Hunger Cues: How To Know if Baby Is Hungry

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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.

Newborn baby lying on a white blanket

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:

Licking Lips

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.

Pinnable image reading how to recognize hunger cues from your baby with a picture of a newborn baby on a white blanket 

Rooting

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. 


Read: How To Successfully Do On Becoming Babywise


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. 

Coughing Sound

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. 

Ultimate Back to School Planner
Overcoming the Mental Load of Motherhood
Chronicles of a Babywise Mom Book of Logs
The Babywise Mom Nap Guide
Ultimate Back to School Planner
Overcoming the Mental Load of Motherhood
Chronicles of a Babywise Mom Book of Logs
The Babywise Mom Nap Guide
Ultimate Back to School Planner
Overcoming the Mental Load of Motherhood
Chronicles of a Babywise Mom Book of Logs
The Babywise Mom Nap Guide

Crying

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

The information above is found on pages 196-197 in The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems and page 92 in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer.

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

Pinnable image with text that reads Deciphering Baby Hunger Cues and a picture of a newborn baby on a blanket

Conclusion

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. 

Related Baby Posts

 

Baby boy sitting on the kitchen floor playing with pots and pans

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valplowman
valplowman

Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book, The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at Babywise.life, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on the About page. Follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram for more tips and helps.

Find me on: Web | Twitter | Facebook

5 Comments

  1. Kristy Powers
    September 3, 2010 / 3:10 PM

    This is a great post! I did not really follow Baby Whisperer but I did make sure to read her (Traci Hogg). I think some of her details are fantastically helpful, and these hunger cues are part of the details that I love. Also her burping methods. 🙂

  2. Megan Davidhizar
    June 12, 2012 / 1:49 PM

    My daughter is 5 weeks old. We have been doing BW to the best of my knowledge from the start. I am afraid I'm creating some vicious cycles and need some words of affirmation.She has trouble with sleep during the day. She rarely wakes early from a nap and is always very sleepy when I wake her at three hours. I work very hard to keep her awake for 15 minutes on each side. In an effort to avoid her falling asleep at the breast, I pull her off after 15 minutes so she can either get to the other side or go down for a nap. However, she then fusses while we work on CiO(started this week). Sometimes it is just a fuss, other times she cries long and hard; the problem is during both times she shows hunger cues while being calm! I only know this from the video monitor and she does it even after 10 minutes from her feeding. Even more perplexing, sometimes she falls asleep soon after, but other times she cries for an hour before we move her to our back-up swing so she can get her sleep and not be exhausted at the next feeding.1. How do I reconcile CiO with following her hunger cues and not letting her fall asleep at the breast every time?2. Won't it confuse her to go in and try to feed her every time she shows hunger cues if we are doing CiO-particularly if without the video monitor I would assume she was just settling herself down?

  3. Megan Davidhizar
    June 12, 2012 / 1:50 PM

    I forgot to add: She still averages 6 wet diapers a day, though some days are 5 and some are 7.

  4. Plowmanators
    June 27, 2012 / 3:34 AM

    Megan, I think the answer to your issue will be keeping your baby awake during feedings. See my post on that. I wouldn't feed her right when she is going down for a nap–if she needs it then, then she is sleeping at the breast instead of eating.

  5. Sarah Rapp
    June 27, 2015 / 7:56 PM

    My baby seems to ONLY cry this way, with the cough preceding the cry (she's 5 weeks old) even after a massive 45 minute feeding! (Lots of poops and pee diapers so I know she is getting a lot)….=/

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