Discover what baby hunger cues are and learn how to decipher if your baby is actually hungry or not. Learn when to feed baby, baby is tired, or more.
Babies cry. Some babies cry a lot. A baby will cry for a lot of reasons. Tired, pain, colic, the witching hour, hunger…read all about common reasons babies cry and what to do about it.
Hunger. This cry is what concerns parents the most. We do not want our babies to go hungry, so when our baby cries, we really worry if it is because baby is hungry. Even if you recently fed baby, you can wonder “Is my baby still hungry?” You can wonder if you cut baby off too soon during the last feeding.
I know that as a first-time parent, you often wonder what physical signs mean baby is hungry. Sometimes you even wonder that with subsequent children because every baby is different. What your first baby showed for hunger cues can be very different for your second or third baby.
Crying is a hunger cue babies will give when they are hungry. Did you know it is one of the last cues, if not the last cue, a baby uses to signal that he or she is hungry?
Baby Hunger Cues
Here is a list of common signals that a newborn baby is hungry. This list is in chronological order, meaning baby shows these cues in this order when hungry. You can find these in the different Baby Whisperer books by Tracy Hogg:
Hogg says this is one of the first signs of hunger. Of course, for a parent following an eat/wake/sleep cycle as outlined in On Becoming Babywise or EASY routine as outlined in the Baby Whisperer books, you most likely will not be looking right at baby when the “lip licking” begins.
This is because baby will be in his or her crib or bassinet when the licking started. With Babywise and Baby Whisperer, you feed baby right after sleep, so baby will wake up, start licking, and you won’t know it.
The good news is that you already plan to feed baby as soon as baby is awake after nap time, so it really should not be an issue during the daytime when you are following a routine.
Even if you are following a eat play sleep routine, knowing about licking lips can be beneficial when your baby has a growth spurt or if your baby actually needs more food at a feeding. Read all about growth spurts here. If baby is having a growth spurt and needs to eat more often, you might notice licking even during baby awake time. You can absolutely feed baby if this is the case. You always feed baby when hungry.
If baby is not having a growth spurt but is hungry during playtime after eating, consider if your milk supply might be dropping, if you need to make more formula for the bottle, or if you need to simply encourage baby to eat longer during the feeding time to take in those ounces if they are available, whether breastfeeding or bottle feeding.
Rooting is when the tongue comes out, the head turns, and your baby resembles a baby bird looking for food. Baby turns head to the side, opens mouth and cranes neck. If your baby is rooting, there is a good chance you have a hungry baby.
All of the same caveats apply as did with licking lips. If your baby is following an eat wake sleep cycle or if this is the middle of the night, you most likely will not see baby rooting for food.
This is where a video monitor can come in handy. If your baby is in her crib, wakes early from nap, and you see she is rooting, you could view that on a video monitor if you were watching. This can be handy if your baby wakes early from a nap and you aren’t sure if hunger is the cause or it can be handy if baby wakes at night at a time when you weren’t expecting it.
Fist Hitting Face
Hogg calls the area between the nose and the bottom lip the feeding triangle. Baby will try to suck that fist but be unable to really get it in the mouth, so it will hit that area. Take note that this will be true with a newborn and not with an older baby who has hand control. In that case, the baby will likely succeed in sucking on the hand.
Baby sucking hand is a hunger cue. But do take into consideration that baby might just be wanting to suck on something. Attempting or succeeding at sucking on something can mean hunger, but it can also mean your baby wants to suck. It can also mean baby has some pain of some sort.
If baby sucks and is soothed, it might not be hunger. If baby sucks for a bit and is then clearly mad and frustrated, there is a good chance baby is indeed hungry.
Using a pacifier can be a handy tool for testing baby’s sucking desire if you are not sure if baby is hungry or not.
The cough preceding the cry is a really reliable as a signal for hunger. If you listen carefully to your baby’s cries, you will come to recognize different sounds in the cries over time. If you hear baby making noise and aren’t sure if baby is hungry or not, pay attention to those coughing noises that come before a cry.
I am a big fan of keeping notes to track what is going on with baby. It really helps me to see patterns and quickly figure out what is probably going on with baby. You can buy my Chronicles of a Babywise Mom Book of Logs to get the logs I used with my babies.
Now is when the crying starts. The other cues would have all happened before the crying. The crying starts short and builds to a steady “waa waa waa.” A crying baby is a major clue that baby is ready to eat, especially when you follow a baby schedule or baby routine and it is time for baby to eat.
Other Possible Baby Hunger Signs
These are not as common or consistent among babies, but you might notice one or all three of these with your baby.
- Lips pursed
- Curls tongue at sides
- Arches back and looks for food
How To Know if Baby is Hungry or Not
Even with all of that information, you will often find yourself wondering if baby is hungry or not. If you are still unsure if baby is hungry or not:
Try Feeding Baby
If baby eats like she normally does at a feeding, then there is a good chance it was hunger. If not, then she wasn’t hungry. Take note of what other cues baby had so in the future you can better assess if baby is hungry or not without using trying feeding a step.
Try a Pacifier
See if a pacifier soothes him back to sleep. Be aware, though, that some babies will suck on a pacifier even when hungry–so the falling and staying asleep are important in this equation. You don’t want to give a hungry baby a pacifier so baby doesn’t eat when baby really was hungry and needed to eat.
Read What is a Sleep Transition (and How Does it Impact Naps) to have a better understanding about sleep cycles
Try Soothing to Sleep in Another Way
Not all babies will take pacifiers and not all moms want to use pacifiers. Try soothing baby back to sleep in your own way. If baby falls asleep and stays asleep longer than 45ish minutes, then the crying likely was not from hunger.
If baby wakes within one hour, it most likely was hunger.
Consider the Timing of the Crying
This is where a schedule or routine comes in so handy. You are following an eat, play, sleep pattern. If your little one ate and played, and then starts crying, then crying is likely because of a need for sleep. Being tired is a reason babies cry.
If you are following a consistent daily routine or schedule with your baby, then any crying you are confused about is most likely crying that happens during a nap or during the night.
See my Troubleshooting Naps post for help on that and my Nighttime Sleep Issues for help on night sleep. If you have early morning waking, see my post Early Morning Wakings: What To Do When Baby Wakes Early .
Use these baby feeding cues to help you decide if your baby is hungry or not.
Sometimes you will get it wrong. Sometimes you will think she just wants to suck when she really was hungry. Sometimes you will try to feed her when all she needed was to fall back asleep.
When these times happen, think carefully about her body language and the sound of her cries. You might even want to take notes. This will help you get to know her sooner.
It is unrealistic of you to think you will get it perfect every time. You are a human raising a human. It is normal to make mistakes. Think of your mistakes as learning experiences and move forward. Take these cues that baby is hungry and try to figure them out, but do not expect perfection.