The Speed Of Feed: Breastfeeding And Cluster Feeding

Managing periods of constant breastfeeding requires patience and plenty of support, we talk to a breastfeeding councillor about her experience in providing it.  

I chat to a lot of new mums, and one of the things they often tell me is how unprepared they were for just how long breastfeeding takes – especially in those first weeks after the baby’s birth. It’s normal for newborns to take about an hour to feed, and for feeds to occur anywhere between eight and 12 times (or more) in 24 hours, which means it’s possible for you to be feeding your baby for more than half the day.

No wonder you hear mums say they don’t have time for a shower or to make themselves something decent for lunch.

Sometimes your baby will be quite settled and just feed and sleep. However, there will be other times (usually once or twice every 24 hours) when they are unsettled and are on and off the breast so often you lose count of whether it’s one feed or six. This constant need to feed is referred to as ‘cluster feeding’, and if you are able to recognise it, it’s one of those things you just have to ride through. Contrary to what some women believe, it usually has nothing to do with milk supply, attachment problems, feeding difficulties or medical concerns such as reflux.

In the first couple of months, these cluster-feeding periods can be unpredictable.

After that, your baby’s circadian rhythm will begin to emerge (from being exposed to light during the day and darkness at night). Around this time, babies start to settle down more at night. This is when cluster feeding typically moves to late afternoon/early evening, where it stays for quite some time, or appears during growth-spurt periods.

I might be painting a bleak picture of breastfeeding here, but rest assured periods of cluster feeding will end with a more settled baby. Your child will also finally fall into possibly the deepest, longest sleep because of the fattier milk produced during this time, even though your breasts may feel quite soft and empty.

These early days are hard work, but it really does get better.

As babies get more efficient at feeding, the feeds get shorter and the time between them longer. Unfortunately, since all babies are different, there is no magic milestone age where this happens. Generally from six to eight weeks you’ll find your baby won’t spend quite so much time at the breast, and by three to four months, most babies have the whole suck-swallow-breathe thing down to a fine art, and some are done in 10 minutes.

It’s then that you’ll be really glad you don’t have to prepare bottles and formula. You can breastfeed whenever and wherever you are, and you’ll be so glad you persevered through all that “demon-feeding”, as one mum I knew called it.

If you find yourself resenting how long breastfeeding is taking, ask for help from someone who knows, such as a lactation consultant, Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor, or friend who’s been there with her own kids.

Very sleepy newborns who suck for a minute or two, fall asleep at the breast, but scream when put to bed can be encouraged to have longer active sucking periods that fill them up more.

This can be done with breast compressions (squeezing the breast so a gush of milk goes into their mouth) and lots of side swapping.

My best tip to help get through the early months of this seemingly never-ending cycle of breastfeeding and settling isn’t a dream feed (where babies are fed while asleep to encourage them to sleep longer during the night so they don’t wake from hunger), a bottle of formula, expressed milk or a dummy. It’s a rock. Someone who can be there for you, hold your baby during the day while you have a nap to energise yourself for the night feeds, stock your freezer with meals to zap when you have a hand free, or whip around the house with a mop and broom so you don’t feel like life is out of control. This rock could be a partner, parent, friend, neighbour, paid help or a combination of any or all of the above.

When the newborn fog eventually lifts (and it will) you’ll start to feel you are ready to join the world of the living and enjoy your increasingly social baby and all the other delights that come from being a mum.

Simone Casey is a breastfeeding counsellor, lactation consultant and public relations officer and blog writer for the Australian Breastfeeding Association. She has breastfed three children, now aged 11, eight and two.

Words By Simone Casey

Guest Contributor