As a brand-new mom, my first night at home was nothing short of a nightmare. I left the hospital with a sleepy babe who was barely interested in nursing and found myself staring at a wide-awake and furiously ravenous newborn at 2 in the morning on her fourth day of life.
I knew she was hungry, but I couldn’t get her to latch on to my breast. We went round and round, me offering her the breast, her screaming, and me crying because I felt like I was doing something wrong. It took hours to get her to eat a full meal, and it felt like as soon as we were finished, it was time to start the whole process over again.
The next morning, I found myself making a desperate call to my lactation consultant. A few hours later we were in her office, troubleshooting our breastfeeding woes.
For my baby and me, there was more than one problem to address. Her latch needed to be corrected, and I needed to pump some to encourage more milk production. But one of the biggest reasons she was so pissed was because I had been missing her hunger cues.
It wasn’t enough to follow a schedule—to feed her every few hours or to wait for her to cry. I needed to follow her lead, but I didn't know what I was looking for.
Every baby is different, but there are some general rules you can follow to make sure you are feeding them before they are so hungry that they’re angry. Follow these hunger cues outlined by lactation consultants and infant nutrition experts to determine if your infant is hungry or full.
Your Baby’s Very First Signs of Hunger
If your baby is crying, they’re actually in the late stages of feeling hungry and you’ve missed some more subtle clues that they were ready for their next meal. Babies can’t talk, but they definitely know how to communicate their needs. Hunger cues begin with some less noticeable behaviors and gradually become more obvious over time.
Restlessness is one of the earliest signs an infant wants to eat, according to breastfeeding advocacy organization La Leche League. Each baby may display restlessness differently from others, but some of the most common behaviors include rapid eye movements, wriggling around, or disruptions to their sleep.
Some babies may also exhibit tension, according to La Leche League, which can look like clenched fists or rigidity of their arms.
Most little ones will also smack their lips, suck on their fists, or open and close their mouths to let you know they want to eat. If you notice any of these cues, go ahead and settle into a comfy chair and give your baby a chance to satisfy their hunger.
Your Baby’s Secondary Signs of Hunger
If you missed your baby’s first signs of hunger, don’t worry, they won’t give up easily. If a newborn baby isn’t fed quickly after they first begin to experience hunger, their behavior will escalate, and their hunger cues will become more apparent.
Babies are born with an amazing reflex called rooting. From their first hour of life, a typically developing baby will turn their head toward their mother’s breast or a bottle if they feel a touch to their cheek.
Their mouth will also make a sucking motion. If your baby is rooting around, this is a pretty clear indication that they are ready to eat. If they are older than 4 months—when rooting stops being reflexive and becomes an intentional action—you can be certain that rooting means your child wants to eat.
In addition to rooting, a baby who is growing hungrier may try to get in a position to nurse, according to breastfeeding resource Kelly Mom. Older babies may also start to pull on your clothes or even swat at your chest.
No matter the age of your baby, fussiness can be a sign of hunger. Of course, fussiness isn’t always an indication that your baby needs to eat, but if isn’t time for sleep and a diaper change isn’t the answer, it is probably wise to give nursing a try.
Crying: Your Baby’s Last-Ditch Effort to Communicate Hunger
Many parents believe that crying is their baby’s way of communicating that they’re ready to eat, but that actually isn’t true. A baby who is crying to signal hunger is usually only doing so because their other cues have failed.
Waiting until a baby is upset to initiate nursing or offer a bottle can be problematic, and some mothers may have trouble getting their baby to settle down enough to eat.
Additionally, mothers who are responsive to their infant’s hunger and satiety cues are decreasing both Mom's and Baby’s risk for obesity, according to the journal Appetite.
If you’ve missed your baby’s early hunger cues, don’t fret. Calm your baby before offering the breast or a bottle, and make a note to pay more careful attention in the future.
How do I know if my baby is full?
Whether you are breastfeeding or bottle feeding, being in tune to your baby’s satiety is just as important to their health as being aware of hunger signs.
In fact, practicing responsiveness to cues babies offer that they're ready to wrap up their meal can help decrease their chance of obesity later in life by encouraging self-regulation of hunger, according to the journal Physiology & Behavior.
The good news is that babies are pretty great at letting their mother know they’re no longer hungry. Some babies will turn their head away from the breast, clamp their mouth shut, or simply fall asleep, according to Enfamil.
In some cases, babies may not break their latch but their sucking will slow or stop, which is a good indication you can break the latch to end the feeding. Older babies who aren’t hungry could become distracted by what is going on around them, becoming more interested in playing than eating.
If your baby uses a bottle, you may have to watch more closely for feeding cues. It is easier to overfeed a formula-fed baby, according to research by the University of Akron.
Many parents may assume they should encourage their infant to finish their bottle, but it is actually more important to watch for your baby to signal they are through, even if that means wasting some formula.
Should I feed on demand or encourage a schedule?
Perhaps one of the most hotly debated topics among breastfeeding mothers is whether they should put their baby on a schedule or not. There are some proponents of scheduled feeding, such as Gary Ezzo, author of On Becoming Babywise. But most lactation experts advise against scheduled feedings, especially for young babies.
Young babies have small stomachs, and breast milk digests more quickly than formula. Additionally, the amount of milk a mother makes will adjust based on demand, so a mother who withholds feeding her baby in an attempt to get on a schedule may see a decrease in her milk supply.
Because of this, it is recommended that mothers not space feedings out by any more than three hours and that mothers respond to their babies cues and feed on demand as much as they are able.
If putting your baby on a schedule is important to you, lactation consultant Jessica Barton offers a few suggestions on her blog. First, she says it is helpful for parents to spend a couple of days paying attention the natural rhythm of their child.
Keep track of when your baby is eating and sleeping and then begin to build a schedule from there. Additionally, parents should be realistic about the length of time between feedings, since babies under the age of 6 months should nurse 10 to 12 times in a period of 24 hours.
Of course, like many parenting practices, on-demand feeding isn’t an exact science. Knowing yourself and understanding your baby's unique needs—combined with advice from your own lactation consultant—is the best approach for developing a feeding routine that works for your family.