We hear these words a lot in clinic. Sometimes, quite often in fact - what the person is describing is NOT cluster feeding; it’s a feeding problem that is being mislabelled and like an epidemic it’s spreading.
First if you’re breastfeeding fine, you’re happy, baby is happy and they’re gaining normally - you don’t need to worry about this post at all.
This post is for those who have either a baby who is growing much more slowly than expected, or who is gaining normally but consistently needs a million feeds per day to do so (outside of normal growth spurt behaviours which we’ll come onto). In short the pattern really isn’t sustainable.
Cluster feeding is a process term, healthy babies who are gaining weight well - typically start (in my experience from around 3-5 weeks of age).
Because breastmilk is rapidly digested, babies need to feed frequently - every few hours. If baby wants to sleep a longer stretch of say 5/6 hours, baby may need more food to last this long.
Baby therefore takes several or more full feeds quite close together, often around early evening time, signalling again (typically) 20-30 mins after the last feed- before dropping into a longer sleep spell. This is thought to allow baby to fill their whole digestive system, so excess hunger doesn't occur during this longer gap.
Babies tend to fall into two camps - those who cluster feed and have a longer sleep stretch, and those that don’t and keep to them same pattern during the day of 2-4 hours. I can once remember dad of newborn baby number 3 - asking when they started that cluster feeding so you get more sleep?!
Cluster feeding can also occur during growth spurts. This tends to be more random, can happen any time of day or night but is short-lived. If baby is feeding well, settled and suddenly has a day or two of crazy manic feeding before things settle again - this is often what people refer to as a “growth spurt”, as this behaviour drives up mum’s milk supply with more frequent and effective milk removal. Cluster feeding can also be comforting if baby needs some help to sleep, is unwell or just because.
I don’t believe many babies not back at birthweight at the appropriate time (10-14 days for an average sized baby) cluster feed - these babies are feeding frequently to get a longer stretch, but in a bid to try and pull enough calories.
They may fall asleep quickly, rouse when put down and for all their intense efforts they’re prone to getting the label “lazy”. Instead of clustering, these babies are interjecting their feeds with a powernap.
Sure they may take a longer sleep stretch if they’re exhausted from very frequent feeding during the day, but this isn’t the same as that outlined above. It can however be difficult to tell apart, which is why ensuring your support team has at least one certified person.
Feeding every 20-30 mins all day with the occasional hour gap IS NOT clustering.
Not gaining enough to track a centile despite feeding frequently IS NOT clustering.
Growing normally but with a feeding frequency day in and out that isn’t sustainable, IS NOT cluster feeding.
I keep hearing parents fobbed off with the claim it’s just what breastfed babies do. Leaving parents feeling guilty they can’t sustain these intense demands. Since we’ve normalised a problem, the risk is mum things she’s not able to sustain what others clearly can.
I overheard a conversation recently in our waiting room between a mum who had called back for a quick check, and one who had just arrived with a feeding problem. As the new mum was outlining the problems they were experiencing, she kept diminishing with - but I’ve not had one before it’s probably just what babies do, or it’s probably something I’m doing or I probably just need to learn to wind him better and so on.
When the other mum said she’d had all those problems and then outlined what feeding was like now - the first replied it gave her such hope and she’d been told it was just was breastfed babies do, or perhaps he’d just “prefer” the bottle.
There are always the exceptions to the above, but you can seek support and chat it through with someone if you’re unsure or things feel unmanageable :)