When a newborn baby is hungry, she will search for food, turning her head, opening her mouth, sucking on whatever she encounters. If you learn to recognize these cues, and respond, she is less likely to cry. Crying is a late hunger cue – what babies do when nothing else worked.
- Smacking or licking lips
- Mouth movement: opening and closing mouth, tongue thrusts
- Sucking on anything within reach
- Rooting – turning towards something, trying to latch on
- Hand to mouth movements
- Squirming around, trying to get into position to nurse, diving for a nipple
- Turning head frantically side to side
Why it’s helpful for parents to know about cues
For a breastfeeding mom, if baby starts showing these cues and it’s a good time and place for you to nurse, you can nurse right away. If you’re not in a good place, you know you have about 10 – 15 minutes to get there before baby starts to cry.
For dads, grandparents, and other caregivers who are holding baby while mom is nearby (like in the shower…); when baby starts to show cues, you can let mom know. You probably can easily distract baby for a few minutes. When baby gets harder to calm, then baby may be soothed by sucking on something (your finger, his own finger, a pacifier) for a few more minutes, but then he will start crying to nurse.
For babies who will receive a bottle. You can feed as soon as baby shows hunger cues.
How often should you feed a newborn?
Feed them “on demand” whenever you see these cues. Don’t try to feed them “by the clock” and limit their feedings to a strict schedule. (Learn more about why schedules aren’t appropriate for breastfed newborns here.)
Babies under 6 weeks old need to eat at least 8 – 12 times a day (more is fine!). They should nurse for at least 10 minutes per feeding.
When we had our first child, we didn’t know about hunger cues. Our perception of our daughter was that she would be perfectly happy and content for a long time, and then be screaming. It felt like 0 to 60. Then we would frantically try to figure out what was wrong as she was crying and crying. Once we realized she was hungry, I would try to nurse, but first had to get her calmed down enough to nurse. Parenting this way made us very anxious, and often left us feeling like we didn’t know what we were doing!
For baby # 2 and 3, I had figured out hunger cues (and other infant cues… see youtube.com/watch?v=eiYANQY5NxM). While I can’t tell you that my babies never cried (all babies cry! See “PURPLE Crying” website), they cried a lot less. And I was more likely to know why they were crying.