If you’re wondering what, exactly, cluster feeding is, your partner is probably a sleep-deprived, breastfeeding new mom with sore nipples who is rethinking this whole “being a parent” thing. But 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 in newborn cluster feeding hell.
“Cluster feeding in and of itself has not been proven by scientific data,” explains board-certified lactation consultant and co-founder of the Fed is Best Foundation Jody Segrave-Daly. “But the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine has defined cluster feeding as several short feedings close together.”
Of course, that definition is nothing short of ambiguous. What does “several” even mean? How closer together and for how long? Typically, newborns will 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.
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 has 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.
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. 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.
In rare circumstances, cluster feeding may not resolve on its own. If a child is crying for prolonged periods of time, despite good feeding and attention, there might be a health issue totally unrelated to the cluster feeding behavior.
“If your baby keeps crying no matter what you’ve done, you need to call your pediatrician,” Segrave-Daly says. “There may be something else going on. It’s very important.”