Baby's Hunger Cues: How To Identify Them?

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Most new moms may ask themselves, “Is my baby hungry?” and “What is a good time to feed my baby?” Finding the answer to all of these questions is easy. With a bit of research, you will be able to identify the baby hunger cues your little one gives out to let you know they are hungry.

So, rather than worrying about when to feed your baby or how much to feed your baby, it’s a good idea to feed your baby only when they are hungry. Keep an eye on your baby’s behavior by considering the hunger cues we’ve mentioned in this article.

Different Baby Hunger Cues

Most parents think that crying is a hunger signal. But it is a late hunger cue. The baby shows many more cues early on. If you can pick those early hunger cues, it will be easier for you to feed the little one.

Below is a list of baby hunger cues that should look for (1) (2) (3).

Early Hunger Cues

  • Licking lips or smacking is the first sign of hunger.
  • Sucking on hands, lips, toes, clothes, toys, and fingers.
  • Opening and closing the mouth.
  • Sticking the tongue out.
  • Moving the head from side to side as if looking for something. This movement is called the rooting reflex. During the first weeks of birth, when you stroke the baby’s cheek, the baby turns toward the breast or bottle, as a natural reflex. They make sucking motions with their mouths. Rooting turns into a voluntary action after the babies turn four months old.

Active Hunger Cues

  • Trying to get into a feeding position by pulling on your clothes.
  • Turning the head towards the chest of the one carrying the baby.
  • Increased leg and arm movement.
  • Breathing fast or fussing.
  • Squirming or fidgeting.
  • Waking up from sleep and falling asleep again in quick successions.
  • Displaying discomfort, making whining sounds, and grunts.
  • Hitting on your chest or arm constantly.
  • A hungry baby may continue showing interest in sucking even after finishing the first breast. It indicates that the little one wants more.
  • Babies older than four months may even smile while breastfeeding, indicating their interest in continuing.

Late Hunger Cues

  • Moving the head frantically from one side to the other.
  • Crying is the last sign. A hunger cry is usually low-pitched, short, and rises and falls.

Calm down the crying baby before feeding. Offer skin-to-skin contact first and then start feeding when they are relatively calm.

Here are the hunger cues to note (3):

Approximate AgeHunger cues
0-5 months
  • Puts hands to mouth.
  • Turns head towards breast or bottle.
  • Puckers, smacks, or licks lips.
  • Has clenched hands.
6 to 23 months
  • Reaches for or points to food.
  • Opens his or her mouth when offered a spoon or food.
  • Gets excited when he or she sees food.
  • Uses hand motions or makes sounds to let you know he or she is still hungry.

Source: CDC

Benefits Of Following Hunger Cues

Instead of feeding your child randomly based on time gaps, it is always good to look for the cues they give. It will benefit you in more than one of these ways (4):

  • Helps you get to know your baby well.
  • Ensures smooth breastfeeding.
  • Satisfies the little one’s hunger and thirst.
  • Encourages your baby to trust you.
  • Gives you confidence.
  • Builds a positive feeding relationship between you and the baby.
  • Keeps up the milk supply.

How To Know When Your Baby Is Full?

Once your baby is full and satisfied, they show signs that it is done. Fullness cues include (3):

  • Closing lips
  • Turning the head away from the food source
  • Stopping or slowing down sucking (if the baby is breastfeeding)
  • Falling asleep, looking calm and relaxed
  • Spits out the nipple or food.

A baby older than four months may start looking around and seem distracted.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is hand sucking always a baby hunger cue?

Hand sucking need not always be a hunger cue once the baby crosses the newborn period. From around six to eight weeks, an infant begins to explore things through his hands and mouth. They gradually get more control over their hands. Sucking on hands is also common in babies before or during teething.>

2. What if I am not sure if it is a hunger cue?

If you suspect one, yet not sure about your baby’s hunger, offer them a feed. It can help both you and your baby in more than one way:

  • The little one can have a feed if they are hungry.
  • If you are breastfeeding, your milk supply will increase.
  • It can reassure and comfort your baby.

If your baby has regularly been nursing, yet seems fussy, check for other problems like discomfort from gas or tummy ache, etc.

3. Why does my baby show hunger cues shortly after feeding?

It is normal for babies to have feeds between short time gaps. It is called cluster feeding and is more common during the afternoon or late evening.

Babies also tend to feed more during growth spurts, which lasts for two to three days. Growth spurt happens at around two to three weeks, six weeks, three months, and six months.

4. Should I wake my sleeping baby for nursing?

Babies are very sleepy during the early days of birth. If the little one is less than four weeks old, wake them once every four hours during nights and once every two to three hours during the day to nurse. Practice this if they are gaining good weight, showing normal parameters, pooping, and peeing.

Babies may try to signal their hunger in multiple ways. Since each baby is unique, they may communicate their needs differently. Hence, you may miss some baby hunger cues at times. However, do not worry since you will be able to comprehend and recognize their cues better with time. Usually, constant crying is a late hunger cue. You may try soothing techniques such as skin-to-skin contact to aid in learning your baby’s feeding cues quickly. Slowly figuring out your little one’s hunger cues will help keep them full and well-nourished.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Is your baby hungry or full? Responsive Feeding Explained; Healthy Children; American Academy of Pediatrics
2. Feeding Your Baby: The First Year; Cleveland Clinic
3. Signs Your Child is Hungry or Full; Centers For Disease Control And Prevention
4. Hunger cues; Government of Canada
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Dr. Tushar Parikh

(DNB, DCH)
Dr. Tushar Parikh is a senior consultant and head of Pediatrics and Neonatology at Motherhood Hospital, Pune. He has over 20 years of experience, with a DM qualification and a Neonatology fellowship from Australia.  Dr. Parikh did his MBBS from BJ Medical College, Pune, DNB (Pediatrics) from the National Board Of Examination, DM (Neonatology) from Seth GS Medical College, Mumbai;... more

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more