Parenthood is a 24/7 job. One of the most important tasks for parents to learn is feeding their baby when they are hungry.
It can be challenging to know if your baby needs something to eat or wants attention, but there are ways that you can tell.
This blog post will teach you what signs your baby may exhibit when they need food and some tips on how best to respond.
Older children can tell you when they’re hungry, but newborns and infants can’t. Well, at least not with words. But, babies can communicate what they need in other ways.
At first, you may not notice your little one’s feeding cues, but as you get to know your baby in the days and weeks after she is born, you will begin to recognise the subtle little hints that will tell you when she’s hungry and ready for some breast milk.
You’ve just put your feet up for a moment of rest when you hear a loud wail from the baby monitor.
Like a newly hatched bird in a nest with its beak open, your little one seems to be hungry all the time!
But when is your baby’s cry a hungry cry, and when does it mean something else?
What about other signs and cues your baby uses to try to tell you it’s time for a feed? How do you know if your baby is feeding correctly or getting enough?
Relax. Your baby already knows how to tell you what they need. You’ll soon learn to understand what they’re saying! Here’s how to tell when your baby is hungry and needs to be fed.
Common Signs That Your Baby Is Hungry
Here are nine common signs to look for to let you know that your baby is hungry:
- Arms and legs are moving all around.
- Awake and alert or just waking up
- Cooing, sighing, whimpering, or making other little sounds
- Making faces
- Moving head from side to side
- Putting her fingers or her fist into her mouth
- Restless, squirming, fussing, fidgeting, or wiggling around 1
- Sucking on her lips or tongue
- Turning toward your breast while being held
Is Crying a Sign of Hunger?
You may have heard others say that you’ll know when your baby is hungry because she will cry. And yes, that is true; your baby will cry when she’s hungry; however, crying is a late sign of hunger.
By the time your child is crying, she’s probably starving. She’s most likely getting frustrated, too.
At this point, it may be hard to get her to calm down. And, if the baby becomes too stressed or tense, it can be challenging to get her to latch on and breastfeed.
Crying also uses up a lot of energy, so a crying baby may become tired and not breastfeed as well.
You will want to do your best to offer a feeding before your child starts to cry, especially if she’s awake and alert.
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Signs of Hunger After Feedings
If you pay attention to your baby’s feeding cues instead of putting your child on a schedule, you may find that the baby is hungry every hour or so for a few hours, and then he sleeps for a longer stretch.
When a baby wants to breastfeed many times in a short period, it’s called cluster or bunch feeding.
This type of feeding pattern is typical and not a cause for concern. So, whenever your baby appears hungry, offer the breast, even if it’s very frequently.
What Are Common Hunger Cues or Signs a Baby Is Hungry?
By the time your baby is crying, they’re likely already starving (and upset). Calling is usually a late sign of hunger in babies.
Before they cry, babies usually patiently signal that they need a feed with several kinds of hunger cues.
It’s up to you to learn to read the common hunger cues your baby is showing you. Here are some early hunger signs your baby might exhibit:
- being more awake and active (thinking about food makes babies excited)
- turning their head to the side, as if looking for food
- opening and closing their mouth (like little birds waiting for the parent bird in a nest)
- turning their head toward the breast or chest, or a bottle
- making sucking motions with their mouth (even if they don’t have a pacifier)
- smacking their lips, drooling more, or sticking out their tongue
- sucking on their fingers, hands, or clothing
- clenching their hands into tiny fists (they’re getting a little frustrated and impatient!)
- staring at you and following you around the room with their eyes — if you’re the primary person who feeds them
- giving you a furrowed brow, distressed look that says, “When are we eating?”
- making the sound “neh!” just before a cry means they’re hungry, according to Dunstan baby language
Hunger pangs in their tiny stomachs will usually wake them up, even from a deep slumber.
If your sleepy head seems to doze off longer, then it should use a feeding chart or guide to estimate if they’re feeding frequently enough for their age.
A general rule for new babies is that they should not regularly sleep for 4 hours or longer at a time.
Snoozing this much occasionally is acceptable (especially if it allows you to get some rest)!
However, if your baby regularly loves their sleep more than feeding, talk to your pediatrician about if you should be gently waking them up to feed.
Signs Your Child Is Hungry or Full
Birth to 6 Months Old
Your child may be hungry if they:
- Puts hands to mouth.
- Turns head towards mom’s breast or bottle.
- Puckers, smacks, or licks lips.
- Has clenched hands.
Your child may be whole if they:
- Closes mouth.
- Turns head away from mom’s breast or bottle.
- Relaxes hands.
6 to 24 Months Old
Your child may be hungry if they:
- Reaches for or points to food.
- Opens their mouth when offered a spoon or food.
- He gets excited when they see food.
- Uses hand motions or makes sounds to let you know they are still hungry.
Your child may be whole if they:
- Pushes food away.
- Closes their mouth when food is offered.
- Turns their head away from food.
- Uses hand motions or makes sounds to let you know they are full.
Let your child decide how much they want. Your child does not need to finish a bottle or all of the food in the jar or on the plate. Food is not a good reward or punishment.
Talk to your child’s doctor or nurse if you are concerned about how much or how little they are eating.
Signs of a Hungry Baby from Birth to 6 Months
Not a mind reader? Help take the guesswork out of feeding with these six signs of a hungry baby from birth to 6 months old.
Is your 6-month-old eating enough? How often should you feed them? Do their nutritional needs change from week to week? Babies communicate differently; here are some signs to look for.
Baby Hunger Cue #1. Wakes up and Acts Restless
Before your baby launches into a full-blown wail, they may wake up and move around in their crib. They may roll their mouth and raise their hands to their face.
Baby Hunger Cue #2. Sucks Fists or Smacks Lips
If you breastfeed, fist sucking and lip-smacking are signs your hungry baby will latch on more quickly.
Baby Hunger Cue #3. Roots
During your infant’s first weeks, if you stroke their cheek, their natural reflex will be to turn toward the bottle or breast and make sucking motions—this is called rooting. It shifts to being a voluntary action rather than a reflex by about four months old.
Baby Hunger Cue #4. Continues Suckling
A hungry baby may continue to show interest in sucking even after finishing the first breast or bottle. This could be your baby’s way of letting you know they’re not entirely done yet.
Baby Hunger Cue #5. Smiles During Feeding
Babies older than four months will show their interest in eating by looking at you and smiling as they feed—just about as heartwarming as it gets.
Baby Hunger Cue #6. Cries
A hunger cry is usually short, low-pitched, and rises and falls. Crying is one of the later signs of a hungry baby. You’ll likely notice other cues first. When a hungry baby wails, it may be more difficult to start feeding them until they calm down.
Signs Your Little One Is Full
Full Baby Cue #1. Closes Lips
Just as a hungry baby suckles, a full baby will likely zip its lips. This could be your little one’s way of saying they’re all done.
Full Baby Cue #2. Turns Head Away
A more forceful version of closing their lips is moving their head away. If your baby turns away from your breast or bottle, don’t force them to eat.
Full Baby Cue #3. Decreases or Stops Sucking
Some whole babies stay latched to the nipple without sucking—at which point, it’s probably time to end the session gently.
Full Baby Cue #4. Spits Out the Nipple or Falls Asleep When Full
After about 15 to 20 minutes of feeding, a whole baby often acts tired and may fall asleep.
Full Baby Cue #5. Interest in Surroundings, Not Eating
Around four months old, many babies begin to get distracted during feedings as their awareness of the world around them grows.
A hungry baby will usually put this curiosity on hold long enough to fill up. Looking around distractedly is a sign they’re full.
Babies are smart. They instinctively know when they need to be fed and when they’re satisfied.
They are typically in-tune to their needs. So, try to relax! Play it by ear and pay attention to your baby’s cues.
Now that you know the signs of a hungry baby, feeding time can be a little less stressful, leaving more time for bonding! Learn more about formula-feeding your little one.
How Do You Know Your Baby Is Feeding Well Enough?
It can be not easy to feel sure your baby is getting enough milk, especially if you’re exclusively breastfeeding.
Don’t worry. Your baby will quickly learn how to signal that they need more milk. You likely won’t have to worry about much other than getting your little one into position and ready to latch on whenever you spot their hunger cues.
A newborn will often feed, usually every 2 to 3 hours and sometimes more often. They should feed up to 12 times every 24 hours. This frequent sucking tells your body to make more milk for your greedy little one.
Throughout the early days, as your baby grows, their little tummies also grow. Babies’ stomachs grow from the size of a cherry at birth to walnut by day 3, a plum by one week, and a large chicken egg by one month.
This means that your baby will still need to feed a lot, but they’ll now be able to take in more milk each time you nurse or feed them. This may mean that they’re able to go longer between feeds.
Watch your baby while they’re feeding to see them gulp and swallow.
Also, you’ll likely be able to hear your baby swallow while they’re feeding, but they shouldn’t be making much noise beyond that. (Slurping or lip-smacking sounds may indicate a poor latch.) Your baby will also let you know when they are fed and satisfied.
Babies have several “fed” and “not-hungry-for-now” signals.
If you want to know whether your baby is satisfied after a feeding, look for them to exhibit the following:
- releasing or pushing away the breast or bottle
- closing their mouth and not responding to encouragement to latch on or suck again
- open and relaxed hands (instead of clenched)
- relaxing their body and even going a little limp
- looking around and showing interest in playing or other things
- looking content and maybe even smiling
- appearing happily tired and ready to go back to sleep
Regular checkups with your baby’s pediatrician include getting your little one weighed and compared with a standard chart for baby weight.
When the baby is feeding right, the expected weight gain is about 5.5 to 8.5 ounces (155 to 240 grams) every week for the first four months of life.
Some babies might gain more one week than another, and this is OK. As long as your baby is steadily gaining weight (and growing longer) overall, they’re feeding just fine.
If your baby is not feeding well, you’ll likely notice other signs, such as:
- low energy or appearing very tired and sleepy
- spending too little time sucking at your breast or from a bottle
- consistently taking a long time to feed — more than 30 to 40 minutes
- falling asleep soon after starting to feed
- a latch that’s weak or very shallow
- it’s painful for you when they latch on
- dark yellow urine (instead of pale and watery)
- dry red to brown specks in their diaper
- not having enough dirty diapers (newborns should have at least 3 to 4 soiled diapers per day)
Let your pediatrician or lactation consultant know if you’re having trouble with any of these things, which might indicate that your baby is having difficulty taking in enough nourishment.
This is something that needs to be addressed right away.
Hunger Cues and Growth Spurts
Babies may also show constant signs of hunger when they’re going through a growth spurt.
During a growth spurt, it may seem like your child wants to breastfeed all day long and is never satisfied or full.
Although it may seem like your baby is not getting enough breast milk, growth spurts are just another regular feeding pattern that you’ll experience as your newborn grows.
You can keep putting your baby to the breast very often.
The constant signs of hunger should only last a few days, while all that extra breastfeeding signals your body to increase the supply of breast milk.
Then, as your body makes more breast milk to meet your baby’s demands, you’ll begin to settle back down into a more regular breastfeeding routine.
When a Newborn Doesn’t Show Signs of Hunger
If you have a sleepy newborn, you may not notice any of the common signs of hunger. It may seem like all your baby wants to do is sleep.
But, the lack of obvious feeding cues doesn’t mean that your child isn’t hungry.
A newborn needs to breastfeed at least 8 to 12 times in 24 hours, so be sure to wake your baby up to eat at least every 3 hours if she isn’t waking up independently.
You can try to put your child to the breast even if it isn’t easy to wake her. You’d be surprised how well some babies can breastfeed even when they’re not fully awake.
When to Call the Doctor
It’s time to call the doctor if your little one is too sleepy and you’re having a difficult time waking her up for most of her feedings.
You should also contact your child’s pediatrician if your baby shows constant signs of hunger for more than a few days.
Newborns need to breastfeed often to stay hydrated and get the nutrition they require.
But, if your child is not showing signs of hunger and sleeping through feedings or constantly hungry for days, she may not be getting enough breast milk.
Your child’s doctor can examine and weigh your baby to be sure she’s healthy, gaining weight, and getting the nutrition she needs.
Your baby’s hunger cues begin long before you hear them cry. It might take some time, but you’ll soon learn exactly what they’re telling you.
In most cases, parents and caregivers don’t have to worry about the baby not feeding well enough.
Your baby will let you know when they’re hungry and when they’re full. If your baby isn’t feeding well enough, you’ll notice signs very quickly.
Remember to take your little one for their regular checkups. Your pediatrician will confirm that you’re doing an excellent job feeding your new little one!
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