What Is Cluster Feeding And Why Does It Suck?

Cluster feeding is responsible for many sleepless night, but the exact cause is less cut and dry.

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Mother holding and breastfeeding newborn baby boy.
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Dads might have heard the phrase, but what is “cluster feeding” besides something that your breastfeeding partner hates? Well, newborn cluster feeding doesn’t really have any hard or fast definitions. In fact, depending on the context in which you hear the term — home versus maternity ward — it can indicate two wildly different infant breastfeeding behaviors. Either way, there are things dads can do to support moms suffering through newborn cluster feeding hell.

What Is Cluster Feeding?

“Cluster feeding in and of itself has not been proven by scientific data,” explains Jody Segrave-Daly, a registered nurse, lactation consultant, and co-founder of the Fed Is Best Foundation. “But the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine has defined cluster feeding as several short feedings close together.”

Of course, that definition of cluster feeding is nothing short of ambiguous. What does “several” mean? How close together and for how long?

Typically, newborns breastfeed eight to 12 times every 24 hours over the first two weeks. By one- to two-months-old, feedings usually decrease to around 7 to 9 a day, spaced anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours apart.

Cluster feeding upends these patterns. Babies who cluster feed are essentially compressing the feedings.

When Do Babies Cluster Feed?

Segrave-Daly specifies cluster feeding as “around two to three feedings, typically in the evening, for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, for two to three hours. It’s usually a marathon of cluster feedings.”

She notes that maternity ward staff have a different perspective of cluster feeding, which can lead to some confusion. Many parents may hear the term on their first or second night in the hospital as a fussy newborn suckle frequently. “A baby night nurse and nurse and not come off the breast without crying because there is a delayed onset of milk,” Segrave-Daly says. But it’s not the same kind of pattern parents might see at home.

How Long Does Cluster Feeding Last?

Cluster feeding is an annoying feeding behavior, but will often resolve itself based on a mother’s milk supply, technique, or an adjustment in schedule. Typically, cluster feeding stops after 2 or 3 months, but sometimes will stretch a few weeks longer. But until things get better, fathers have a unique opportunity to step in and help.

“Develop a list of all the things to do for your partner because she actually can’t think anymore,” Segrave-Daly says. “She’s exhausted and everything hurts. Moms really don’t want to have to tell their partner what to do.”

Dads whose partners are trapped in a cluster feeding cycle can take on a bit more responsibility, like making meals or grocery shopping. They can make sure that breastfeeding areas are stocked with snacks and magazines. They can take on a shift bottle-feeding expressed milk.

But Segrave-Daly notes that many of the women she works with just want their partner to be patient and present. Sometimes being there, by her side, is enough.

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