Newborn Hunger Cues

By Val Holmanics, RN, IBCLC

How do I know my baby is hungry?

As a new parent, you will soon learn to recognize early signs of hunger in your baby. It’s best to breastfeed your baby before they start to cry. Soon, you will begin to feel comfortable and confident with breastfeeding your baby.

Newborns instinctively let us know when they are ready to feed.  In most cases healthy newborns will wake for feedings on their own, however some babies may be sleepy at first and it may be necessary to wake them for feedings. This is helpful to ensure that they are getting enough milk.

Below are some of the newborn behavioral states and the hunger cues shown during each state. With their eyes closed, infants will demonstrate REM (rapid eye movement) in the Active Sleep state, along with increased body activity and facial movements. Though slightly difficult to waken in this state, parents can begin to prepare baby for feeding. Babies respond and learn best in the Quiet Alert state. This is a good time to feed, talk to and engage with baby. Keep in mind that babies usually progress from one state to the next very quickly.

The Quiet Alert State

  • This is the best time to initiate breastfeeding
  • Minimal body activity
  • Regular breathing pattern
  • Face is bright, eyes are wide and bright
  • Most attentive to stimuli and their environment

Early Hunger Cues

  • Eyes may be open or closed
  • Licking or smacking of the lips, sticking tongue in and out
  • Opening & closing mouth, sucking on hands, fingers, fists or anything else they can reach!

Active Hunger Cues

  • Squirming movements of the body
  • Rooting at the chest of the caregiver, eagerly searching for the breast
  • May begin to grunt and fuss

Late Hunger Cues

  • Fussiness turns into sustained crying
  • Face can turn red, facial expressions become tense
  • Irregular breathing pattern
  • Baby has reached their limit, needs consoling

If you find that your baby is showing late signs of hunger, it is important to calm your baby before attempting to breastfeed. Try skin-to-skin, swaddling or other soothing techniques. A crying baby can have difficulty latching, which can be stressful to mother and baby.