So you've had a baby, and things are going reasonably "well." All your baby seems to do is sleep and drowsily nurse. But all of a sudden your butt is glued to the same spot on the couch between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. because your baby refuses to stop nursing. You, my poor friend, have entered The Cluster Feeding Zone. No, it's not fun. So what's the deal? Did you get a weird baby with a bottomless stomach, or is cluster feeding common? Do all babies cluster feed, or did you get an outlier?
The website Kelly Mom defines cluster feeding as, "when babies space feeding closer together at certain times of the day and go longer between feedings at other times." For a lot of babies who cluster feed, Kelly Mom explains, this might mean nursing every hour; or maybe even seeming to never leave the breast (shudder!) until they pass out for their first "long stretch" of sleep for the night. And according to experts, while not every single baby cluster feeds, many do. It is actually very common for babies in the early months of life to cluster feed, and though many babies tend to cluster feed in the evenings, according to BellyBelly some babies are at the breast around the clock. The particular lengths of time specified in the definitions of cluster feeding may vary depending on who you ask (some say it means feeding every hour, others say 30 minutes, for some it is simply defined as "constant"). However, the overall message is clear: cluster feeding is a very prevalent "trend" (if you will) among the 6-month-and-under set.
The site What to Expect seems to attribute cluster feeding to baby personality type. In their discussion on the topic, the experts at What To Expect describe it more as disposition-related:
"If you have a hungrier or more impatient infant on your hands, you may go little more than an hour between feedings; a more easily satisfied baby might be able to go for three-and-a-half to four hours."
Following that line of thought, you might even be getting a sneak peek into who your baby is going to be like in the future. (Obviously, if you have a Cluster Feeder, they take over your partner's side of the family.)
The breastfeeding experts for the national website for La Leche League agree that nursing sessions that are closer together at certain times of the day, and farther apart during other times, is normal. In fact, they assert, more frequent nursing could be the solution to perceived breastfeeding problems such as "not having enough milk" or having "too much." So in that sense, those seemingly "annoying" cluster feeding sessions are also providing a hidden benefit to mom and baby.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports that, generally, breastfed babies in the first month of life need to be fed at least every two to three hours on demand, with the goal of feeding them between eight to 12 times in a 24 hour period. According to Healthy Children's site, an adequate feeding session takes about 15 to 20 minutes per breast, after which, you will likely begin to notice your baby getting drowsy or falling asleep.
So what's a "normal" amount of feedings, and how long should they ordinarily take? The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) states that on-demand breastfed babies tend to eat eight to 12 times a day (or at least every two to three hours if you time it from the beginning of the one feeding to the beginning of the next session). Within this feeding schedule, ACOG goes on to explain, feedings on each breast might last anywhere from 15-20 minutes per breast to 60-120 minutes.
And yes, even 12 times a day might seem like a lot. For some, that might be considered "frequent nursing." Those first six to eight weeks of life for your baby are full of change and flux, and no one should expect things to be "business as usual." As Kelly Mom states, you should go into those first weeks expecting to let your baby nurse when they need to nurse and not try to set any kind of schedule. This, Kelly Mom explains, is helpful for your milk supply to develop and for the infant and mother bond.
On the first day or two of your baby's birth, your baby probably won't show any signs of cluster feeding behavior. That's because, as BabyCenter points out, your baby's stomach is very tiny. Plus, your milk hasn't come in yet (that happens later). In the first days post-birth, you're only producing small amounts of colostrum (special milk that protects babies from infection). And though sites like What To Expert and many others encourage on-demand feeding (i.e. feeding the baby when they're hungry as opposed to setting a schedule and relentlessly sticking to it), you may have to nudge your baby awake on that first day or two to feed them.
Newborns typically begin feeding more frequently the second night after birth. In their guidelines for patients just starting out breastfeeding, the website for the Cincinatti Children's Hospital states that by days two to four, babies tend to wake up for feedings as well as show hunger cues when they want to feed (rooting, sucking on fingers, lip smacking) and caution that crying is a "late hunger cue." It's on the next few days after you've come home from the hospital when you may experience cluster feeding.
For many new breastfeeding mothers, marathon nursing sessions can be very stressful and even make them doubt their ability to nurse. In their revised suggested clinical guidelines for health care providers, published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, researchers discuss how infant cluster feeding (among other factors) can lead some health practitioners to prematurely suggest supplementation with formula to new moms. Though these guidelines describe cluster feeding as normal infant behavior, and not a reason to warrant supplementation, they do note that a "feeding evaluation" may be necessary.
Don't despair, nursing moms. As What to Expect assures us, cluster feeding is temporary. As your milk supply increases and as your baby grows, you can most likely look forward to longer breaks between feedings. (That is, unless you have one of those babies who uses your breast like a pacifier, and not for sustenance, like my son did. But that's a whole other story).
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