cluster feeding and growth spurts in breastfed babiesIf you have a young baby, you’ve likely experienced a growth spurt or 2! You’ll know your baby is experiencing a growth spurt when he or she suddenly wants to nurse every hour, is fussier than usual and sleeps more (or less) than usual. You might also notice that your baby quite literally outgrows her pajamas overnight! Babies go through many rapid growth phases throughout the first year and many of these occur during the newborn period.

Common times for growth spurts are:

  1. 7-10 days old
  2. 2-3 weeks old
  3. 4-6 weeks old
  4. 3 months old
  5. 4 months old
  6. 6 months old
  7. 9 months old

Growth spurts generally last just a few days, but sometimes last as long as a week. Earlier growth spurts during the first 3 months tend to be shorter.

During a growth spurt you can expect your baby to be hungrier than usual and require frequent nursing throughout the day and night. Your baby might also want to cluster feed, especially in the evenings.

“Cluster feeding” is when your baby nurses frequently during certain times of the day. Typically, cluster feeding coincides with a baby’s fussier times. For a lot of babies, cluster feeding is common in the evenings, just before bedtime. During the hours between 6-9pm, your baby may nurse on and off for several hours and be otherwise difficult to soothe. Some people refer to this time as the “witching hour.”

Cluster feeding can sometimes be troubling to new moms and cause them to question their milk supply. Seeing their baby frequently latch and unlatch, fuss and cry, fall asleep at the breast, then wake up just a few minutes later wanting to nurse yet again, leaves a lot of moms thinking something must be wrong! But, you should take comfort in knowing that this is very, very common and your milk supply is likely just fine. In fact, cluster feeding is particularly helpful in filling your baby up so he/she can sleep in longer stretches throughout the night.

Milk composition is also different in the evenings. In the early morning hours, breast milk is more abundant for most moms, but is high in lactose and low in fat and protein. As the day goes on, mom’s milk production slows and less milk is available for baby. But, while milk volume is less, breast milk is much richer and creamier in the evenings and contains significantly more fat and protein. Again, our bodies demonstrate just how incredible they really are – matching up our milk supply and composition of our milk with exactly what our babies need, at precisely the right time!

So, what should you do when a growth spurt hits?

Get comfortable!! Remember that cluster feeding and periods of frequent nursing are normal and even necessary to establish and maintain your milk supply and also to meet your baby’s increased demand for milk as he/she goes through yet another rapid growth period.

It can be very tempting to “top off” your baby with a bottle of expressed milk or infant formula in an effort to satisfy his hunger. But, this is what we commonly refer to as a “breastfeeding boobytrap,” which can undermine your efforts to continue breastfeeding. It is best to not offer bottles in addition to nursing just because your baby is demanding more frequent feedings (unless you are having issues with weight gain and have been instructed to supplement by a pediatrician or lactation consultant who understands your goals for breastfeeding and has worked with you to design a breastfeeding-friendly supplementation plan).

Instead, do your best to be available to your baby and nurse on-demand. The dishes and chores can wait! Remember that growth spurts last just a few days and increased nursing during this time is not only necessary for your baby’s development, it is also critical to your milk supply!

Between periods of cluster feeding, you can walk with or wear your baby in a baby carrier to help soothe him/her.

You might also feel hungrier or thirstier during your baby’s growth spurt. Listen to your body – you may need to eat or drink more to replace the calories you are burning while breastfeeding.