To best describe those first few weeks spent as a new mom, “overwhelmed” would be an understatement. Losing sleep, changing diapers and trying to figure out what to do with a hungry baby who won’t stop eating? You can take comfort in the fact that you’re far from alone.
While not all women breastfeed from birth, for personal or medical reasons, plenty of moms still give it the old college try. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, and based on the latest CDC statistics available in the 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card, up to 49 percent of women met that goal in 2011.
Do the math, and this breaks down into roughly half of new moms who may experience many of the hurdles that come with breastfeeding for the first time. One of the biggest bumps along the way — that most moms don’t hear about until it happens to them — is a seemingly insatiable newborn who simply refuses to stop feeding.
This “all-you-can-eat buffet” relationship with a new baby is perfectly normal, and it even has a name. It’s called cluster feeding, and according to private-practice lactation consultant Leigh Anne O'Connor, it can be considered a rite of passage for a new mom.
What is cluster feeding?
O’Connor explains the difference between cluster feeding and a regular nursing session with a hungry baby: “[Cluster feeding] is when a baby nurses every 45 minutes or every hour a few times in a row. This is normal and helps establish milk supply, gets a baby fed and helps make milk. One great benefit is that the baby typically sleeps a good stretch after a cluster feed.”
The reason so many moms may not have heard of cluster feeding before is because it is a relatively new term for an old (and very normal) feeding behavior, says Wendie Howland, legal nurse consultant and life-care planner at Howland Health Consulting. “Breastfeeding babies have a great feedback loop with the breasts that feed them. A normal feed will leave about 10 percent of the breasts’ contents in the breast, called ‘hindmilk.'”
Howland continues, “The hindmilk has a higher fat content (i.e., higher caloric content) for reasons that will make sense when you realize that as a baby grows, its feeding needs increase. On a day when the child is hungrier, the breasts get emptied more completely. The extra fat calories will sustain the baby, and if this goes on for a full day, the breasts increase overall production. Then the hindmilk is ready to accommodate the next growth spurt and its associated hunger spike. This is normal. It’s not concerning at all.”
If you’re the planner type who wants to know exactly when your newborn may ramp up on his tendency to eat, Howland breaks it down even further. Days of frequent, or clustered, feeding are normal and expected at day six and day 15 of life, around 3 weeks old and intermittently thereafter. During a random day of cluster feeding, most mothers feel overwhelmed and worry that they don’t have enough milk — since they’ve spent an entire day fiercely nursing a newborn who can’t be satisfied.
“Not to panic. This is normal, normal, normal,” says Howland. “Allowing the baby to nurse that much empties the hindmilk, thus teaching the breasts that the baby is growing normally and tells them to make more.”
Considering that cluster feeding is a normal part of the new breastfeeding journey, there’s very little to worry about. In fact, Howland cautions, the worst thing you can do during a cluster-feeding session is to try to disrupt the natural process by supplementing with formula. When that happens, she says, “The breasts don’t get emptied completely for a full day, they don't make more milk than before, the baby still wants more, the mother thinks she doesn’t have enough and supplements, and before you know it, more calories come from a bottle than a breast, and the mother sadly abandons the idea.”
In O’Connor’s opinion, there are only a few warning signals that could indicate cluster feeding has gotten out of hand. A baby who is literally attached to the breast all day long and does not settle between cluster-feeding sessions may have a feeding problem that requires a doctor’s care. A baby who feeds and feeds and still does not gain weight should also see a doctor immediately.
Still, O’Connor says, a new mother’s best bet is to give cluster feeding time. During expected growth spurts, a baby can cluster feed frequently for two or three days at a time. This will often be followed by a longer stretch of sleep for a growing baby — which means a little extra shuteye for a new mother who is exhausted from breastfeeding.
Cluster feeding can be one of the most common sources of new mom panic when a breastfeeding mother fears her baby isn’t getting enough to eat. Ever the voice of reason, Howland encourages new moms to take it all in stride. “Wet diapers, poopy diapers, fontanel not depressed from dehydration? That baby is getting enough. And there will be more, plenty more, with more in reserve, tomorrow. It’s hard when you’re a new mother, inexperienced, overwhelmed and sleep-deprived. Perhaps seeing a frequency day as a signal to sit/lie down, just be with your baby and do nothing else for a whole day isn’t such a bad idea. If this didn’t work, the human race would have died out a long time ago.”
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