Reading your baby’s hunger cues isn’t always as easy as you might have anticipated. Newborns and infants cry in order to communicate all of their needs, so sometimes it can be hard to discern whether your baby is crying out of hunger, discomfort, pain, or tiredness.
Feeding a baby who is not hungry can lead to overfeeding and gassiness, but of course it’s vital to recognize and respond to hunger cues. The younger the baby, the more frequently she needs to be fed, and even older babies will go through growth spurts or periods of cluster feeding where they need to eat more for awhile.
No one knows your baby like you do, so the best thing to do is to follow your intuition and pay attention to learning your baby’s individual signs of hunger. It helps to have a general idea of a feeding schedule in mind, as long as you’re not tied to the clock. Here are some hints that might be helpful:
What are the most common infant hunger cues?
The first sign of a hungry baby isn’t crying; there are three stages of cues, known as early, active, and late (Kelly Mom). In the early stage, a newborn might smack his lips and suck his fingers. Older babies often do this as part of a developmental stage, not just when they’re hungry, but in newborns, this probably signifies early hunger.
In the active stage of hunger, a baby might start to root for the breast, or fidget or fuss lightly. This progresses to late stage hunger, when Baby grows more agitated and needs to be calmed down before feeding. This is when crying and frantic head movements happen.
How can you tell whether Baby is tired, hungry, or both?
As a general rule, if you fed formula to your baby less than two hours ago, she’s upset for a reason other than hunger. Sometimes breastfed babies cry when being held by their moms, even if they’re not hungry, because they can smell milk. If you suspect this, try letting another caregiver hold her for awhile (Parents).
Also, tired cries differ from hungry cries in that they tend to be more intermittent and restless instead of frantic sounding.
What’s a good bottle feeding schedule?
Again, you can use the clock as a guideline, but don’t feel the need to follow a rigid structure. Both breastfed and bottle fed babies (whether they’re drinking pumped milk or formula) should be fed based on hunger cues. This can help formula fed babies naturally regulate their intake and prevent accidental overfeeding (Parenting Science).
Formula fed babies should be eating 6-10 times a day, including at night; this means you’ll be feeding about every 3-4 hours.
For babies who are being fed pumped breast milk, paced feeding helps ensure natural regulation of intake. This method entails frequent brief pauses in the feeding, and learning to notice and honor Baby’s fullness cues. If you’re worried about wasting precious pumped breast milk, just heat up a small amount, like a couple of ounces at a time.
What’s a good schedule for breastfeeding or combined feeding?
Newborns who are exclusively breastfed should be eating 8-12 times a day, and if you’re not sure how long a nursing session should be, aim for 10-15 minutes per side (Cleveland Clinic). Sometimes newborns are too sleepy to fully awaken themselves to nurse, so be sure to wake your baby if he doesn’t wake up often enough on his own.
When should you go off schedule?
The answer is, whenever you think your baby is exhibiting hunger cues. Of course you don’t want a gassy, overfed baby, but it’s always good to consider whether a growth spurt or cluster feeding could be the reason for Baby’s sudden increased appetite. If a baby who was fed less than an hour ago can’t be consoled by a diaper change or other measures, they may simply need to “top off” their feeding with another ounce or so (Happiest Baby).
As your baby grows and you both get to know each other better, navigating hunger and tiredness cues will come more naturally, and you’ll be able to soothe her more easily as you develop a comfortable routine for feeding and sleep.
Our one-of-a-kind BlueSmart mia feeding tracker can be very helpful as you’re developing a feeding routine; there’s no guesswork involved about the time and amount of Baby’s most recent feeding, and this can help you figure out whether food or sleep is what she most needs right now.