Understanding Your Baby's Hunger and Fullness Cues: Responsive Feeding
Read time: 6 minutes
What should I know about responsive feeding?
- Following baby’s hunger and fullness cues will help them build healthy eating habits for life
- Know which hunger and fullness cues to look for when baby is breastfeeding or formula feeding
- Know which hunger and fullness cues to look for when baby is eating solids foods
Babies are communicating with us in their own unique ways – we just may not understand what they’re trying to tell us! Knowing your baby’s cues and understanding what your little one needs in each moment will help build your confidence as a parent. It also continues to build on that special bond you have with your baby.
Feeding according to your baby’s hunger and fullness cues is called Responsive Feeding, and research is indicating that listening to these signals now will help your little one build healthy habits for life.1 Read on to learn more about what your baby is telling you about hunger and fullness.
Newborn hunger and fullness cues
You know a newborn baby needs to eat frequently, but how can you tell if a baby is showing signs of hunger or something else, such as a wet diaper or needing to sleep? It is best to pay attention to a baby’s hunger cues, as opposed to feeding on a set schedule, since newborns’ feeding patterns can change often in the early weeks and months as they hit growth spurts and reach new milestones.1
Read more: Breastfeeding On Demand Vs on a Schedule
Read more: Formula Feeding On Demand Vs on a Schedule
What are the signs that baby is hungry for formula or breastmilk?
Babies may use different feeding cues depending on just how hungry they are. It’s best to catch a baby at early stages of hunger so that they eat calmly and fully. Waiting too long may make baby too upset to feed.2, 3, 4
Early newborn feeding cues a.ka. “I think I might be ready to eat.”
- Smacking/licking lips
- Opening/closing mouth
- Sucking on lips, hands, toys, etc. (although after 6-8 weeks this is more a developmental or teething sign than a hunger cue!)
Active newborn feeding cues a.k.a. “I’m hungry!”
- Rooting (mouth wide open and turning head to the side, looking for the bottle or breast)
- Trying to move towards the breast or bottle (bobbing head and mouth toward or onto your body, mouth open)
- Fidgeting, squirming, or fussing
Late newborn feeding cues a.k.a. “Feed me now!”
- Crying and fussing
- Red face
- Frantic head movements from side to side
Remember that crying is in many cases a late hunger cue, and your baby may need to be calmed down before feeding.
If your little one needs to calm down before trying to feed again, here are some tips:5
- Try skin to skin. Take off baby’s and your shirt and lie belly to belly (or baby belly to your chest)
- Comfort your little one with your soothing voice. Perhaps sing a quiet song.
- Try rocking your little one gently side to side or gently bouncing up and down (with plenty of neck support!)
Once baby is calm, try feeding again.
How often should my newborn be drinking formula or breastmilk?
You may hear from various providers that baby needs to be eating every 2 hours. Every baby is different, and some can go longer stretches (4 to 5 hours) between a couple of feedings.6 On average, a newborn will feed 8 to 12 times in a 24 hour period, while an older baby may feed an average of 6 to 8 times per 24 hours.7
Signs that your baby is getting enough milk include:8
- Baby is audibly sucking/swallowing at the breast or bottle
- Baby has 5-8 wet diapers per day by their fifth day of life
- Baby has 2-4 dirty diapers per day
- Your baby’s pediatrician is satisfied with their weight gain
Once your baby has established a good weight gain pattern, you shouldn’t need to wake them to feed and can let them set their own pattern, responding to their feeding cues accordingly.
Read more: Breastfeeding: Supporting Adequate Milk Supply
Read more: How Much Formula Does Your Baby Need?
What are the signs baby is full and ready to stop bottle or breast feeding?
Just like when hungry, your baby has many ways to tell you they’re full. Being aware of your baby’s fullness cues is critical to help them develop healthy eating habits and foster their ability to listen to their body. Ignoring your baby’s fullness cues can lead to poor habits in the future and possibly even difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.1, 9
Baby’s fullness cues to look for:
- Starting and stopping the feeding often
- Spitting out or pushing away the bottle or breast
- Fidgeting or distracting easily
- Turning head away from the bottle or breast
- Appearing sleepy and relaxed at the end of a feed (fists are unclenched, jaw relaxed, arms and legs relaxed)
Still confused about your newborn’s hunger and fullness cues? Reach out to our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am-6pm (ET). Chat Now!
Feeding cues while eating solids
Soon after you get the hang of your newborn’s feeding cues, they’ll be old enough to start solids, and with that comes new hunger and fullness signs! The World Health Organization as well as American Academy of Pediatrics recommend introducing solid foods around 6 months of age, when baby shows signs of readiness.10, 11
Signs of readiness to start solids include:
- Sitting upright with little or no support
- Not pushing the food out of their mouth with their tongue (the tongue thrust reflex)
- Showing interest in foods and opening mouth when food is offered
- Trying to hold small objects
While most babies are developmentally ready for solids around 6 months,12 some don’t show any interest in solids until closer to 9 months. Even if your little one doesn’t seem interested, be sure to regularly offer foods starting at 6 months. Letting your baby touch the food, smell it, see it, and play with it is all beneficial exposure to get him used to food in general.13
Read more: Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness
How much solid foods should I feed my baby?
Formula or breastmilk will remain baby’s primary source of calories and nutrition until they are much closer to 1 year. Aim to feed baby about an hour after drinking formula or breastmilk to help make sure solid foods do not cause a significant decrease in baby’s milk intake. 13
Aim to feed solids once or twice per day, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time. Once baby gets the hang of eating, you can slowly graduate up to eating 2 – 3 times per day, 1/4 to 1/2 cup at a time.7,14 At this point it’s still important to follow your baby’s hunger cues; your baby may want more or less than those amounts, and that’s OK!
When spoon feeding baby, it is important to go slowly and follow your baby’s cues. This helps ensure you’re not spooning food into their mouth faster than they’re ready for it, nor offering one more scoop just to finish the last of the jar.
What are hunger cues when baby is eating solids?1, 15
- Leaning toward food and opening mouth
- Getting excited when baby sees food
- Follows food with their eyes
- Lets you know they’re still hungry using hand motions or sounds
What are fullness cues when baby is eating solids?
- Pushing food away or throws food on the floor
- Closes mouth and turns head away when offered food
- Let’s you know they’re full by using hand motions or sounds
It’s so important to practice responsive feeding and stop when your little one indicates they’re done. Let baby decide how much food they want to eat. Don’t try to get in one more bite! This is the time your little one is learning to listen to their body and to stop eating when they are full. Not forcing food also helps to maintain a positive feeding experience and you and your baby will both look forward to the next meal.
Read more: The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating
We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.
Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday through Friday, from 8am–6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!
Read more about the experts that help write our content!
For more on this topic, check out the following articles:
Dealing with a Low Breastmilk Supply
Formula Feeding On Demand vs. on a Schedule
Introducing solids: first foods & textures