Hunger Cues

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.

Early Cues

  • Smacking or licking lips
  • Mouth movement: opening and closing mouth, tongue thrusts
  • Sucking on anything within reach

Moderate Cues

  • 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

Late Cues

  • Turning head frantically side to side
  • Crying

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.

My story

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 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.


2 thoughts on “Hunger Cues

  1. Rachel Sray

    Hi Janelle,

    Our local Breastfeeding Coalition has received a grant to obtain several tablets that will allow our physicians and midwives to educate patients on breastfeeding via video. Many of these health professionals often do not have time to adequately discuss breastfeeding and this will allow patients to view videos during the wait period in exam rooms. I’m working on the hunger cues portion and am having trouble finding photos/videos demonstrating hunger cues that I’m allowed to use. I was wondering where you got your footage and if it’s possible to share? Thank you!

    Rachel Sray
    Lake-Geauga WIC Director
    Mentor, Ohio


    1. Janelle Durham Post author

      You would be welcome to use my video. If you want to make your own, all I did was search on YouTube and downloaded videos to include. (I believe it is within fair use / copyright law to do this, as long as you are using just short clips, with no identifying information or statements about the political/religious/etc. beliefs of the people shown, and the video is used only for educational purposes.) When searching on YouTube, know that parents who post videos don’t necessarily know that what they’re filming is a hunger cue. So, I search for things like: baby trying to nurse on nose, baby sucking on hand, newborn sticking tongue out, and so on.



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