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Growth spurts, cluster feeding, what’s it all about?

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Growth spurts, cluster feeding, what’s it all about?

Lyndsey Hookway
Paediatric Nurse, Health Visitor, IBCLC, Author, PhD researcher, Holistic Sleep Coach and Founder of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program
@FeedSleepBond (Twitter) @lyndsey_hookway (Instagram)


If you are breastfeeding your baby, chances are you have heard about growth spurts. You’ have probably also heard of cluster feeding? Sometimes they are referred to as frequency days. These are terms used to describe times when your baby feeds more often than usual, and they can cause a little frustration and confusion if you don’t know what to expect and why they are happening. This article will help you to understand what is going on.


What is happening?

Often, at quite predictable times, babies go through phases of wanting to feed more frequently. You may feel like you have been glued to the sofa for a few hours. Left breast. Pause. A bit more left breast. Burp. Five-minute rest. Right breast. Right breast. Left breast. Burp. Left breast. Which breast do I feed from again?? You may wonder if there is something wrong with your milk supply, especially if this is out of the blue.


Now, I stress, that in the early days, especially the first two weeks, your baby is almost certainly calibrating your milk supply to be just right for their needs. Your breasts are amazing, but they do need to get the right messages from your baby to know exactly how much milk to make. Your body is a wonderfully efficient machine, and it won’t go to the trouble of making milk that is not needed, so the business of making enough milk is up to your baby and you to work out in the early days.1


However, what is less well-known is that your milk supply stays about the same from about 4-6 weeks, all the way through to when you start solids at about 6 months.2 At that point, your baby will continue to breastfeed alongside eating solid food, and it will very gradually start to reduce. By the way, as long as you’re both happy you can continue to breastfeed your little one for as long as you like – your breastfeeding goals are your own, but the recommendation is to breastfeed (as well as give family foods) for two years, or even beyond.3


So, the important work of increasing your milk supply is mostly done by 4-6 weeks. Those early days and weeks of breastfeeding were setting up a milk supply for a 6-month-old baby! Amazing right? That’s because, unlike formula, the composition of breastmilk is constantly changing to meet your baby’s needs.4 The proportion of fat, carbohydrates, protein and other micronutrients are perfectly suited to your baby’s current developmental, metabolic and physical needs.


This is why it is so important not to restrict feeds in the first few weeks. Feed your baby whenever they cue to be fed. You cannot overfeed your baby.


Is it increasing my milk supply?

It really helps to understand what is happening with your milk supply, because this will reassure you, and help you to feel more confident in your ability to make plenty of milk for your baby. After about 4-6 weeks, if your baby cluster feeds, it is unlikely that they are substantially increasing your milk supply. It’s pretty constant. Think about a large bucket of milk. This is your baby’s 24-hour total milk volume (it’s usually about 750ml, or 25oz on average for one full term baby). Your 6-week-old baby will drink the same now, as they will when they are 4, 5, and 6 months old. Obviously, there may be a little bit of variation, but by and large, the amount of quite consistent.


What can be very variable though is how often they drink from the ‘bucket’. If they go to the bucket 8 times, they will probably drink more at each feed than if they go to the bucket 18 times. So, a baby who is cluster feeding is probably getting very small volumes of milk, but overall, in 24 hours, they are getting the same amount that they would if they fed less frequently.


But it’s not just about your baby. This is a relationship, and a relationship is about more than just one person. This feeding frequency will also depend on how much milk your breasts can ‘store’ at one time. Everyone’s milk storage capacity is different, and it will be different for each baby if you have more than one child. Some mothers can store 150ml of milk in one breast. Others can only store 40ml. This will also affect how many times your baby goes to the bucket.5 Again, overall, as long as you are feeding your baby responsively, this is a beautifully and tightly controlled system that works without us having to micro-manage it.


So, the short answer is: if your baby older than about 4-6 weeks is feeding very frequently, no, they are not increasing your milk supply.


If it’s not increasing my milk supply, why do babies do this?

You might then wonder why on earth babies do this? It seems logical that as your baby grows, they would need to feed more to increase milk supply. And yet, that’s not what happens. At least not in a significant way. To understand why babies feed more frequently at certain times, you first have to wrap your head firmly around the fact that breastfeeding is not just about nutrition.6


When you breastfeed your baby they get a cuddle, warmth, immunity, closeness, relationship, and soothing. There are two problems I run in to a lot.


  1. If parents think their baby is hungry every time they cue to feed, this can lead them to think they have an extra ‘hungry’ baby, whose needs are not being satisfied at the breast.
  2. If parents understand that some of those feeds are ‘just for comfort’, and yet they do not believe that comfort is as valid a reason for feeding as hunger, then they may try to dissuade their baby from feeding.


The truth is that babies who are having an acute phase of development, learning something new, feeling a little overwhelmed, unsettled, lonely, bored, upset, tired, or scared, will sometimes want to feed for comfort, So whenever your baby is learning new skills, they may well want to feed more frequently. For comfort. This is totally normal, and you do not need to worry that it has anything to do with your milk supply.


Why this is important

The reason this is important is that at certain times, your baby will be fussier, want to feed more, and you may feel like your breasts are ‘empty’. As well as this, around 6 weeks, your baby may start to poop less frequently.


In my experience, this is where your confidence in your milk supply can tank. Soft breasts, fussy, frequently feeding baby who has suddenly not done a poo for 2 days…… you may suddenly worry that your milk supply is not ‘keeping up’ with your baby’s growth.


In fact, this is a really common time to struggle with perceived low milk supply, which is one of the most common reasons for stopping breastfeeding before you are fully ready.7


In reality, the likelihood is that there is nothing at all wrong with your milk supply or your baby. If it is a developmental phase, this, like all other phases, will pass.


Will giving formula help?

Very often, at around 6 weeks, what I call the ‘triple whammy’ (softer breasts, less poop, frequently feeding fussy baby) leads parents to feel that they need to top up with formula, because their milk supply has taken a hit. They are often baffled because breastfeeding seemed to be going well, but nobody likes to think they have a ‘hungry baby’, so this is a common time to start to top up with formula.


What would probably happen if you topped up with formula at this point, is that because your milk supply is calibrated for your baby, getting your baby to have some of their total milk needs met with formula will mean they don’t empty your breast quite so well. Remember that your body is an efficient machine and does not make milk that it doesn’t think you need. So, this can start a slow down-regualtion of milk production.


In other words, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You thought you had a problem with your milk supply – you gave some formula – your body slowed down milk production – you now genuinely have less milk – you need to give more formula. Many people refer to this as the ‘top-up trap’.


Unfortunately, the top-up trap can really undermine parental confidence. The good news is that if your milk supply was perfectly fine before, then you’ll be able to build your milk volume back up again, even if formula is now part of your routine. You will probably need to slowly reduce the formula, breastfeed more often, and maybe pump a little, but you can get back to exclusive breastfeeding if that’s what you’d like to do.8


What can I do to cope with cluster feeding?

Hopefully you’re reading this before breastfeeding hits the skids, so you know what to expect. The best thing to do is stay calm, and try the following:

  • Plan ahead for the times when your little one is likely to be a little breast-obsessed. Around 2 weeks, 6 weeks, and at regular intervals. Knowing what is on the horizon helps you to be better prepared.
  • Accept that for a few days, your baby needs you more often. Acceptance can be very freeing. Let go of the need to control this, and you’ll feel better
  • Know that during these times, you are not ‘sitting on your backside doing nothing’. You are building your baby’s brain. You are protecting your milk supply – which is not only their food source, but their immunity, comfort and connection. Finally, you are investing in their secure attachment. Responding every time your baby needs you, however hard this is, is something you will never regret.
  • Because this can be hard work for a few days, accept lots of offers of help. Outsource absolutely everything you can – cooking, cleaning, shopping, caring for other children or pets. You name it.
  • Factor in a few days of easy meals and snacks. Keep foods that are easy to eat in stock. Have a few back up meals in the freezer or ask people to bring these around.
  • Learn to feed lying down. This can be a great way to rest, while also tending to your little one.
  • If it’s all getting a bit much, there’s nothing wrong with handing your little one to a partner or trusted friend or family member to hold and cuddle for an hour while you take a bath, lie down on your own, or go for a walk.


When should I worry?

It’s all very well reassuring you that this is all normal, but you will need to know when there is a problem as well.9 If you notice any of the following, then seek appropriate advice straight away:

  1. If your baby is not gaining weight as expected. Frequent feeding with normal weight gain is NOT a sign of a milk supply problem. But if your little one is struggling with weight gain, then you should seek medical and lactation support.
  2. If your baby is under 6 weeks and having less than 2 dirty nappies per day. Babies over the age of 6 weeks often poop infrequently, because of the change in the predominant type of protein in breastmilk at this age, but under this age we would want to rule out any problems.
  3. If your breastfed baby at any age seems uninterested in feeding
  4. If your breastfed baby is having fewer wet nappies than usual
  5. Your baby has a fever over 38C
  6. You are worried about your baby


Always trust your instinct. You know your baby best. Your best weapons are information, resources, sources of support, speaking to the most appropriately qualified person, and self-belief.10

Good luck with your baby, and your parenting journey.




  1. Walker, M. (2013). Physiology of the breast during pregnancy and lactation. Core curriculum for lactation consultant practice, 287-300.
  2. Kent, J. C., Mitoulas, L., Cox, D. B., Owens, R. A., & Hartmann, P. E. (1999). Breast volume and milk production during extended lactation in women. Experimental physiology84(2), 435-447.
  3. Dyson, L., Renfrew, M. J., McFadden, A., McCormick, F., Herbert, G., & Thomas, J. (2010). Policy and public health recommendations to promote the initiation and duration of breast-feeding in developed country settings. Public health nutrition13(1), 137-144.
  4. Kent, J. C., Mitoulas, L. R., Cregan, M. D., Ramsay, D. T., Doherty, D. A., & Hartmann, P. E. (2006). Volume and frequency of breastfeedings and fat content of breast milk throughout the day. Pediatrics117(3), e387-e395.
  5. Kent, J. C., Prime, D. K., & Garbin, C. P. (2012). Principles for maintaining or increasing breast milk production. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing41(1), 114-121.
  6. Brown, A., Dowling, S., Pontin, D., & Boyer, K. (2018). Breastfeeding and modern parenting culture: When worlds collide. In Social experiences of breastfeeding: Building bridges between research, policy and practice(pp. 131-146). Bristol UK Policy Press.
  7. Hookway, L. (2016). An exploration of common infant behaviour misinterpretations that can lead to a perception of low milk supply. Community Pract89(1), 28-31.
  8. Kent, J. C., Prime, D. K., & Garbin, C. P. (2012). Principles for maintaining or increasing breast milk production. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing41(1), 114-121.
  9. Gonzalez-Viana, E., Dworzynski, K., Murphy, M. S., & Peek, R. (2017). Faltering growth in children: summary of NICE guidance. BMJ358, j4219.
  10. Brown, A. (2016). What do women really want? Lessons for breastfeeding promotion and education. Breastfeeding medicine11(3), 102-110.


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