How to survive your newborn's cluster feeding

Here's how to handle cluster feeding, the incessant-nursing phase when breastfeeding a newborn.

By Alex Mlynek

How to survive your newborn's cluster feeding

Photo: @lamamanpoule via Instagram

So you have a newborn, and lately your evenings have been hijacked by non-stop nursing sessions. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably dealing with the common breastfeeding phenomenon known as cluster feeding.

What is cluster feeding?

Infants nurse frequently (at least eight to 12 times in a 24-hour period), but sometimes it’s even more often, and they may bunch up those feedings—especially in the evening. This is frustrating for both the parent who’s been home with the baby all day and the parent who may only get to see the baby after work.

But cluster feeding is perfectly normal, says Attie Sandink, a lactation consultant in Burlington, Ont. “Babies instinctively know how much milk they need. If they’re not getting enough, they just want to feed and feed,” she says. This doesn’t mean your milk supply is tanking or you need to supplement with formula. And letting newborns nurse as often as they like doesn’t mean you are spoiling them.

“I remember thinking, Is this how life is going to be?” recalls first-time mom Alison Pearce of Toronto. “It was like looking down a tunnel with no light at the end of it.” From two to eight weeks old, her daughter, Simone, spent most evenings nursing non-stop. But once Pearce and her family noticed the pattern, they came up with a plan. Each night, before the intensive breastfeeding session began, Pearce’s mom (who stayed with them for the first month) made an early dinner while Pearce took a bath. Then, armed with snacks, they all settled in with a movie while Simone nursed and dozed, and everyone took turns holding her.

Cathy Wegiel, a mom of four in Airdrie, Alta., knew to expect a cluster-feeding phase, because all of her babies had spent their evenings attached to her boobs. But her son, Parker, was particularly enthusiastic. For two months, he was latched from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Wegiel suspects Parker—who had needed heart surgery at three weeks old—was trying to pack on the weight he’d lost before his operation. Parker’s need to feed became part of the family routine. “I always nursed in the armchair in the living room, and the other kids would snuggle with me and read stories,” Wegiel explains. “And if he was hungry during dinner, I nursed at the table and tried not to spill my food on him.”

Why is my baby breastfeeding all the time?

Babies cluster-feed for many reasons. One theory is that a mother’s prolactin levels drop toward the end of the day, which means her milk supply decreases and the flow is slower, so babies may nurse for a longer time to fill up, says Taya Griffin, a lactation consultant in Toronto. They could be frustrated by the slow flow and go on and off the breast more often. Mastering breast compressions—pressing down on your boob while the baby sucks—can help, because it expresses the milk faster and more efficiently. Babies can also cluster-feed at any time of day if they’re feeling out of sorts and need comfort, adds Sandink. Sometimes babies who seem ravenous are having a growth spurt (which lasts a few days).

To make cluster feeding more manageable, get things done earlier in the day and lean on your partner for meals. Wegiel would make dinner while her older kids were at school and then reheat it. Also be prepared to lower your household standards. “I really let things slide,” she says. “It was a disaster for quite a while.” Keep a basket of filling snacks (like energy bars or almonds) and a water bottle near where you nurse most often.

Feeling marooned on the couch? Wearing your baby in a sling or carrier so you can multi-task (or even nurse!) can save your sanity. Or forget about your to-do list and spend the time catching up on TV shows, scrolling through social media or reading a book with one hand. Cluster feeding is temporary—so settle in and make the most of it.

Should I be worried my baby isn't getting enough to eat? 

When a baby is eating all the time, almost every mom wonders, Do I have a milk-supply issue? Just remember that this pattern is normal for a newborn. You should only worry if your baby is not gaining weight well (something your doctor or midwife will keep track of) or is not producing enough wet diapers (typically six per day for newborns six days old and up). If you are in pain while breastfeeding, reach out to a lactation consultant for help.

This article was originally published online in February 2016.