Infant Hunger Cues - A Simple Guide to Baby's Hunger

Infant Hunger Cues

Wouldn’t it be nice if newborns came with an instruction manual? One of the more challenging feats as a new parent is learning your baby’s various hunger cues and how to catch them before tummy rumbles turn to tears. Initial signs that your baby is hungry may be subtle and easy to miss if you don’t know what you are looking for. Here’s a simple guide to breaking down the stages of baby’s hunger cues and what to do if baby becomes upset before you notice them.

Early Hunger Cues:

Your newborn is not likely to raise his hand and ask for the breast or bottle when he is feeling hungry. There are, however, some early indicators to look for that may suggest he needs to be fed. Early hunger cues include waking from sleep, stirring, turning of the head, lip smacking, opening and closing the mouth and rooting or seeking the breast. The rooting reflex, for the new parents out there, is a baby’s automatic tendency to turn his head toward the stimulus and make sucking motions with his mouth when the lips or cheeks are touched. This is a natural reflex that helps with the process of breastfeeding. If you see baby displaying any of these cues, offer the breast or a bottle.

Mid Hunger Cues:

If you miss the first set of cues (which can easily happen when you are just learning), the second set of more active cues may be more noticeable. Babies who are beginning to feel frustrated and hungry may display increased physical movement such as fidgeting, stretching, rooting around the chest of whoever is holding them, positioning themselves for nursing, fussing, fast-paced breathing or putting their hand, toy, clothes or just about anything in their mouth. If your baby has reached this stage of hunger, offer a bottle or the breast as soon as possible.

Late Hunger Cues:

Responding to late hunger cues is when it gets a little trickier. Every new parent has missed the early and mid-cues at least once and found themselves having to soothe an inconsolable baby. If your baby has reached this point of frustration and hunger they will begin to cry, move their head frantically from side to side, turn red and display signs that they are agitated and distressed. At this point, you will need to comfort your baby before feeding them in order to have a successful nursing or bottle feeding. 

Try calming your baby by cuddling him, having skin-to-skin contact, wearing him, singing to him, rocking, bouncing or even taking a warm bath together. Once your baby has calmed down, offer the breast or bottle. Although it will likely happen to even the most attentive parent from time to time, you want to avoid reaching this stage of hunger to the best of your ability. Once baby has reached this stage of agitation, he is more likely to have a poor latch, feel overly tired, eat less and wake sooner for the next feeding. Routinely letting your baby reach this stage of hunger and distress can result in feeding problems and poor attachment.

A good rule of thumb in the early days is-- when in doubt, feed baby. For breastfed babies offering the breast frequently and for comfort in addition to hunger will only help increase your milk supply and develop a strong and lasting bond with your baby. For bottle fed babies, feeding with love and attentiveness is also a great way to strengthen your attachment and nurture your bond with baby. If you have questions about hunger cues, nursing your baby or any and all things related to pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period, contact Health Foundations for a free consultation with a midwife and for a tour of our Birth Center

*Special note for bottle feeders*

With bottle feeding, it is also important to look for signs that your baby has had enough. These signs include turning the head away, refusing to suck and becoming fidgety or frustrated. Just as it is important to be aware of hunger cues, it is also important to respect signs that your baby is full and let him take the lead on how much he eats. This will help prevent overfeeding baby.