Recognizing and responding to a baby's hunger cues is an essential skill for parents and caregivers. Understanding these cues can help prevent a fussy baby and ensure your child's nutritional needs are promptly met.
It may not be easy for new parents to figure out exactly what their baby's behavior is telling them. The good news is, as you spend precious moments bonding with your little bundle of joy, you'll unlock the secrets of their hunger cues, bit by bit.
To get you started on this journey, we will examine which physical and behavioral cues can indicate when it's time to feed baby and signals that your infant is full and satisfied.
Let's dive in and find out exactly how to tell if your baby is hungry!
The Secret Language of Hungry Babies: Deciphering Baby Hunger Cues
Babies often display early hunger cues before they start crying (a common late hunger cue). These cues are subtle signs that your baby is hungry and can include things like increased alertness, stirring or squirming, stretching, and turning their head from side to side. It's essential to pay attention to these early cues to respond to your baby's hunger before they become upset.
Keep in mind your baby's cues will likely change as they grow and learn new behaviors. Hunger cues can vary between babies and older children, and each child may have a unique way of indicating hunger.
Observing your baby's individual cues and patterns over time will help you become more attuned to their needs! As a general guideline, here are some physical and behavioral cues to look out for:
Recognizing Physical Cues
The rooting reflex is an instinctive behavior observed in many newborns and babies that helps them locate the source of food, either the mother's breast or a bottle nipple. It's as if your baby is "rooting" around, searching for your breast or a bottle to begin feeding.
You can use the rooting reflex as a cue to let your baby nurse when they display this behavior. By gently stimulating their cheek or mouth, you can trigger the rooting reflex and guide them toward feeding.
Most babies like to explore their hands and fingers by putting them in their mouths. However, if a baby displays these actions and another hunger cue, like lip-smacking, it may indicate that it's time to feed your baby.
Many moms notice that their babies make sucking motions with their mouths, lips, tongue, or fingers when hungry. These motions can be a sign that they are ready to feed!
Recognizing Behavioral Cues
When babies are hungry, they may become fussy and restless as their body sends signals for nourishment. Fussiness surrounding hunger can manifest in different ways, such as increased restlessness, irritability, squirming, or even whimpering.
A crying baby is usually a late hunger cue, and hunger cues should ideally be responded to before it reaches this point. Instead of waiting for the tears to flow, keep an eye out for the early signs of hunger listed below. You can whisk your little one to the breast or bottle by catching those cues while they're still calm.
Stirring or waking from sleep
Babies often wake up or become restless when they are hungry. If your baby starts to stir, fuss, or open their eyes after a nap, it could be a sign that they're ready to eat.
While some of the signs discussed above may seem obvious, some hunger cues may surprise you, such as...
Hunger can cause babies to become more awake and alert. They may open their eyes wide and appear more interested in their surroundings.
When a baby becomes more active and alert, it can indicate hunger. They may start to move their arms and legs more vigorously, kick their feet, or exhibit other increased body movements.
Full and Satisfied: The Key to Understanding Your Baby's Fullness Cues
Recognizing your baby's hunger cues is only half of the story; paying attention to signs that they are full is also important.
When it comes to your child's feedings, there's no need to enforce a clean plate or finish every drop in the bottle, as food should not be used as a reward or punishment. It's all about fostering a healthy relationship with food, where enjoyment and nourishment go hand in hand.
So, let your child take the lead and listen to their tummy's cues, and trust that they have an amazing ability to self-regulate their intake.
Recognizing Fullness Cues
When your baby turns their head away from the breast, bottle, or spoon, it often indicates that they have had enough and are not hungry anymore.
Decreased or slowed sucking
During feeding, you may notice that your baby's sucking slows down or becomes less vigorous. When your little one displays that they are ready to stop sucking, this can signify that they are becoming full.
Pushing away the nipple or spoon
If your baby starts to spit out the nipple or push away the spoon, it's a clear signal that they have reached the point of fullness.
Closing mouth or pursing lips
When your baby starts to close their mouth or purse their lips, it suggests that they have had enough and are signaling that they are done with the meal.
Feeding your baby is one of your most important jobs as a parent. One of the best ways to get comfortable with this task is to pay attention to hunger and fullness cues so that you never have to second guess whether or not your baby is receiving adequate nutrition!
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends in babies, and it is not medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes to your child’s formula and when choosing your child’s formula. Always consult your pediatrician before making any decisions about your child’s diet or if you notice any changes in your child.
Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for your baby because breast milk provides your child with all the essential nutrients they need for growth and development. Please consult your pediatrician if your child requires supplemental feeding.
Agustina Fernandez is a medical doctor, who graduated from Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, in Argentina. She has experience working in an emergency room of a public hospital, where she helped many patients with urgent diseases. However, her true passion are children and she is planning on doing her specialization degree in Pediatrics soon. In the past year, she has become interested in researching about infant nutrition, including breastfeeding, infant formula and food in the first years of little ones' lives.
Dr. Hsu received his medical degree from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University.
Dr. Hsu did research in MRI neuroimaging research of fetal brains at Boston Children’s Hospital, an affiliated hospital of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hsu is currently a full-time medical writer and consultant.
Outside of the medical profession, Dr. Hsu loves to write, learn new languages, and travel