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How to Tell if Your Baby is Hungry

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
January 3, 2019 . 20 min read

Trying to read your baby’s cues can be confusing. When your baby cries and wiggles and fusses, what does that mean? Is he or she wet? Bored? Or hungry?

One thing is sure: you need to understand what these signs mean, especially when it comes to feeding time. Mastering the appetite cues, such as hunger and fullness will help you be more responsive with feeding. It will also keep your baby tuned in to his or her appetite and more importantly, on a healthy self-regulation track from the beginning.

What does it mean to be self-regulated?

It means that your baby is able to control his or her own eating by listening to, and responding to, his or her appetite. Translated: your baby eats when hungry and stops when full. Being good at self-regulation is a key to healthy eating and a healthy weight down the road.

So what are these special cues?

The hunger cues of infancy

Your baby fusses and cries. This is the most common and obvious sign that your baby is hungry. But be careful here, fussing or crying doesn’t always equate to hunger. It can mean other things such as discomfort, tiredness, or even boredom.

Your baby smiles, gazes, or coos at you during a feeding. It’s so sweet when this happens, right? Well, it may be a sign your baby is enjoying his or her food and wants to continue eating.

Your baby moves his or her head toward the spoon or bottle. This is a pretty clear indication that your baby wants to eat and is hungry.

Your baby reaches for or points to food. As your baby gets a bit older, he or she will be clearer about the desire to eat. While pointing may not mean hunger (your baby might like a food and want to eat it, even though he or she just ate), it gives you the indication that your baby is learning to connect food and eating.

Your baby shows excitement when food is offered. Again, your baby is responding to food and this may be a sign he or she is ready to eat.

Your baby uses sounds, words, or signs to indicate hunger. At the end of infancy, it gets easier to read your baby’s hunger cues, as he or she is able to communicate in multiple ways.

The fullness cues of infancy

Your baby decreases the rate of sucking or stops sucking. Sometimes your baby will nod off to sleep during a feeding, but if you pay attention to sucking at the beginning of a feeding when your baby is really hungry, it’s easy to notice when the pace changes or they stop eating. Try not to force the rest of the bottle, because this may result in overfeeding.

Your baby spits out the nipple. This is a clear sign of being full and done with eating.

Your baby becomes easily distracted or pays more attention to the environment. In general, young children eat vigorously when they are hungry and consume a great percentage of the calories early on in the meal. When infants become distracted or interested in other things around them, their hunger may be waning and they may be becoming full. It’s important to minimize distractions at feedings so that you can read your baby’s appetite and your baby can focus on eating.

Your baby moves his or her head away from solid food. When your baby is older and eating solid foods, dodging the spoon or slouching away from food may be a sign of disinterest and fullness.

Your baby slows the pace of eating. As with liquid feedings, when your baby is eating solids, as he or she is approaching fullness, they will slow down the rate of food consumption.

Fortunately, as your baby gets older, it becomes easier to recognize his or her fullness. For example, your baby may bat at the spoon, turn away, clench his or her mouth shut, shake his or her head to say no, play with food, throw it, or just simply say “no” or “all done.”

If it worries you that your baby hasn\'t eaten enough, remember that babies eat frequently during the day and they have many opportunities to accumulate their nutritional needs and make up any deficits along the way.

Sources:

  • Castle, JL and Jacobsen MT
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • Jossey-Bass/Wiley
  • 2013. Hurley KM et al
  • A systematic review of responsive feeding and child obesity in high-income countries
  • J Nutr
  • 2011; 495-501. Black MM et al
  • Responsive feeding is embedded in a theoretical framework of responsive parenting
  • J Nutr
  • 2011; 490-494.

 

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