Every mother wants to be sure that her baby is fed and content – no-one would ever want their baby to go hungry.
Unfortunately our babies cannot tell us if they are hungry with words, but babies do have hunger cues which can help you to give your baby what he or she needs.
Many parents assume that crying means their baby is hungry, however crying is actually a late hunger signal – and your baby will definitely let you know that they’re not happy about it!
While sometimes it can’t be avoided, relying on a cry before feeding your baby can result in feeding problems, let alone a stressed mum and baby.
How can it cause problems? Parenting expert and IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant), Pinky McKay, says:
“Notice where your baby's tongue is when she is yelling — a baby can't latch on to feed when her tongue is up against the roof of her mouth, and if you do manage to calm her enough to latch on and feed, her suck is likely to be disorganised, or she may be exhausted from crying and only take a small feed before falling asleep. This, of course, means that she will probably sleep for a very short time then wake for another feed as her tiny tummy quickly empties.”
If your baby is upset or distressed, you can calm her down with some beautiful skin to skin contact – bare breasted in bed or in a warm bath together is great if you are at home – and allow baby to snuggle up to your breasts, or try wearing your baby. When he or she has calmed down, feeding may be much easier.
Baby Hunger Cues
“Babies give a lot of subtle cues that they are ready to feed, long before they begin to cry ” from rooting with their mouths to making sucking noises and trying to suck on their fists, as well as little noises that say, ‘I'm working up to a cry',” says Pinky.
The fantastic, evidence-based breastfeeding website, kellymom.com, lists these hunger cues for babies.
Early Baby Hunger Cues:
- Smacking or licking lips
- Opening and closing mouth
- Sucking on lips, tongue, hands, fingers, toes, toys, or clothing
Active Baby Hunger Cues:
- Rooting around on the chest of whoever is carrying him
- Trying to position for nursing, either by lying back or pulling on your clothes
- Fidgeting or squirming around a lot
- Hitting you on the arm or chest repeatedly
- Fussing or breathing fast
Late Baby Hunger Cues:
- Moving head frantically from side to side
What If I Am Still Unsure If My Baby Is Hungry?
If you suspect that your baby is hungry but you are unsure, there is no harm in offering a feed. Especially if you are breastfeeding, putting your baby to the breast not only feeds your baby if he is hungry, but it helps your breastmilk supply and can comfort and reassure your baby.
You will not damage your baby or create any “bad” or “needy” habits. I fed all my babies when they appeared hungry, when they were upset or whenever I felt it would help them. I can tell you this: my eldest two, now consisting of a teen and pre-teen, are very independent and are definitely not looking for my boobs for comfort. I'm sure my son will be far more interested in someone else’s in some years to come!
When in doubt: boob!
For formula fed babies, check out our article on bottle nursing — cue based feeding for bottle fed babies.