101: Cluster feeding

By Abby Johnston

Cluster feeding is when babies, usually newborns, feed back-to-back or at very close intervals for a period of time.

As much as you love your new bundle, being tied to them 24/7 is tough, particularly if feeding is painful.

Let's talk about how to survive.

First, it's worth saying that cluster feeding is completely normal. It's all part of the journey, and it will get easier.  It doesn't mean you don't have enough milk, and it doesn't mean your baby is under-nourished.   You can't overfeed an exclusively breastfed baby, so get comfortable and surrender your body and time for these early weeks or months.
The most likely reason for cluster feeding in the newborn stage is to build-up milk supply.  Milk production is a supply-demand system, in which more suckling results in more milk production. It gets a bit crazy at the start, but eventually your boobs and baby will find their sweet spot.
Your body will usually respond to a baby-initiated demand for more milk within 24 hours. You can also increase supply by pumping or hand expressing, but if your bub is already clustering, your breasts are likely being 'stimulated' enough.
If you've got damaged nipples, mastitis, thrush or any other nursing conditions, cluster feeding is going to be a hazy phase of persistence you'll look back on one day and be proud of. If this is you, it's probably worth seeing a certified lactation consultant. Midwives, obstetricians and doctors often have good intentions, but there is nothing like getting a breastfeeding guru in.  
If you are feeding 'on demand', know that if your baby is clustering they have a genuine need to nurse - whether it's hunger in a growth spurt, or comfort in a developmental leap.
If you're baby is in the cluster zone, remember to be easy on yourself. Have a bath, go for a walk or meditate on the toilet, and let a loved one hold your crying baby for 15 mins. Your baby will survive and you'll have a moment to feel like yourself again.  

5 ways to cope with cluster feeding

#1 Set yourself up before you sit down

Make sure you have everything you need at arms reach.  There is nothing worse than not being able to reach the TV remote, your book, or a glass of water when you are home alone.  

#2 Get distracted

You don't have to stare lovingly at your baby for every waking (and sleeping) hour. Get immersed in a TV show, read a book or god forbid use your iPhone. You're only human.

#3 Get as comfortable as possible

If you're reading this article you probably have a bent up neck and an aching back already, but try to support yourself as much as you can.  Prop pillows under your arm and try to sit in a variety of different positions and places to vary the impact nursing has on your posture.  Keeping your shoulders back and down will also help you to engage the right muscles when holding your baby.  If you need some relief along the way, a visit to the osteopath might be in order.

#4 Drink lots of water

Your breast milk is about 90% water, and you are likely to be producing more than 750ml a day.  If you feel thirsty, its probably because you are. Drink more than you normally would and check the colour of your pee next time you ‘go’ - if it's clear or light coloured you are nice and hydrated.

#5 Know you're a hero

Ultimately, cluster feeding is a battle of persistence, and nothing anyone else says or does for you will make it much easier.  But you should know that you are a hero.  You are giving your baby the best possible start in life and there is nothing more important you could be doing with your body or your time.  So honestly, well done.

Cluster feeding usually only occurs on and off for the first 4 months of nursing, so hang in there, it's not forever.

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