You’ve just put your feet up for a moment of rest when you hear a loud wail from the baby monitor. Like a newly hatched bird in a nest with its beak open, your little one seems to be hungry all the time! But when is your baby’s cry really a hungry cry, and when does it mean something else?
What about other signs and cues your baby uses to try to tell you it’s time for a feed? How do you know if your baby is feeding properly or getting enough?
Relax. Your baby already knows how to tell you what they need. You’ll soon learn to understand what they’re saying! Here’s how to tell when your baby is hungry and needs to be fed.
By the time your baby is crying, they’re likely already very hungry (and upset). Crying is usually a late sign of hunger in babies. Before they cry, babies normally patiently signal that they need a feed with several kinds of hunger cues.
It’s up to you to learn to read the common hunger cues your baby is showing you. Here are some early hunger signs your baby might exhibit:
- being more awake and active (thinking about food makes babies excited)
- turning their head to the side, as if looking for food
- opening and closing their mouth (like little birds waiting for the parent bird in a nest)
- turning their head toward the breast or chest, or a bottle
- making sucking motions with their mouth (even if they don’t have a pacifier)
- smacking their lips, drooling more, or sticking out their tongue
- sucking on their fingers, hands, or clothing
- clenching their hands into little fists (they’re getting a little frustrated and impatient!)
- staring at you and following you around the room with their eyes — if you’re the primary person who feeds them
- giving you a furrowed brow, distressed look that says, “When are we eating?”
- making the sound “neh!” just before a cry means they’re hungry, according to Dunstan baby language
Hunger pangs in their tiny stomachs will usually wake them up, even from a deep slumber. If your sleepy head seems to doze off longer than they should, use a feeding chart or guide to estimate if they’re feeding frequently enough for their age.
A general rule for new babies is that they should not regularly sleep for 4 hours or longer at a time. Snoozing this much occasionally is fine (especially if it allows you to get some rest)! However, if your baby regularly loves their sleep more than feeding, talk to your pediatrician about if you should be gently waking them up to feed.
It can be difficult to feel sure your baby is getting enough milk, especially if you’re exclusively breastfeeding. Don’t worry. Your baby will quickly learn how to signal that they need more milk. You likely won’t have to worry about much other than getting your little one into position and ready to latch on whenever you spot their hunger cues.
A newborn will feed often, usually every 2 to 3 hours and sometimes more often. They should feed up to 12 times every 24 hours. This frequent sucking tells your body to make more milk for your ravenous little one.
Throughout the early days as your baby grows, their little tummies also grow. In fact, babies’ stomachs grow from the size of a cherry at birth, to a walnut by day 3, a plum by 1 week, and a large chicken egg by 1 month.
This means that your baby will still need to feed a lot, but they’ll now be able to take in more milk each time you nurse or feed them. This may mean that they’re able to go longer between feeds.
Watch your baby while they’re feeding to see them gulp and swallow. Also, you’ll likely be able to hear your baby swallow while they’re feeding, but they shouldn’t be making much noise beyond that. (Slurping or lip-smacking sounds may indicate a poor latch.) Your baby will also let you know when they are fed and satisfied.
Babies have several “fed” and “not-hungry-for-now” signals. If you want to know whether your baby is satisfied after a feeding, look for them to exhibit the following:
- releasing or pushing away the breast or bottle
- closing their mouth and not responding to encouragement to latch on or suck again
- open and relaxed hands (instead of clenched)
- relaxing their body and even going a little limp
- looking around and showing interest in playing or other things
- looking content and maybe even smiling
- appearing happily drowsy and ready to go back to sleep
Regular checkups with your baby’s pediatrician include getting your little one weighed and compared with a standard chart for baby weight. The expected weight gain when baby is feeding right is about 5.5 to 8.5 ounces (155 to 240 grams) every week, for the first 4 months of life.
Some babies might gain more one week than another, and this is OK. As long as your baby is steadily gaining weight (and growing longer) overall, they’re feeding just fine.
If your baby is not feeding well, you’ll likely notice other signs, such as:
- low energy or appearing very tired and sleepy
- spending too little time sucking at your breast or from a bottle
- consistently taking a long time to feed — more than 30 to 40 minutes
- falling asleep soon after starting to feed
- a latch that’s weak or very shallow
- it’s painful for you when they latch on
- dark yellow urine (instead of pale and watery)
- dry red to brown specks in their diaper
- not having enough dirty diapers (newborns should have at least 3 to 4 dirty diapers per day)
Let your pediatrician or lactation consultant know if you’re having trouble with any of these things, which might indicate that your baby is having difficulty taking in enough nourishment. This is something that needs to be addressed right away.
Your baby’s hunger cues begin long before you hear them cry. It might take some time, but you’ll soon learn exactly what they’re telling you. In most cases, parents and caregivers don’t have to worry about baby not feeding well enough.
Your baby will let you know when they’re hungry and when they’re full. If your baby isn’t feeding well enough, you’ll notice signs very quickly. Remember to take your little one for their regular checkups. Your pediatrician will confirm that you’re doing a wonderful job feeding your new little one!