If you have any questions about this, be sure to contact an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) for further support and guidance. The following is general information and not medical advice. You must always look at the whole picture of what is going on for your baby.
Here is when cluster feeding is normal:
The witching hour (or hours!).
Have you heard of the witching hour? It usually ends up being more than just one hour! The witching hours are what we call the later afternoon/early evening hours of frequent feeding and cranky babies! It is not uncommon for babies to spend a lot of time being on and off the breast appearing unsettled and impossible to please during the later part of the day. If this frequent feeding usually happens during this time and your baby’s weight gain and diaper output are good, this is generally classified as normal cluster feeding.
When baby is sick or unsettled.
Babies, toddlers, and young children breastfeed for many different reasons. Hunger is just one of them. Your baby might be breastfeeding more frequently due to sickness, fighting off an illness, teething pain, or comfort for another reason. This is very normal. Breastfeeding will meet the comfort needs of your child (Brown, 2018), and they might increase the frequency of their breastfeeds (and cluster feed) because of this. Ask anyone with a cranky, sick, or teething baby, and they will confirm this! Sometimes we never find out why they had a period of time where they cluster fed. It could have been that they were exposed to an illness and needed a bit more breastmilk to help them fight it.
Working through a developmental milestone.
Have you read that babies will wake more frequently to breastfeed when they are going through a developmental milestone? Well, it’s true! If your baby is learning how to roll over, sit up, crawl or walk, they will most likely wake more frequently to breastfeed and do some cluster feeding. Your child’s brain goes through massive growth and changes during the first five years of life. Having the comfort and security that breastfeeding brings can help them navigate through these significant developmental changes.
A baby who does not want to be put down!
Sometimes I will hear from parents that their baby will not stop breastfeeding and will not allow them to be put down. But here’s the thing . . . most babies do not want to be put down! Most babies will wake as soon as you try to put them in a bassinet, and of course, they will immediately start looking for the breast again. This is not a baby who is abnormally cluster feeding. This is a baby who needs cuddles.
If you breastfeed your baby and continue to hold them, you will most likely find that they will happily sleep in your arms for at least 40 minutes. This is because they feel safe and comforted. Human babies have the longest stage of infancy compared to any other mammal on the planet. They are not ready to be born yet, which is why we classify the first three months postpartum as the “fourth trimester.” Newborns will need frequent cuddles and frequent breastfeeds for many months following birth.
What is not normal?
Here is when cluster feeding is NOT normal. Remember, if one or a few of these things are happening, but your baby is gaining well and has good diaper output, then it’s not about the volume of milk they are getting. There is something else going on that will need investigation by your IBCLC and doctor.
Baby is crying after and between feeds, MOST of the time.
If you find that your baby is upset after most breastfeeds and you never know when your baby is “done,” then that is a red flag they might not be getting enough. Your baby should have periods where they are content (yes, you might have to hold them a lot!) and should not have to be on the breast most of the time within 24 hours.
Baby is not having awake or sleep times as expected.
Following breastfeeding, your newborn should sleep. Now, of course, as I mentioned earlier in this article, there will always be times (the witching hours) when your baby might not sleep much and be on and off the breast. However, if you find that MOST of the time, during a 24 hour period, your baby is awake, unsettled, or breastfeeding and unhappy, then that is a big red flag that they might not be getting enough breastmilk. They should have a period of time during the day and night where they sleep and are settled. Remember to check their diaper output and weight too.
Baby is feeding for up to an hour or longer MOST feeds.
There is a considerable variation on how long a breastfeed should be. It can be anywhere from 20-45 minutes in length (Sutter Health, 2021). However, if you find that your baby is breastfeeding for at least one hour or more most times they breastfeed, this is not normal. It is a sign that your baby might not be getting enough milk or is not efficiently and effectively draining the breast when feeding. It’s important to keep track of this if you find that they take a long time to breastfeed. This way, you can report this information to your IBCLC or volunteer breastfeeding counselor.
Baby also has reflux or “colic” type symptoms.
This is a big topic and one that I can write an entire article on! I just wanted to mention it here, though, as if you find your baby cluster feeding while also having colic symptoms present, it’s really important to investigate possible underlying causes of why this is happening.
Colic and reflux symptoms can be caused by food intolerance, an allergy that baby has to something you’re eating, or by a sub-optimal latch which is affecting the first stage of digestion and leading to digestive upset or other possible reasons. Remember that colic is not a “thing” in itself. It is a symptom, and it’s important to investigate the underlying reason as to why baby is having colic or reflux symptoms.
If you have any doubt about your baby’s cluster feeding, be sure to reach out to your local volunteer breastfeeding counselor (La Leche League Leader), IBCLC, or a breastfeeding knowledgeable health care provider.