Are you wondering how to tell if your baby is hungry? Questions like this keep moms up at night… and the newborn stage is already exhausting.
And, sure everyone knows that. It’s common knowledge, something that everyone says and acknowledges.
But when you’re living it. Holy. Cow.
Tired you didn’t even know that you could be, am I right?
Even though newborns can’t do much more than sleep, cry, eat and poop, they CAN tell you they’re hungry!
They don’t use words, but this guide will help you figure out if your baby is trying to tell you they want some milk. Once you recognize these hunger cues, life will get simpler… even if just a little bit. I PROMISE!
How To Tell If Baby Is Hungry: Hunger Cues
Rooting is a are a reflex babies are born with. God gave them this reflex to naturally turn towards food.
What rooting looks like is simple:
baby is looking for a nipple to initiate a feeding.
The baby will turn their head to the side while opening their mouth and extending their lips. This is a very obvious sign the baby is hungry and ready for a feeding.
This commonly occurs when someone other than mom holds the baby. As they gaze down lovingly at the little being in their arms, the baby turns their head, opens their mouth and looks for a breast! I’ve seen many an embarrassed man experience the rooting reflex and hand baby to mom as fast as is humanly possible.
You can test the rooting reflex.
It’s simple. Just take your finger and gently stroke your baby’s cheek. Your baby will instinctively turn their head and try to latch on to your finger.
The rooting reflex typically only lasts until your baby is 3-4 months old. By then, they should have the hang of feeding and don’t need those primitive reflexes anymore!
2. Increased Wakefulness
This is a hugely important hunger cue to recognize. Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest to catch and can be confusing.
Most newborns sleep 16 or more hours per day, and wake to feed. When the newborn starts to get hungry, they’ll start moving around more.
The first sign is rapid eye movement.
You may notice your baby’s eyes moving around underneath their eyelids. Then, your baby may start rooting!
If they aren’t fed, their alertness will increase. If the baby starts crying, they’ve been hungry for too long. Often it’s hard to feed a crying baby so try to initiate a feeding at the initial signs of wakefulness.
If increased wakefulness is difficult for you to recognize…
Try wearing your baby or do more skin-to-skin time throughout the day! Keeping your baby close to you will help you feel their movements and recognize when they start to rouse.
Not only does skin-to-skin help you recognize your baby’s early hunger cues, it also has tons of positive outcomes for the newborn baby. It helps them regulate their temperature and breathing, calm them, and regulate their (and your) hormones. Any skin-to-skin time is beneficial, but it’s especially helpful for recognizing early hunger cues.
What if my baby doesn’t rouse?
A newborn baby should be fed every 2-3 hours (or more frequently) for the first 4 weeks of life. Usually, babies will wake when they’re hungry- and this might even be quicker than every 2-3 hours. If so, feed them when they rouse even if it hasn’t been 2 hours yet.
However, some babies have the opposite problem.
It’s more common in preemies, but can happen with a healthy full-term baby also. Some babies would rather sleep than eat.
They are getting the hang of their new world and how to live in it. Figuring out how to survive is a lot of work for a new baby. Sleep is important, but they NEED to eat.
If your baby doesn’t rouse 2-3 hours since the last feeding, WAKE THEM and feed them.
I’m serious, and I’ll say it again. You need to wake your newborn baby to feed if the last time they ate was 3 hours ago.
This only applies for the first 4 weeks of life. During the first 4 weeks, they’ll eat 10-12 times per day MINIMUM.
After 4 weeks of life, your baby will start to eat more per feeding as their stomach grows and they get more coordinated with feeding.
Additionally, if you’re having trouble with your baby rousing, they’ll start to become more alert and better able to exhibit hunger cues as they get older.
3. Moving Around
This is a bit different than increased wakefulness. Usually the first hunger cue starts while your baby is asleep. If your baby wakes from their sleep, this is the hunger cue you’ll see.
It includes many different movements:
- Flexing and moving their arms and legs.
- Acting restless.
- Moving their lips and mouth.
- Smacking and licking their lips.
- Bringing their hands closer to their mouth.
- Sucking on their fingers or hands.
- Sucking on other objects.
The more hungry your baby becomes, the more awake they will become- making more of these types of motions.
These cues are fairly easy to recognize, but not all babies exhibit them. Some babies go straight from increased wakefulness to crying. This can be extremely frustrating for a new mom, but again try wearing your baby or practicing more skin-to-skin.
If you do notice these cues however, it’s definitely time to feed your baby!
4. Clenched Fists And Discomfort
A hungry baby will act very uncomfortable!
The first movements usually center around your baby’s mouth (like moving their lips, tongue and sucking on things). But if your baby goes a little longer without being fed, they’ll start to act uncomfortable.
They will wiggle, kind of like we do when we can’t find a comfortable position.
Take a look at your baby’s hands. Are they in little fists?
That’s a sign your baby is hungry. When you feed your baby they will start to slowly unclench their fists as they take more milk.
A good sign that your baby has gotten enough milk is when their hands start to unclench and relax. Often babies will fall asleep after eating to fullness.
Pay attention to your baby’s comfort level and if their fists are clenched!
How To Tell Baby Is Too Hungry: Crying
Crying is considered a late hunger cue. It’s SUPER important to try and recognize your baby’s hunger cues before they begin crying.
Because it’s SOOO much harder to feed a screaming, crying baby.
They often are too frustrated to eat, and don’t want to latch in order to breastfeed.
In this case, try to calm your baby. Soothe them with your voice, sing to them, rock or bounce them. Calming them will help you be able to initiate a feeding.
If your baby just falls asleep after crying…
Some babies will scream their heads off if they aren’t fed when their hungry. They will refuse to eat, and then just fall asleep.
It can make you wonder if it was a different problem.
First, run through your mental checklist. Is baby’s diaper dirty? Are they hot or cold? Are they uncomfortable for some reason? Do they want comfort?
If it doesn’t seem to be any of those things, your baby probably was hungry.
Sometimes when a newborn doesn’t get fed and goes too long without eating, they just won’t eat. Often crying or being awake too long tires them out. They decide that they’ll sleep instead of eat.
Be diligent in these times!
If your baby fell asleep, but you suspect they’re still hungry – pay CLOSE attention to their hunger cues (especially increased wakefulness). If you notice any signs of hunger, then feed your baby!
Again, don’t forget that if they’re under 4 weeks old, it’s important to wake them if their last feeding was 3 hours ago. Be gentle and READY to feed them in a drowsy state- the last thing you want to do is rouse your baby into crying again.
Well that sums it up! Hunger cues are the best way to tell if your baby is hungry. I hope these things help you recognize when to feed your baby.
Kealy Hawk, BSN, RN, CLC
Kealy is a Registered Nurse, Lactation Counselor, and most importantly a mommy! Her own baby feeding struggles gave her a passion to help moms throughout their feeding journey. She specializes in breastfeeding support and evidence-based formula recommendations. To talk with Kealy or take one of her breastfeeding or formula classes, visit https://littlebearcare.com.
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