Your little one has three main jobs at the moment: eat, sleep, and poop/pee. After you bring baby home, it might seem like you’re on a constant cycle of feed, burp, and diaper change — because you are!
Babies grow and develop so much that they double their weight in the first 5 months of life. All this growing is exhausting and takes a lot of energy. Babies also need to feed every few hours or so because their tiny tummies can’t hold very much at a time.
Your baby will be hungry a lot of the time, but sometimes they might be squirmy or upset for other reasons. Here’s how to tell whether you need to feed your little angel again, or if they need something else.
In most cases, by the time your baby wails, they’ve been hungry for a while. Crying usually happens late into the hungry stage. Your baby may try to tell you they’re hungry in other ways first.
Signs and signals that your baby is hungry depend on how old (or new) your little one is.
Newborns and babies under the age of 6 months may tell you they need to be fed by:
- putting their hands in or near their mouth
- waving their hands toward their mouth
- turning their head toward mama’s breast (or anyone’s chest area)
- turning toward or looking at a bottle
- puckering or smacking their lips
- clenching their little hands (because they’re trying to not get upset with you for not taking the hint!)
Older babies and toddlers up to the age of two may be more expressive in their signs that they’re hungry:
- pointing at or reaching for food
- getting excited or loud when they see food
- opening their mouth when they see food or are offered some
- gesturing or making noises to let you know they’re hungry
Sometimes it might seem like your baby is hungry and asking to eat, but there’s actually another reason that your baby is giving you the hunger vibe. It’s easy to confuse hunger with the urge to suck.
Sucking is a reflex in the first 6 months of a baby’s life that helps them relax and self-soothe. It may even help your baby sleep better. In fact, a study including 104 babies found those who sucked on their fingers or a pacifier woke less at night and slept for longer periods — music to a parent’s ears!
Your baby may want to suck for the following reasons:
- Comfort. Some babies will want to breastfeed or bottle-feed even when they’re not hungry because they want to sleep or be held. Sucking helps them relax — plus they get your attention!
- Teething. If your baby is teething, sucking and chewing can sometimes help soothe tender gums. Your baby might seem like they want to feed just because sucking helps ease their pain and distracts them from teething frustrations.
- Acid reflux. Some babies with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may act hungry when they really want to suck to wash reflux back down. Overfeeding can make reflux worse, so if you suspect this may be the case, try a pacifier.
- Anxiety. Anxiety in babies is as real as anxiety in children and adults. Some babies may pucker their lips like they’re sucking, squirm, or want to feed because they’re anxious. Both sucking and feeding help some babies calm down or feel more secure.
When your baby is hungry, they might exhibit behavioral cues or signals that are similar to those they show when they’re bored, agitated, sleepy, or upset.
You can help calm your little one by gently holding, rocking, or cuddling them. A baby massage can also help. If your baby makes sucking noises or likes to suck their fingers, give them a pacifier to suck on between feedings.
Help your baby calm down and stop fussing by helping them feel more secure and relaxed. You can try:
- using a soft, quiet voice and tone when you’re talking to your baby
- picking up and handling your baby slowly and gently
- holding your baby so that their arms and legs are tucked in close to their body
- avoiding overstimulation by being around too many people or too much activity at a time
- avoiding TV
- avoiding noisy areas, especially when baby is trying to sleep
- avoiding bright lights during sleep time
- avoiding waking your baby suddenly
- letting your baby sleep when they want to
- waiting until your baby wakes up on their own to feed or change them
Also, avoid “rewarding” your baby for any reason with milk or food. An unhealthy attachment to food can begin as early as when your little one is still a baby.
If your baby is teething, try putting a teething toy or soother into the refrigerator before offering it to them. Sucking and gnawing on something cold can help your little one.
If reflux is causing discomfort for your little one, try keeping your baby upright for 30 minutes after each feeding and offering a pacifier to soothe them.
Babies need to feed often because they have teeny tiny stomachs. A 4- to 5-week-old baby can only hold about 3 to 4 ounces of milk at a time. This is why babies are ravenous again only a little while after feeding. As babies grow, their stomachs also grow, enabling them to handle more milk.
It’s important to avoid overfeeding your baby. Giving your baby more milk than they can handle at a time won’t make them feel fuller longer. The extra milk will usually come out as vomit, making both of you more upset than when baby was just hangry.
If you’re breastfeeding, your baby will normally stop on their own when they’re full. Alternatively, they might continue latching on but only suck weakly. This is your cue to end the feeding session.
If you’re bottle-feeding, its easier to overfeed because it’s natural to want your baby to finish their bottle if there is any formula left. Avoid this by following the general rule of thumb published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): On average, your baby should get 2.5 ounces of formula per day for every pound of body weight, up to 32 ounces.
You might be tempted to give your baby a few bites of solid food to fill their bottomless pit. Avoid starting your baby on any solid food before they’re 6 months old. The AAP recommends breastfeeding as the sole source of food until 6 months of age.
Trying to feed your baby solid food too early can lead to vomiting, an upset stomach, diarrhea, and even choking.
Even if your baby can stomach solid food, giving it to them too early can lead to overfeeding, weight issues, and other health problems during childhood and beyond.
Once your baby does start eating solid foods, they’ll still need breastmilk or formula. One common saying is, “Food before one is just for fun.” Talk to your doctor about specific nutrition recommendations for your child.
Your baby will go through days or weeks of bigger than normal growth spurts during their first year. Like tiny teenagers, this is when they might be even more ravenous and want to feed more. This kind of feeding is called cluster feeding, and it’s completely normal.
True cluster feeding happens mostly in breastfed babies and helps signal mom’s body to increase milk production. Bottle-fed babies do not generally need to cluster feed.
Growth spurts in babies typically happen when they’re about 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months old. During a growth spurt, your baby will likely cluster feed. This means they might want to feed longer and more frequently.
The time of day when they feel hungriest might also change. Your night owl might suddenly get hungrier and want several feeds in the evening, going on to sleep longer at night. This is welcome news for your sleep-deprived self!
Growth spurts and cluster feedings are different for every baby. They might last a few days or even weeks. You may have to breastfeed or bottle-feed every 30 minutes some days! Don’t worry, your baby will be back to their normal hunger levels once the growth spurt passes.
It may feel like your baby is hungry all the time, but they have a lot of growing and developing to get through in just a year. They also begin life with stomachs the size of an acorn!
However, sometimes your baby might seem like they want to feed when they actually want other kinds of attention from you. You know your baby best, and in time, you’ll learn to understand their cues.