How to Spot Baby Hunger Cues


By: Dr. Nazeli Gevorgyan - December 28, 2023 - 5 Minute Read

How to Spot Baby Hunger Cues? | The Milky Box

In the early months, babies rely on non-verbal signals to communicate their needs. As a crucial skill for new parents, understanding your baby’s hunger cues is vital.


In this article, we’ll break down simple ways to spot when your baby is hungry, helping you respond to their needs with confidence and care.

Responsive Feeding: Meeting Baby’s Needs

As you learn to recognize when your baby is hungry, responsive feeding comes naturally. It involves how caregivers interact with infants, paying attention to hunger and satiety cues. Recognizing these signals is crucial for a child’s development and appetite control, preventing overfeeding and malnutrition.


“Responsive” moms notice when their baby is hungry or full and respond appropriately. On the flip side, inconsistent responses from moms could be a risk factor for obesity.


Breastfeeding moms may not always know how much their baby has eaten, so they rely on the baby’s hunger signals to decide when to feed. Studies have shown that mothers who receive extra information about breastfeeding and hunger cues tend to nurse longer. This promotes a healthy appetite and good eating habits in the baby, strengthening the bond between mom and baby.


On the other hand, bottle-feeding moms can easily track milk intake but might miss cues when they’re unclear or inconsistent.

Understanding Your Baby’s Hunger Cues

Now that we’ve talked about responsive feeding, let’s dive into understanding your baby’s hunger cues.

Early Hunger Cues: “Hey, I'm hungry!”

Infants communicate their early hunger through a range of subtle cues. These signals include turning their head from side to side, opening and closing their mouth, puckering their lips, moving their hands toward their mouth, stirring as they transition from sleep, sucking on their hands, fingers, and clothing, and becoming restless. Additionally, the baby may make cooing or sighing sounds.


Responding to your baby’s early hunger cues offers several benefits. It helps them latch on and feed effectively, addresses their hunger and thirst, maintains a healthy milk supply, and lets your baby feel your presence and support.

Ignoring the Signs That a Newborn Is Hungry

If a baby’s early hunger signs are ignored, they might start moving tensely or crying. This can make breastfeeding difficult, affecting their ability to latch on well and causing potential discomfort for the parent. Calming the baby down for feeding becomes harder, too. Responding promptly to hunger cues is essential for a smoother and more comfortable feeding routine. 

Late Hunger Cues: “Please calm me down first, then feed me”

So, missing early hunger cues can lead to late cues like clenched fists, agitation, or crying. If your baby has reached this late cues phase, it’s essential to soothe and calm them before attempting to nurse or bottle-feed. 

Hunger Cues | The Milky Box

How Do You Tell If a Baby Is Eating or Comfort Nursing?

Infants frequently engage in comfort nursing, a non-nutritive sucking behavior for the emotional comfort it brings, creating a close bond with their caregivers. Recognizing through nursing whether your baby is eating for nourishment or seeking comfort involves paying attention to specific cues.


Signs of comfort nursing include fluttering, slowed sucking, a brief pause in sucking, holding the nipple without actively feeding, playing with the nipple, falling asleep at the breast without consuming much milk, and frequent latching and unlatching. Behaviors like arching, grabbing ears, or sucking on hands or fists as nap time approaches may also indicate a desire for comfort.


In contrast, real feeding is characterized by rooting and breast searching, rhythmic sucking, audible swallowing, and increased jaw movements. The breast softens as the baby empties it.

Eating or Comfort Nursing | The Milky Box

Other Ways to Satisfy Babies Who Only Want Comfort

If your baby seems to want comfort nursing, you can try offering a pacifier, gentle rocking, swaddling, cuddling, softly massaging, or creating a calm environment with soft music or a soothing routine. You can also offer a favorite soft toy or blanket, engage in tender play, or take a stroll with the baby in a stroller or carrier.


Experiment with different methods to discover what brings the most comfort to your baby in a non-nursing situation.

“My newborn wants to sleep all the time! Should I wake him to nurse?”

In the early weeks, babies might be sleepy and not show obvious hunger cues. It’s crucial to feed them at least 8 times a day (around every 3 hours) to make sure they get enough nutrition and stimulate breast milk production. If your baby seems sleepy, gently wake them for a feed by undressing them and doing skin-to-skin contact. 

“My baby frequently sucks on his hands. Does this always mean that he's hungry?”

Babies often explore the world around them by putting things, including their hands, in their mouths. Sucking hands can also be a self-soothing behavior or a sign of teething.


In the newborn period, it can indeed be a sign of hunger, as babies develop the instinct to root and suck for nourishment. Pay attention to other hunger cues to determine if hunger is the cause.

Feeding with Care

As you learn to understand your baby’s hunger cues, feeding becomes a shared journey. To support you on this adventure, consider exploring The Milky Box for additional resources. May your parenting journey be filled with joy and the warmth of caring for your little one. 

References

1. Baby’s Hunger Cues | WIC Breastfeeding Support. Available at: https://wicbreastfeeding.fns.usda.gov/babys-hunger-cues


2. Feeding cues | Australian Breastfeeding Association. Available at: https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/resources/feeding-cues


3. Gill, J. and Vierheller, E. (2015) ‘The Effect of an Educational Hunger Cues Intervention on Awareness in Mothers with Infants’, Williams Honors College, Honors Research Projects. Available at: https://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/honors_research_projects/116


4. Hetherington, M. M. (2017) ‘Understanding infant eating behaviour - Lessons learned from observation’, Physiology & behavior, 176, pp. 117–124. doi: 10.1016/J.PHYSBEH.2017.01.022.


5. How Do You Tell If a Baby Is Hungry or Wants Comfort?. Available at: https://www.sangpediatrics.com/how-do-you-tell-if-a-baby-is-hungry-or-wants-comfort


6. Meiselman, H. L. (2020) ‘Handbook of eating and drinking : interdisciplinary perspectives’, p. 1615.


7. Shloim, N. et al. (2017) ‘Looking for cues – infant communication of hunger and satiation during milk feeding’, Appetite, 108, pp. 74–82. doi: 10.1016/J.APPET.2016.09.020.


8. Signs Your Child is Hungry or Full | Nutrition | CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/mealtime/signs-your-child-is-hungry-or-full.html


9. Zhao, F. et al. (2023) ‘Comparison of mothers’ perceptions of hunger cues in 3-month-old infant under different feeding methods’, BMC Public Health, 23(1), pp. 1–10. doi: 10.1186/S12889-023-15325-3/TABLES/3.

Disclaimer:


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.


Nazeli Gevorgyan is a medical doctor from Armenia, and is a researcher in the fields of Obstetrics and Gynecology, among others. Dr. Nazeli is passionate with providing women and parents with reliable and high-quality information on healthy options for infant nutrition, breastfeeding, infant formula, and food. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, traveling, and pottery. 

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Reviewed by Suzanne Renee',

Infant Nutrition Expert

Suzanne Renee' is an accomplished professional with extensive expertise in the area of infant nutrition, dedicated to promoting the health and wellbeing of children. She started this journey as a foster parent.


Suzanne has emerged as a strong proponent of the European baby formula and has become a full-time writer on the subject. 


In her free time, she enjoys camping, hiking, and going to church.