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Cluster feeding is when a baby suddenly starts eating much more frequently — in clusters — for a period of time. It usually lasts a couple of hours at a time and differs from your baby’s usual eating behavior.
Cluster feeding is normal baby behavior, seen primarily in breastfeeding newborns in the first few weeks. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with your baby or your milk supply.
Read on to learn more about cluster feeding and how to manage it.
Cluster feeding can be hard to identify because newborns rarely have a predictable eating or sleeping schedule.
Your baby may be cluster feeding if:
- they’re a few days or weeks old
- they’re showing their usual hunger signs or won’t stop crying until they’re fed
- they want to eat constantly or they eat very frequently for short sessions each time
- nothing else seems wrong and they’re content when eating
- they still have regular wet and dirty diapers
Cluster feeding is more common in the evenings. With an older infant, though, there may be several days in a row when they eat a lot more than usual throughout the entire day. This may be due to growth spurts or teething.
What’s a normal baby feeding schedule?
Every baby is different, but a typical feeding session for a baby that isn’t cluster feeding can range from 10 to 30 minutes. Experts advise to feed your newborn baby an average of at least 8 to 12 times in 24 hours. Your baby may show hunger signs and need to eat more frequently.
Frequent feeding may help:
- prevent jaundice
- promote healthy weight gain in babies
- mothers develop a milk supply
Cluster feeding vs. colic
If your baby is fussier than usual, you might wonder if they have colic. Colic is similar to cluster feeding in that it can come on suddenly and often occurs in the evening.
A baby with colic usually can’t be soothed with nursing or formula. However, a cluster feeding baby will be soothed during nursing sessions.
Colic is defined as at least three hours of crying for at least three days a week, at least three weeks in a row. It affects
Colic symptoms include:
- crying that sounds more like screaming
- face and body that appears tense or contorted
- crying at a predictable time each day, often in the evenings
- crying that peaks at six weeks and usually passes by 3 months old
Researchers don’t fully understand why babies cluster feed, but there are many unproven theories. Cluster feeding probably meets a combination of needs that your baby has at this developmental stage.
Heather Turgeon, MFT, a psychotherapist and author of The Happy Sleeper, says, “cluster feeding is likely a way for babies, who have maturing nervous systems, to regulate. It could also be a way to store up on food for the night.
“What we do know about breastfeeding is that it’s a supply and demand system. When little babies want to feed, that’s a good sign that we should let them, because trying to schedule or space feedings out doesn’t give that supply and demand system the right feedback.
“So while we can have theories about why they cluster feed, what matters is that we let them do it — that’s the way to establish and maintain mom’s milk supply.”
Cluster feeding can be exhausting and you may hear people stressing the importance of a schedule for baby, but cluster feeding is a normal part of the development of many babies.
Is cluster feeding a sign of low milk supply?
More frequent eating shouldn’t cause worry about your milk supply. A doctor can easily tell you if your baby is getting enough milk based on their weight gain.
Tracking a young baby’s wet diapers can also help you tell if they’re getting enough milk. Below are the average number of wet diapers per day, based on baby’s age:
|Age||Average wet diapers per day|
|Newborn||1 to 2|
|4 to 5 days old||6 to 8|
|1 to 2 months||4 to 6|
If you’re ever concerned about your baby’s eating, ask your pediatrician and meet with a lactation consultant. Babies who struggle to gain weight or seem frustrated while eating may not be getting enough milk.
Other reasons for nighttime fussiness
Some babies just tend to get fussier in the evenings. Reasons may include:
- being overtired or overstimulated
- missing parents who’ve been at work or away all day
- needing to be burped if they’ve been eating a lot
Cluster feeding has both positive and negative effects.
- Baby may sleep longer after cluster feeding.
- It may help to increase your milk supply.
- It may help babies emotionally and neurologically regulate.
- It can increase your skin-to-skin time with baby, which has
benefits for both mom and baby.
- It can increase nipple soreness.
- It’s unpredictable.
- It can be exhausting, both physically and emotionally.
- It often takes time away from other family or household needs in the evening.
While cluster feeding is a normal, brief behavior, it can still be taxing on the whole family. Here are some tips for taking care of yourself, your family, and your baby during cluster feedings:
- Keep a large bottle of water and snacks near your nursing area to stay hydrated and nourished during cluster feeds.
- Set up a nursing area in front of the TV so you can watch something during cluster feedings. Or use the time to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. Keep chargers within reach.
- Change breastfeeding positions often so you don’t get sore.
- Use the downtime to call a friend. Since you’ll want to keep your hands free to hold and aid your baby, consider using earbuds.
- Sit on the couch or floor while you feed baby so you can read or play with older kids at the same time.
- Have a basket of special toys for older siblings that they only play with when the baby is nursing.
- Practice nursing your baby while they’re in a baby carrier so you can potentially walk around while they feed.
- Plan ahead. If baby usually starts cluster feeding around 7 p.m., plan to use the restroom, eat, and get comfortable before then.
- Hand off the baby to your partner or a close friend whenever you can to get a short break. This also allows for other people to have time with them.
- Talk with your partner about expectations and plan for how you’ll handle evening chores if the baby starts to cluster feed.
- Let friends help cook or do housework, or, if possible, consider hiring a housekeeper for the first few weeks postpartum.
Cluster feeding isn’t a sign that you need to supplement with formula. If you’re nursing and need a break, you or someone else can offer a bottle of breastmilk.
You’ll still need to pump at this time in order to keep up your milk supply at pace with the baby’s eating, however.
There are many tricks other than feeding you can try to soothe a fussy baby. Some babies may be soothed by the same method every time. For other babies, what worked yesterday, or even earlier in the same day, may no longer work. Feel free to experiment with these or other ideas:
- Wrap baby in a swaddle to help recreate the experiences from the womb.
- Offer a pacifier.
- Hold baby as you slowly walk or rock.
- Dim the lights and reduce other stimuli, such as loud noises.
- Use white noise, either from a white noise machine or cell phone app, or from a fan, gently running water, or even a vacuum. You can also create your own white noise by holding your baby upright on your chest and humming in low tones.
- Hold them in different positions. They may be fussy because they’re uncomfortable or want a change of scenery.
- Sing peaceful songs, recite poems, or speak to baby in a soft, gentle voice.
It’s important to go to your baby’s recommended checkups or wellness visits so the doctor can keep track of growth and development. These visits are more frequent when your baby is first born, when tracking weight gain is vital.
Your doctor will tell you if they suspect your baby isn’t getting enough milk or if they aren’t gaining enough weight. More frequent feedings, fussiness, or breasts not feeling full don’t necessarily mean your baby isn’t getting enough milk.
Always call your pediatrician if your baby seems very sick, lethargic, or has trouble breathing.
Cluster feeding is normal baby behavior and can happen any time, though it’s most common with newborns and in the evenings. Researchers don’t totally understand why it happens, but it’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong.
You may need to reset your expectations for these periods but cluster feeding isn’t permanent and will pass eventually.