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Early, Mid and Late Signs of Newborn Hunger

Newborn on mother's shoulder.

In the old days, we often talked about “demand” feedings.” However, that word carries the connotation of some big, loud, desperate plea to be fed. More recently, we’ve used the term cue-based feeding, meaning, to feed the baby when cues are observed. But many times, we miss the subtle cues. Here’s how to recognize signs of newborn hunger.

Early hunger cues of hunger in a newborn

Newborns (meaning, babies who are less than one month old) don’t speak. But they give messages. Their earliest hunger message is, “Hey, I could use some food about now.”

These cues will be visual, and very subtle. Examples include:

  • Mouth opening
  • Gentle motor movement; stirring, with small arm and/or leg movements, or even crossing their ankles
  • Turning the head from side to side
  • Rooting towards an object

Newborns and very young infants root toward any object, not necessarily a breast! Hundreds of babies have rooted toward my gloved finger – or even my neck or my scrub clothes!    

When newborns feel something next to their cheeks, they’ll open their mouths. (And anticipate finding something to put in it!) This reflex is stronger and more obvious when they’re hungry. (The rooting reflex disappears around 3 months of age.)

Mid cues

Now, babies are saying, “Um, I’m kinda hungry here. Where’s the food?” Now, you’ll notice more active motor movements. This could include:

  • Stretching
  • Hand to mouth movement
  • Sucking motions

Hungry babies often move their mouths even when there is nothing available to suck on. Their jaws go up and down while their tongues move. I tell parents to watch for this “sucking in the air.”

Again, these signs of newborn hunger are somewhat subtle, so be on the lookout for when they appear.

Late cues

With late cues, babies are giving this message: “Hey, I’m seriously hungry!”

At this point, babies exhibit vigorous, agitated motor activity. Such activity is not in just one body part. The whole body is moving is big motions. This might include:

  • Putting fist or fingers in the mouth, and perhaps sucking vigorously
  • Flexing arms and legs, a little or a lot
  • Moving arms in big sweeping movement
  • Moving legs repeatedly and rhythmically. I call this “riding the bicycle.”
  • Tense affect and stiff posture; clenched fists
  • Face turning bright red

Almost too-late hunger cue

Crying is the last sign of hunger. Here, the message is, “I’ve waited so long that I’m completely frantic!”

At this point, it’s okay to try offering the breast. But it might not work. Don’t be surprised if the baby just continues to scream.

Here, signs of newborn hunger are escalated. You’ll see a frantic baby with exaggerated motor activity and loud crying. Sometimes, you’ll see tears. Babies in this situation often need to be consoled before they breastfeed.

Think of how this feels in your own life. Try to remember a time when you were ravenously hungry when you arrived at a restaurant. Then, you couldn’t decide what to order from the menu. That’s because your brain’s glucose level was so low that you just wanted to give up. (I’ve been there. My husband then asks, “Should I order for you?”)

Try offering skin-to-skin contact. Babies feel “at home” when they have skin-to-skin contact, and they are likely to settle down.

Or try squeezing a little milk onto the baby’s lips. They’ll lick it off. Sometimes, just giving him an “appetizer” helps enormously. 

Also, try using an upright position to bring up a burp or two. When babies cry vigorously, they often swallow air. Try to imagine yourself having a tummy full of air. Would you want to put food in your stomach? Probably not.

By the way, all these cues can occur in preterm infants, but they are more subtle. Listen to my interview with Tina Fry to learn more. 

These are just some simple tips for recognizing signs of newborn hunger.   

Stay tuned for my next post on how to recognize signs of satiety.

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