Hunger signs

How do I know when my baby is hungry?

When babies are hungry, they let you know. They may wrinkle their foreheads and look angry, bring their hands to their face, pant or grunt, and open their mouths like little birds when the top lip is touched. If they are not fed soon, these hunger signs increase. Eventually they will become very upset and cry or scream. After one month of age, these signs become more subtle and include whining, smacking of the lips, and tapping of the breast. They may reach inside the mother's shirt or turn toward the breast and try to breastfeed. 

A) Hunger signs

Hunger signs or hunger cues, are the behaviours babies use to tell you they are hungry.

In general, hunger signs:

  • Are very clear.
  • Are hard to miss.
  • Do not go away.
  • Increase as feeding is delayed.

Babies indicate hunger using:

  • Facial expressions:
    • Anger.
    • Unhappiness.
  • Hands:
    • Bringing the hands to the face.
    • Frantic or angry hand sucking.
  • Sounds:
    • Panting.
    • Grunting.
  • Actions:
    • Behaving like hungry little birds; when their top lip is touched, they open their mouth like a little bird and shake their head slightly.
    • Smacking or licking their lips.

A baby who is not fed usually becomes insistent and upset. These hunger signs become more pronounced as time passes. Eventually the baby becomes very upset and cries or screams and will need to be calmed down before latching. Mothers should feed the baby at the first sign of hunger to avoid this and consider additional ways to prevent crying from hunger.

Premature, underfed newborn, or sick babies may not have the energy to give many hunger signs but will instead quickly shut down and go to sleep if they are not fed.

Chronically underfed babies will frequently scowl.

B) Hunger signs in a baby over one month

Once a baby reaches one month in age, the hunger signs become more individual (McNally 2016). They may add the following to the above hunger signs:

  • Whining 
  • Smacking of the lips
  • Turning toward the breast and trying to breastfeed
  • Tapping the breast
  • Reaching inside the mother’s shirt
  • Asking to breastfeed once they are verbal

C) Behaviours that can be confused with hunger signs

To avoid mis-reading the baby’s hunger signs, it is helpful to learn to understand your baby’s signs and trust your instincts. The following normal behaviours can be mistaken for hunger signs.

1) Rooting

If a baby’s cheek is touched or stroked, the baby will turn its head toward the stroking. They may also open their mouths slightly. This is called the rooting reflex. This behaviour will happen if the baby is not hungry.

If the baby is hungry, babies will still root but may add a slight shaking of the head along with other hunger signs. It is useful for hungry babies because it helps them find the nipple and latch.

2) Happy hand sucking

Happy hand sucking is not a sign of hunger but it can be the start of hunger. All babies suck their hands. If the baby is happy and hand sucking, wait and see what develops. If the baby becomes more hungry, the baby will change from happy to angry or hungry hand sucking within a few minutes.  

3) The happy bird

When their top lip is touched, normal babies will open their mouths slightly. This is a reflex. If the baby is not showing any other hunger signs, the baby is not hungry.

4) Sticking their tongue out

Normal babies stick their tongues out. This does not necessarily mean they are hungry. Look for the other hunger signs.

5) Crying 

Crying can be a late hunger sign, but babies also cry for other normal reasons. 

6) Accepting a bottle

Babies often accept a bottle even though they are not hungry.

References

McNally J, Hugh-Jones S, Caton S, et al. Communicating hunger and satiation in the first 2 years of life: a systematic review. Matern Child Nutr. 2016 Apr;12(2):205-28