When breastfeeding becomes 'cluster feeding' – what does this mean?

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breastfeeding cluster feeds

 

 

So often mums say, my baby wants to breastfeed all evening, I am worried about my milk supply?

It’s common for young babies, especially, to ‘cluster feed’, meaning they feed very frequently or almost continuously over a period of a few hours. This can happen at any time of the day but it is common in the evening and can mean that as your baby feeds almost constantly, your breasts feel ‘empty’.

When this happens it’s perfectly reasonable to worry that your milk supply is lower during the evening. However, Dr. Peter Hartmann, a breastfeeding researcher at the University of Western Australia, has said that in the women he has studied, milk volume is not low at this time of day. Even if milk volume is lower in the evening, fat content is typically higher in the evening (particularly if baby is allowed to control this via cue feeding), so the amount of calories that baby is getting should not be significantly different.

There is research to suggest that when your baby ‘cluster feeds’ over a few hours, your letdown reflex and, therefore your milk flow, can become a bit slower over this time because of a slower hormonal response. Your letdown reflex can also be affected by tiredness and stress, especially the stress of worrying whether you have enough milk for your baby – what a vicious cycle!

Take a break

One solution if your baby has been feeding for a while and you are starting to feel ‘empty’ is to take a break – pass your baby to your partner if they are around and have a drink, something to eat or a warm shower to help you relax. Your partner won’t smell like milk so your baby is likely to be fairly calm as you take this little break. Then you can come back and try feeding your baby again and he will be more likely to settle at the breast.

Pre-empt evening ‘lows’

The best way to boost your evening milk flow is to pre-empt this time: have a rest in the afternoon when your baby sleeps so you aren’t exhausted by late afternoon/evening, make sure you eat a healthy lunch and a healthy afternoon snack. Late afternoon (‘three-thirty-itis’) seems to be a ‘danger time’ for junk food snacking: it’s when your blood sugar is low and your energy reserves are running out so you reach for caffeine or chocolate. As these foods pass through your milk, it’s likely they can contribute to your baby’s evening restlessness too.

To avoid the temptation of junk food binges, keep healthy snacks handy – some boiled eggs in the fridge, avocado, tuna or smoked salmon, hommus and crackers or try some Boobie Bikkies  and drink plenty of fluids.

Follow your baby’s hunger cues

Allowing your baby to feed whenever he shows hungry signals, your breasts will get the signal to make more milk. Conversely, if you start offering formula ‘topups’ , your breasts will miss out on signals to produce more milk and your supply will reduce – then you offer more bottles until, sadly either your baby starts to prefer the  faster flow of milk from the bottle, your supply is insufficient to nourish your baby and soon he is completely weaned. The thing is that even if you give your baby a formula  ‘topup’ he may still be fussy anyway. Besides exposing your baby to potential allergens and risking early weaning, research shows that mums who give babies an evening top up bottle actually get an average of 45 minutes less sleep overnight – so that’s not really a helpful solution if sleep is your goal.

Is it hunger? Or something else?

It’s also worth considering that evening fussiness and ‘cluster feeding’ may not be just about ‘hunger’.  Instead, it can be a way of your baby calming his immature nervous system because he is actually feeling quite overwhelmed after a ‘busy’ day getting used to the big new world outside your body. According to Dr. Katherine Dettwyler (who does research on breastfeeding in traditional societies) babies in Mali, West Africa and other traditional societies don’t have colic or late afternoon/evening fussiness. These babies are carried all day and usually nurse several times each hour. There is also evidence that babies who are carried more during the day fuss less in the evening. Perhaps ‘wearing’  your baby in a baby carrier or sling  earlier in the day would help to regulate his little nervous system and give you both a calmer evening.

Snuggle up!

Whether you are worried about your milk supply or you feel your baby may be overstimulated, one of the best ways to ‘reboot’ your milk supply and your baby’s nervous system is to snuggle your baby ‘skin to skin’ – relax in a quiet, dimly lit room and remove or open your own top and cuddle your baby dressed only in a nappy. This will boost your breastfeeding hormones, you will notice every subtle hunger cue and, by allowing your baby unlimited access to your breasts and feeding him whenever he wants, he will feel comforted, relaxed and secure and you will be encouraging a healthy milk supply.

The good news is, that babies who cluster feed, usually take a good long nap afterwards so, although cluster feeding can happen at any time of day,  if your evenings involve sitting on the couch with your baby attached, consider that you are stoking him up for a nice night’s sleep. You are also boosting your milk supply for the following day. And remember the Mummy Mantra for when the going gets tough – “this too shall pass”. It usually does, by around the magical three month mark.

 

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