As a new parent, you may feel overwhelmed if your newborn wants to "cluster feed"—an extended period of time when they seem to constantly want to eat. Although you might find this behavior concerning, it's actually totally normal.
This article will take a closer look at why babies engage in cluster feeding and provide tips for navigating through this phase.
In this article:
What is baby cluster feeding?
Normal newborn feeding schedule
A newborn baby should nurse at least 8-12 times per day. That works out to a feeding approximately every 2-3 hours, even through the night.
By the time most babies are a few months old, the time between their feedings may extend to 2-4 hours.
However, many babies go through periods when they want to eat even more frequently—often during the early evening—and cry if they aren't immediately satisfied. This frequent need to eat is called "cluster feeding."
Formula fed vs. breastfed babies
Cluster feeding is seen more often in babies who breastfeed or drink expressed breast milk from a bottle—babies digest breast milk faster and will feel hungry again sooner.
However, formula fed babies may cluster feed too. They also go through growth spurts and need extra nutrition during that time.
In this article, we will primarily discuss cluster feeding in breastfed babies.
Signs of cluster feeding
Your newborn baby may be cluster feeding if they:
Want to eat frequently—or even constantly—within a short period of time
Eat more frequently in the evening
Seem fussier than normal
Want to stay on the breast or bottle longer than usual
How often do cluster feeding babies eat?
Every baby is different, and so is every cluster feeding baby.
One baby might eat and seem satisfied, but want to nurse again 30 minutes later.
Another baby might cry or show their usual hunger signs, eat for a few minutes, stop, fuss some more, nurse for a few more minutes, and so on.
This cluster feeding pattern can repeat for hours at a time before a baby settles down.
Cluster feeding ages
Cluster feeding is most common during the first few weeks of a newborn's life and sometimes continues into the first few months. Babies at this age are growing rapidly but still have very small tummies and can't take in large quantities of milk at one time.
How long does cluster feeding last?
Every baby is different, so there is no specific timeline for cluster feeding. Typically, babies go through periods of cluster feeding that last for a few days up to a week. Eventually, these episodes will decrease as a baby grows and develops.
Why babies cluster feed
1. Don't worry about low milk supply!
Before exploring the possible explanations for cluster feedings, let's immediately put one concern to rest. In most cases, a baby's cluster feeding does not mean that there is a problem with the mother's milk supply and the baby isn't getting enough nutrition.
You can feel assured that your baby is getting enough milk if they generally seem content throughout the day, are gaining weight as expected, and are producing at least 6 wet diapers and 3-4 dirty diapers per day.
However, if you have any concerns about your milk supply, you should consult with your pediatrician or a lactation consultant. WIC breastfeeding support can also provide help and encouragement.
2. Establishing the mother's milk supply
So what are some reasons why babies cluster feed? The first reason has to do with the very beginning of the breastfeeding journey.
Approximately 2-5 days after birth, most new mothers' milk will "come in," meaning it changes from colostrum to mature milk and increases in volume. Because breast milk supply is tied to demand, cluster feeding in these early days helps to stimulate a mother's milk production and encourage her body to produce enough milk for her new baby.
3. Growth spurts
Cluster feeding is especially common when a baby is getting ready to grow. A baby's growth spurts typically happen around 2-3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months, although this may vary by child. They usually last for a few days.
Before and/or during a growth spurt, you may find that your baby wants to eat more often and for a longer time. This is their way of helping to stimulate your milk supply to keep up with their growing appetite. In most cases, the more you breastfeed, the more milk you will produce.
4. Making up for a smaller feeding
Babies don't always eat the same amount at each feeding—sometimes your baby may nurse for 5 minutes and be done, other times they may keep nursing for 30 or more minutes. This is okay! Healthy babies will nearly always eat enough over the course of the day.
Just know that a smaller feeding or two earlier in the day may mean that your baby will need to fit in extra feedings later to get enough calories for the day and have a full tummy for sleep. This can result in cluster feeding during the evening.
5. Longer sleep cycle
It's not uncommon for babies to cluster feed before a longer stretch of sleep. It's like they're filling their tank before a long trip.
However, cluster feeding does not guarantee a longer sleep. There are a variety of factors that can impact a baby's sleep patterns, so it's important not to rely solely on cluster feeding as a way to lengthen sleep.
6. Seeking comfort
While cluster feeding does help a baby get enough to eat, it also provides a sense of security and comfort, especially during times of rapid growth and development. Your fussy baby may not really be hungry, but simply seeking the comfort that comes from being close to you and the soothing effects of sucking.
Tips to manage cluster feeding
Newborn cluster feeding can be stressful for many parents—they want their child to be healthy and content but struggle to satisfy them during these periods. Below, we'll share some tips for helping your family make it through the cluster feeding phase.
1. Perfect your latch
As a first step, make sure your baby is latching onto your breast correctly if you are breastfeeding. Latching can be tricky at first for babies (and new moms). If your baby is not latching on correctly, they may not be able to nurse effectively and might get tired before they have had enough milk.
A lactation consultant can help you if you have concerns or issues with latching.
2. Feed on demand
Yes, your baby just ate, but now they want to eat again! During a cluster feeding phase, try to follow your baby's lead and feed them whenever they show hunger cues, such as:
Moving fists to mouth
Turning their head to look for food (rooting)
Smacking their lips
Opening and closing their mouth
Even if your baby has just eaten, their hunger (or need to nurse again) is real. Don't try to delay feedings so your baby will "get back on schedule"—this will only prolong and worsen the fussiness.
Breastfeeding on demand
Don't worry about overfeeding—it is unlikely for a breastfeeding baby to overeat. Unlike bottle-feeding, breastfeeding allows infants to self-regulate their food intake so they can stop when they are full. This means that they will not continue to eat simply because the milk is available to them.
However, for your own sanity as a breastfeeding mother, try to limit each feeding session to 30 minutes or less. This should be plenty of time for your baby to get enough milk and hopefully will give you a chance to rest before the next feeding.
Formula feeding on demand
If your formula-fed baby wants to cluster feed, this is also normal. You will simply need to be more vigilant to make sure that your baby does not overeat. Just watch your baby carefully and stop feeding when they seem full. For example, they might stop sucking, turn their head away, let milk spill out of their mouth, or fall asleep.
3. Avoid supplementing with a bottle if possible
Your baby's need to cluster feed is not a sign that you should supplement your breastfeeding with formula. Instead, it is a natural way of increasing a mother's milk supply. This is necessary for a baby who is preparing to grow or sleep for longer stretches.
Supplementing with a bottle has the opposite effect. The baby's extra feedings do not stimulate increased milk production when they come from a bottle. Therefore, if you are exclusively or primarily breastfeeding, you should try to continue to do so through the cluster feeding periods.
However, cluster feeding can be exhausting and frustrating and you may need to take a break. It is okay to let someone else give your baby a bottle of expressed milk or formula during this time. Just try to compensate by pumping so that your milk supply will continue to increase.
If you are already bottle feeding most or all of the time, you can continue to use a bottle for cluster feeds.
4. Use other calming techniques
If your baby is extra fussy in the evening, they may also be experiencing the "witching hour," a period of time in the late afternoon or early evening when very young babies might be especially fussy and hard to soothe.
Needing to cluster feeding can contribute to the witching hour, but there are also other reasons why babies are extra fussy during this time. In addition to feeding on demand, try some other calming techniques, such as:
Use a pacifier
Treat possible causes of gas
Keep your baby in motion in a stroller, baby carrier, or your arms
Try a warm bath
Give an infant massage
5. Practice self-care
Cluster feeding can be tough for parents, both physically and emotionally. If you are going through this phase with your baby, make sure that you are taking good care of yourself—you're worth it too!
Try to get enough sleep
It may seem impossible to get enough sleep when your baby wants to eat every 30 minutes. Just be aware that sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for your mental and physical health.
Prioritize your sleep during cluster feeding periods. If at all possible, have your partner or another family member or friend care for your baby when you aren't needed for breastfeeding so you can rest. Remember that parenthood is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to keep your energy up.
Frequent breastfeeding can cause issues such as nipple soreness and chafing. If you're experiencing these issues, there are several ways to find relief.
Make sure that your baby is properly latched onto your breast. An improper latch can cause or worsen soreness. A lactation consultant can advise on latch issues.
Use a lanolin-based nipple cream after each feeding. This product moisturizes and helps your skin heal. It's also totally safe for your baby, so you don't need to wash it off.
Take a warm shower or apply a warm compress to your breasts.
6. Rely on your support system
There are many ways that a co-parent, relative, or friend can help the mother during cluster feedings.
If you are bottle feeding your baby, try to alternate feedings with your partner or another adult so that you can take a break.
If you are breastfeeding, your partner can still take the baby in between feedings and during calmer periods. When you are nursing, they can handle other tasks for the household so that you can focus on caring for your baby and yourself.
If you are stuck on the couch for a long breastfeeding session, ask your partner to bring you snacks and water. It's important to stay hydrated and eat enough calories to keep up your strength and produce enough milk. They can also take these opportunities to spend time with you and the baby.
7. Remember this phase will pass eventually
Although it can feel exhausting and frustrating, cluster feeding is a normal part of a baby's development. Eventually, your baby will stop cluster feeding and more reliably eat every few hours.
For now, just try to remember that cluster feeding means that your baby is growing and developing.
Frequently asked questions
1. How long does cluster feeding go on for?
Cluster feeders may eat very frequently for a 3-4 hour period before settling down. Each phase usually lasts for 2-3 days, but another cluster feeding phase may occur a couple of weeks later, as the baby enters another growth spurt.
2. How do I know if my baby is cluster feeding?
During cluster feeding, your baby will want to eat very frequently during a period of time and will cry if not immediately satisfied. They may want feedings to last longer or, alternatively, may eat for only a short time but want to eat again soon after.
3. Is cluster feeding normal at 3 days old?
Yes, cluster feeding is very normal in the early days after birth. A brand new baby’s stomach can only hold 1-2 teaspoons of milk and they digest milk quickly, so it’s normal for them to need to eat very frequently. Breastfeeding often during that time will help to establish your milk supply.
4. How do I stop cluster feeding?
You shouldn’t try to stop your baby from cluster feeding, but these tips may help ease their fussiness:
Offer a pacifier
Use a swaddle or baby carrier or cuddle your baby close
Go for a walk, even around the house
Try a warm bath
Decrease stimulation–go to a darkened room or use white noise
5. Can you overfeed with cluster feeding?
It depends whether you breastfeed or bottle feed. Breastfed babies generally don’t overeat because they are better able to regulate their food intake and stop when full. If you bottle feed, pay attention to signs that your baby is full so you don’t overfeed them.
6. How long does cluster feeding at night last?
During a cluster feeding phase, a baby may eat very frequently for a few hours at night, or even during the day. This phase generally lasts for 2-3 days (or up to a week) before the baby returns to a more regular feeding schedule.
7. When should I expect cluster feeding?
Cluster feeding is common during the first few weeks of a newborn's life and can continue to occur for the first few months. It’s most common when a baby is between 3 to 6 weeks old–a period of rapid growth and development.
8. Is cluster feeding normal at 1 day old?
It’s common for babies to cluster feed during their first few days of life. This encourages a mother's milk to "come in" and helps to stimulate milk production to help the baby regain their birth weight and continue to grow and develop.
9. What are the signs of cluster feeding?
Your baby might be cluster feeding if they:
Are only a few weeks old;
Are especially fussy
Want to eat constantly within a short period of time
Want to nurse or bottle feed for a longer session
10. Can you run out of milk during cluster feeding?
Cluster feeding does not usually mean that there is a problem with the mother's milk supply. To ensure that your supply will increase to keep up with your baby’s growth, be sure to stay well-hydrated, eat plenty of nutritious food, relax, and follow your baby’s hunger cues.
11. How much cluster feeding is normal?
It’s normal for a baby to want to eat every 30 minutes to an hour in the evenings, or even to keep nursing on and off for a few minutes at a time. This is your baby’s way of stimulating your milk production to keep up with their growth.
12. When should I be concerned about cluster feeding?
You should consult with your doctor if your baby cluster feeds but does not seem satisfied at the end of a feeding, wants to breastfeed non-stop, is not producing enough wet and dirty diapers, or is not gaining weight.
Cluster feeding is a perfectly normal part of your baby's growth and development. It usually accompanies a growth spurt or longer sleep period—both really positive things!
Just remember that the cluster feeding phase will pass as your baby grows and you won't always be feeding them constantly in the evenings. In the meantime, feed your baby on demand, try other soothing techniques, and take good care of yourself for both your and your baby's sake!