A mother and father feed their newborn baby.
How can you tell if your newborn is hungry? Lots of ways. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

I recently went into a postpartum room of a mama who had given birth about 12 hours before.

As she held her beautiful daughter, she told me the story of her natural birth. The baby began crying.

She asked me, “Besides crying, how will I know when she needs to eat?” That is a great question.

Feeding cues are the baby’s way of saying, “Hey, I’m getting hungry.”

Early feeding cues include:

  • She brings her hand to her mouth or face
  • She makes licking, smacking, or other suckling noises
  • She sticks her tongue out
  • She opens and closes her mouth
  • She turns her head toward your breast—this is known as the rooting reflex
  • Rapid eye moment—this is a great time to feed a sleepy baby if they haven’t nursed recently
  • She tries to get into a position to breastfeed (you see this more as the baby gets a little bit older)
  • She moves her head from side to side
  • Crying

You may have wondered why crying is at the end of the list. It’s because crying is a late sign of hunger.

In other words, she’s tried to tell you in various ways she’s hungry, but if you still don’t get it, she’ll cry so you know.

If you wait until baby is crying to feed him, you will need to calm him down first. Waiting until baby is crying makes it more difficult to get him calmed down and on the breast easily.

If you use the other feeding cues to know when to feed, he will be calm, yet eager to eat.

Does crying always mean he is hungry? No. Remember, crying is baby’s way of getting your attention. Maybe he is tired, needs a diaper change, is too hot or cold, too over-stimulated, wants to be held, or is hungry. If baby is hungry and you put him to breast, he will nurse.

Can you spoil a baby by responding to their cries? No, not a newborn. In fact, studies show that responding to baby’s crying quickly teaches him to trust you and feel secure.

Remember that newborns eat very often. It’s common for them to nurse every 90 minutes to three hours or at least eight times in a 24-hour period.