Baby Hunger & Feeding Cues

How do you know if your baby is hungry or not?

You know a newborn baby needs to eat frequently, but how can you tell if a baby is showing signs of hunger or something else, such as a wet diaper or need to sleep? It is best to pay attention to a baby’s hunger cues, as opposed to feeding on a set schedule, since newborns’ feeding patterns can change often in the early weeks and months as they hit growth spurts and reach new milestones. But what cues actually indicate hunger?

Early feeding cues

Early feeding cues may include smacking or licking lips, opening and closing mouth, sucking on lips, tongue, hands, toys, etc. You may even see some of these early hunger cues when your baby is just starting to wake up from his nap and is still sleepy. However, at around 6-8 weeks, sucking on fingers/hands may not actually indicate hunger, as your baby is learning to explore his hands and may even begin teething!

Active feeding cues

When your baby is presenting active feeding cues, you may see him rooting (mouth wide open, looking for a nipple) on whoever is carrying him; other cues include trying to move towards the breast, hitting at the breast, fidgeting, squirming, or fussing.

Late feeding cues

Late feeding cues include crying, fussing, a red face from crying, and baby moving his head frantically side to side. Crying is actually a late indicator of hunger, and it can be difficult to feed at this point as the baby will need to be calmed down before he is able to be fed.

You may hear from various providers that baby needs to be eating every 2 hours. Every baby is different, and some can go longer stretches (4-5 hours) between a couple of feedings. On average, a newborn will feed 10 to 12 times in a 24 hour period. As long as baby is audibly sucking/swallowing at the breast or bottle, having 5-8  wet diapers by their fifth day of life (or by the time your milk comes in), 2-4 dirty diapers per day, appears sleepy and relaxed at the end of a feed, and your pediatrician is satisfied with weight gain then he is likely getting enough. Once your baby has established a good weight gain pattern, you shouldn’t need to wake him to feed and can let him set his own pattern, responding to his feeding cues accordingly.

 Starting Solids Feeding Cues

Soon after you get the hang of understanding your newborn’s feeding cues, he’ll be old enough to start solids, and with that comes the introduction of understanding new feeding cues! The World Health Organization as well as American Academy of Pediatrics recommend introducing solid foods around 6 months of age, when he shows the signs of readiness.

You want to be sure your baby shows signs of developmental readiness before you begin solids. These include sitting upright unassisted, having lost the tongue-thrust reflux as shown by no longer pushing food out of their mouth with their tongue, and being interested in solids by showing eagerness to be part of mealtime. While most babies are developmentally ready for solids around 6 months, some don’t show any interest in solids until closer to 9 months. Letting your baby touch the food, smell it, see it, and play with it is all beneficial exposure to get him used to food in general. For more information on signs of readiness, check out Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness .

We like to say: “Under One, Just for Fun” because during this time introducing food will be about learning to eat and trying different tastes and textures, rather than to provide a majority of baby’s calories. Breastmilk or formula should still be baby’s primary source of calories under the age of 1 year. For that reason, it is important to feed your baby solids about an hour after he has had breastmilk or formula in order to make sure introduction of solids doesn’t cause a significant decrease in breastmilk or formula intake. Aim to feed solids once or twice per day, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time. Once baby gets the hang of eating, you can graduate up to eating 2-3 times per day, 2 to 4 tablespoons at a time.

When spoon feeding baby, it is important to go slowly and follow your baby’s cues. This helps ensure you’re not spooning food into their mouth faster than they’re ready for it nor offering one more scoop just to finish the last of the jar. You’ll notice your baby has many different facial expressions with each new bite of baby food, from scrunching his nose to puckering his lips. Even a facial expression that may register as dislike isn’t always the case. Your baby is tasting new foods for the first time and may simply be trying to make sense of the new flavors and textures in his mouth! Repeated exposure to a variety of flavors and textures is important for expanding your baby’s palate. A baby will give you the cue that he’s ready and interested in more food by happily opening his mouth wide towards the spoon. He’ll make it just as clear when he’s all done eating. A baby will turn his face or pull away from you, close his mouth, squirm in his chair, or bat away at the spoon when he’s decided he is done eating, so don’t try to get in one more bite! This helps to maintain a positive feeding experience and you and your baby will both look forward to the next meal.

For more on this topic, check out the following articles: