How Will I Know My Baby Is Hungry?
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Congratulations! After nine-plus months of planning and anticipating, your baby is finally here…now what? You’re in charge 24/7 and your main job now is to decipher what your baby is trying to tell you. It may take some time before you can differentiate the “I’m hungry” cry from the “I’m sleepy” cry, but over time you will become a pro at reading your baby’s hunger cues.

Hungry BabyBabies give caregivers signals from the earliest moments of life. Once you learn to read their body language, parenting gets a whole lot easier. The foundation of understanding baby’s behavior lies in the states of consciousness. Researchers Peter Wolff, Heinz Prechtl and T. Berry Brazelton studied the behavior of hundreds of babies, and what they found was babies’ behavior actually follows predictable patterns. When parents learn this “continuum of arousal,” they are better able to figure out what their baby is trying to tell them. The six states of consciousness are:

  • Quiet or deep sleep: Babies have limp arms and legs and low body tone, breathing is regular, and if laid down in this state, likely will remain asleep.
  • Active sleep: Babies exhibit eye and facial movements, stirring of arms and legs, occasional startles, and irregular breathing. Babies move back and forth between active and deep sleep, and the complete cycle lasts about an hour.
  • Drowsiness: Babies’ eyes close and open, and seem glazed or unfocused, arms and legs may move, is usually seen when baby is moving in or out of sleep. If left alone, baby may return to sleep.
  • Quiet alert: Babies are still, and exhibit very little body movement, their eyes are wide and alert; this is the best time for interaction.
  • Active alert: Babies are awake and fidgety or fussy, no eye contact, gaze shifts around. It’s hard to keep baby’s attention in this state and can be a signal that baby needs a change of scenery or is hungry.
  • Crying: Babies vocalize their most basic needs, along with arm and leg movements, grimacing, red face; baby may be hungry, uncomfortable, or simply lonely.

So, while babies can’t yet talk, they are giving us signals to help us understand their needs.

These cues come in handy when trying to decide if baby is ready to be fed. In the first twenty-four hours, don’t expect much – just assume your baby is hungry. Spending time skin-to-skin with your baby can help. He will turn to the breast and self-attach when he’s ready to eat. You can also rely on his inborn rooting reflex – any time the baby’s cheek is stroked, he will turn toward the stimulus. If you’re holding him and he turns toward you, assume he’s hungry. If you’re dad or grandma, hand him over to mom so she can nurse him. You may need to give him your finger or his hand to suck on while she gets ready!

Newborn

Once your baby recovers from being born, he will start to move back and forth on the “continuum of arousal” throughout the day. He will also give you subtle signs that he’s ready to eat. Sometimes just moving from sleep to alert – that state of drowsiness – can be a signal. Watch for more body movement, eye movement underneath closed eyelids, and changes from a limp and sleepy body to a more active, waking one. The change from quiet alert to active alert can also hint to hunger. Other body language includes turning toward the caregiver, sucking movements, sticking out his tongue, and sucking his hands. Increased leg and arm movement, fidgeting, and fussing, along with changes in facial expression, can signposts that it’s time to feed. If you catch these early feeding cues, breastfeeding goes more smoothly.

If you miss the early ways that baby is trying to let you know he’s hungry, he may start to cry. Crying is a late sign of hunger, and makes latching and breastfeeding much more difficult. When a baby cries, he places his tongue on the roof of his mouth. In order to latch effectively, baby’s tongue needs to be down. If your baby is crying, you’ll need to soothe him first before trying to put him to the breast.

Still not sure what these baby cues look like? A quick Internet search turns up lots of videos. This YouTube video by ChildBirthMedia is a good resource, as are these photos from the Government of Western Australia Department of Health.

Should I put my baby to the breast every time he cries?

If your baby has been nursing regularly but he still seems fussy, check for other problems. Does he need a diaper change? Is he overstimulated? Is he uncomfortable from a tag in his shirt or some gas in his belly? If you’re not sure, put him to the breast again. If he’s hungry – or if he just needs to calm himself by sucking – he will attach and nurse. If not, keep looking for a cause.

But he just ate! He can’t be hungry again, can he?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfed babies should have “8 to 12 feedings at the breast every 24 hours.” The pattern these feedings take is different for every baby. Some babies are happy to nurse every 2-3 hours around the clock. Other babies will nurse every hour for a few hours, then be content to have a longer stretch without nursing. This type of cluster feeding is normal, and is not a sign that mom’s milk supply is somehow insufficient. Often moms will think that baby wants to nurse “all the time” because he’s “not getting anything” at the breast. This thinking leads to supplementation, which can start a downward spiral to low milk production. Frequent nursing signals to the body to make more milk. Following your baby’s cues and nursing on-demand can help keep your supply strong, and can regulate it to meet your baby’s needs. Your baby and your body make a perfect supply and demand circle!

What if he falls asleep while feeding? Is that a sign that he doesn’t want to eat?

When baby is well-latched and you can hear many swallows, you may notice after nursing for a while his body gets limp and he falls asleep. This is a sign that he’s nursing well. Simply break the latch and remove him from the breast. On the other hand, if he falls asleep as soon as he latches, he may not be actually getting anything. In this case, you need to take a more proactive approach to keeping him awake to nurse. Try breast massage or compression – this will get more milk into your baby. You can spend time skin to skin, change his diaper, rub the palms of his hands or soles of his feet, rub the top of his head, or even wipe his body with a cool washcloth. Another way to wake you baby is to sit him in your lap (as opposed to cradling him in your arms), support his head, and talk to him. This gentle stimulation may wake him enough to nurse.

How will I know if he’s done?

Just like signs of hunger, babies also provide us with signs that they’re ready to end a feeding. These signs of satiety or fullness include: extended arms and legs, falling asleep, decreased sucking, extended relaxed fingers, turning away, and back arching. If your baby exhibits these behaviors after a good nursing session, you can be sure he’s finished.

Learning to read your baby takes some practice. Don’t expect to get it perfect every time. But as long as you respond consistently, your baby will know he’s well cared for.

References:

  1. Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute (Producer).1998. The Amazing Talents of Your Newborn [VHS]
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2012. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics 129(3), e827 -e841.
  3. Klaus MH & Klaus PH. 1998. Your Amazing Newborn. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
  4. NCAST (Producer). BabyCues: A Child’s First Language [DVD] Seattle, WA: University of Washington.
  5. Riordan, J & Wambach K. 2010. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation. 4th ed. Boston: Jones & Bartlett.