Newborn Hunger Cues: What You Need to Know - Baby Chick

Newborn Hunger Cues: What You Need to Know

Learning when to feed your baby is a fine art, and it takes patience and practice. Here is what you need to know about newborn hunger cues.

Updated September 10, 2023

by Dr. Nicole Avena, Ph. D.

Associate Professor of Neuroscience

Life as a new parent is often full of surprises and new experiences. Knowing how often and how much to feed your newborn when beginning to parent can be challenging. Luckily, your baby will show signs of hunger through sounds and movements. These are known as newborn hunger cues.

You may have older children who explicitly state their hunger, but newborns require more attention to understand when hunger may arise. Although signs of hunger may not be as apparent in newborns, your baby knows what they need and will do its best to communicate this to you.1 Aiming to understand these hunger cues will allow you to feed your child while they are still calm.

Newborn Hunger Cues

Newborn cues are how infants communicate with us, so we know what they need. Infants’ hunger cues are specific to their needs surrounding hunger. Understanding how newborns communicate this information is a vital skill to have as a parent. Picking up on these particular cues can take time, but they help ensure your baby is fed at frequent intervals. Responding to your baby’s hunger cues is known as responsive feeding and can promote your child’s healthy start in life.2

It is typically thought that whenever your baby is crying, they are either hungry, have a dirty diaper, are in pain, or are experiencing discomfort. It is common for many moms to think that crying is the only way to know a baby is hungry. Although crying can certainly mean your baby is experiencing hunger, this is usually the last cue they will give.

Instead of jumping straight to crying when hungry, most babies display other feeding cues first. It is recommended to avoid waiting to feed your newborn until he is crying. Infants latch and feed more effectively whenever they are aware and calm.1 Paying attention to your newborn’s hunger cues and responding quickly can help prevent them from crying when hungry.

Common Hunger Cues

So, if you shouldn’t wait until your baby is in tears to feed them, what signs should you watch for? As previously mentioned, babies have their way of communicating with us through their hunger cues. Let’s walk through the various signs of your baby’s hunger in each phase: the perfect time to feed your baby, hurry up and feed your baby, and feed your baby now. 

The Perfect Time to Feed Your Baby.

Newborns show many signs that give us the perfect opportunity to feed them most effectively. For example, your baby might bring fists to his mouth to indicate hunger. It is also common for your newborn to actively move his head to look for your breast. Both of these cues take time and attention to recognize in your newborn. When your baby opens their mouth, smacks their lips, or sucks on their hands, this can indicate hunger. Although these hunger cues can be subtle, they make a huge difference in effectively feeding your newborn.

Hurry Up and Feed Your Baby!

Although our babies give us many signs of hunger and provide us with the perfect time to feed, additional cues indicate you may need to hurry. Your baby may become more alert and active when hungry, which may mean you need to feed them quickly. Another hunger cue could be your newborn squirming, fussing, wiggling around, and rooting for the breast or bottle. This restlessness can communicate that the baby is becoming very hungry, and you may need to act fast.

Feed Your Baby NOW!!!

As discussed earlier, crying is often a late hunger cue. Whenever your newborn’s hunger cues fail, crying is the last resort. When your baby is distressed and crying, he is likely experiencing significant hunger. Intense crying requires a lot of energy from your newborn, which may cause tiredness. When your child is distressed, frustrated, and tired, feeding can become increasingly difficult, and your baby may not want to latch onto your breast or may fuss if you offer him a bottle.

Signs of Fullness in Newborns

Now that you’ve fed your baby, how do you know when to stop feeding? Recognizing hunger is extremely important, and so is recognizing signs of fullness.

Whenever your newborn has had enough and is feeling full, they may stop eating, fall off your breast, or stop sucking on the nipple of a bottle. Other signs of fullness could be your newborn relaxing their body and turning his face away from the nipple. His hands will also become soft and open, and his arms will relax. In cases where your baby is full, he may become fussy.

It is best practice to pay attention when breastfeeding to watch for similar cues. If you are unsure how to read your baby’s cues or if they fell asleep, you can always stimulate and wake your baby and offer your breast again to see if your baby decides to latch on.

But Wait . . . What If Your Baby Doesn’t Show Hunger Cues?

Although most newborns do show hunger cues frequently, some may not. This type of situation can occur in a very sleepy newborn. But just because there are no clear newborn hunger cues does not mean hunger is not present. It is recommended that a newborn receives breastmilk at least 8 to 12 times per day, so it is best to try and wake your baby up to eat every three hours.

Understanding when and how to feed your newborn requires patience, attentiveness, and care. Knowing common hunger cues your baby might use can help you recognize your child’s hunger before crying episodes set in. Every newborn responds differently to hunger, but observing your child’s actions can allow you to feed them most effectively and enhance their start in life.

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Nicole Avena
Dr. Nicole Avena, Ph. D. Associate Professor of Neuroscience
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Nicole Avena, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. She is the author of several books, including… Read more

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