How to Recognize Your Newborns Hunger Cues

Learn to recognize 10 hunger cues your baby is communicating and signs your baby is getting enough milk.

How to Recognize Your Newborns Hunger Cues

Let's chat about early feeding cues in the first five days and beyond! While babies may seem sleepy and do not have a ton going on in the early days, they come packed with a lot of instincts and reflexes to help communicate with their caregivers. This is like a little decoding post for your sweet babe and you to be on the same page. 

What is a feeding cue?

Feeding cue? Come again??? A feeding cue is simply a behavior or reflex your baby will show when they are starting to get hungry. You can think of these as a 0-60 mode, where 0 is your baby quietly showing you some signs they are hungry and 60 is full-on baby rage mode where they want you to know, "I AM VERY HUNGRY!" The goal is to recognize early feeding cues BEFORE things escalated to crying. 

I am going to do a simple ranking system for telltale signs your baby wants a boob to be near them sooner rather than later. To note, some of the early signs will happen with your baby's eyes still closed and they may seem like they are asleep, especially in the early days.

1) Bringing hands to mouth. 

Did you know babies practice their sucking skills in the womb? As early as 12 weeks gestation, your baby may be bringing their hands to their mouth and can begin to suck. All that practice helps them when they are born! Before they are fully awake, you may notice that your baby brings their hands to their mouth and may even suck on their fist or fingers. 

2) Turning head from side to side.

Have you ever held a baby in a cradle position and they immediately turned their head into your body? This is a feeding cue! They may also simply move their head side to side as they become more alert and ready to eat. 

3) Rooting-opening mouth and moving head to one side (looking for the nipple).

In addition to turning their head side-to-side, your baby will open their mouth and search out your nipple.  

4) Eyes may begin to open and look around. 

Your baby will become more and more alert to let you know they are ready to eat. 

5) Smacking lips.

Smacking or licking of lips may be seen on its own or in conjunction with your baby’s other feeding cues. 

6) Sticking their tongue out.

You may see this all together with rooting, smacking lips, and then sticking their tongue out past their gum line. They are ready for that boob!

7) Sucking on hands/anything nearby.

As mentioned above, your baby has been working on their sucking skills for months prior to being born. Sucking can be both for nutrition as well as comfort. Some babies will suck on their hands when hungry or as a way to soothe even when they aren’t hungry. 

8) Wiggling around, squirming. Changing facial expressions.

By this point, your baby is headed more towards crying and it is time to get things going if you haven’t attempted to latch already. Your baby may scrunch up their face, frown, and start moving their arms and legs more. Crying is not far off.

9) Fussy noises...heading down the road toward crying.

Your baby may have worked their way through all the more subtle signs of hunger and they are now vocalizing. 

10) Crying, very agitated.

It is important to note if you are at this stage, latching may not be the best immediate solution. We first want to focus on calming the baby down before attempting to latch. You can try skin-to-skin, movement, and shushing to help them regulate their nervous system and calm before latching. 

Remember our goal is to get your baby latched and happily nursing before crying and agitation set in. Ideally, you are able to get your baby ready to feed with any behaviors 7 and under, but what happens if we've hit an, "Oh shit," moment and that hasn't happened this feed? That's okay!!! 

You and your baby are just finding your way and it will get easier as you become familiar with your baby's cues. 

What do you do if you find your baby is upset and won’t latch?

Our goal if we've landed in this territory is to calm your baby and nursing parent. Why might you need calming too? Most of us also become agitated and stressed when our babies are crying, very normal! The goal now is the co-regulation of both your baby and you. Find what works for you both. Check out my blog on latching, here.

If your baby is very agitated and upset it can help to hand express a bit of milk and spoon-feed the baby to help calm and take some of the edges off their hunger. 

What is a normal amount of fussiness in babies?

It is important to note that there is a range of normal for fussiness. Many infants will have periods of intense fussiness. It may start between 1-3 weeks and usually peaks between 6-8 weeks. By 3 to 4 months, most babies will grow out of the more grueling fussiness and be feeding, sleeping and life will get easier to navigate. You may find that particular times of day are difficult, evenings are a common time for your baby to be fussy. 

If you are finding that your baby is fussy most of the day or is inconsolable often, it is important to mention this to your pediatrician. There may be underlying causes that are increasing your baby’s fussiness and crying. 

Milk supply naturally fluctuates throughout the day 

Your milk supply is typically highest in the early morning hours when your prolactin levels are highest. As the day progresses, your prolactin level falls and your supply may be less robust. This does not mean that your baby will not get enough or that you need to supplement later in the day. However, lower levels of prolactin can coincide with periods of fussiness for your baby and behaviors like cluster feeding. 

What is cluster feeding?

Cluster feeding is when your baby is nursing more frequently than normal. You may find that they want to nurse multiple times over a short window of time, which differs from their schedule earlier in the day or days past. Cluster feeding is common in the evenings, during growth spurts, and following illness either for mom or baby. Your baby may nurse, pull off, cry, want to nurse again…rinse, and repeat. Cluster feeding can be exhausting for both parents and your baby. It is okay to take a break and hand your baby to another caregiver! If another caregiver is not available, it is okay to set your baby down in a safe space, like their crib, and take a short break to recenter. It is very normal for this to feel HARD!

Strategies to help with cluster feeding 

Some parents find “switch nursing” helpful during cluster feeding sessions. This is the practice of moving the baby from one breast to the other breast after a few minutes of nursing when the flow of milk slows. This practice can help illicit multiple letdowns and help make evening cluster feeding sessions more manageable. 

It can really help to note that cluster feeding is a normal but exhausting part of breastfeeding newborns. It doesn’t last forever (although it can feel that way at the time) My biggest piece of advice is to try to surrender and lower your expectations for accomplishing much else other than feeding some evenings. 

This is a time for ordering takeout, letting the messy sink stay that way, and finding a good show to binge-watch. 

My breasts feel different in the evening 

You may also notice a difference in how your breasts feel. Earlier in the day, you may experience the fuller or even engorged feeling and later in the day, your breasts may feel less full. 

It is important to note that as your supply regulates, between 6-12 weeks, it is NORMAL and expected that your breasts may feel softer and less full. Engorgement, while a normal part of many parents' breastfeeding journeys, is not how the majority of your breastfeeding journey will feel. It is not uncommon for moms to wonder about their supply when regulation happens. Particularly if you are coming from a place of having an oversupply and then regulating. 

Signs your baby is getting enough milk

Keeping track of the following signs can be helpful to reassure you that your baby is getting enough milk during a feeding. 

1) Baby is content and relaxed at the end of feedings.

2) Your breasts feel different after a feeding, softer and less full.

3) You are hearing swallows while your baby is at the breast.

4) Your baby has adequate weight gain.

  • 0-4 months: average gain of 5.5-8.5 oz per week, 1-2 lbs per month
  • 4-6 months: average gain of 3.5-4.5 oz per week, 
  • 6-12 months: average gain of 1.75-2.75 oz per week

5) Your baby is pooping and peeing regularly.

  • Day 1 of life you can expect on average, 1 pee and 1 poop.
  • Day 2 of life…3 pees and 2 poops.
  • Day 3 of life…4 pees and 2 poops.
  • Day 4 of life…5 pees and 3 poops.
  • Day 5 of life…6 pees and 4 poops.

We want the baby to continue to have 3 or more poops per day until 6 weeks when stooling patterns may spread out a bit.  Ideally, we would continue to see one poop per day past 6 weeks. 

It is important to pay close attention to your baby’s feeding cues and trust your instincts when determining if they are hungry. Remember, every baby is different and it may take some time for you to learn about your baby’s hunger signals. If it all seems a little overwhelming, consider joining Boob School, which offers many resources designed to help to breastfeeding mothers. The dedicated support system will provide answers to any questions you have no matter how small or large they may be. With the right knowledge in hand, you can be confident that you are making well-informed decisions about your baby’s nutritional needs and well-being. Taking care of your little one doesn't have to be difficult - using these tips, you'll be able to determine when your breastfed baby is hungry and meet their needs accordingly!

Cheering you on, always!!



Boob School Founder and CEO

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