Is my baby hungry? What are the signs? Should I wake him to feed?

You have most likely heard all sorts of advice about when and how often to feed your baby. It’s confusing isn't it?

Breastfeeding according to your baby’s signals, not the clock, is more compatible with your baby’s needs and it will support a healthy milk supply. Breastfeeding is also a lovely nurturing tool and it isn’t only about hunger : if your baby is exposed to a bug, for instance, your baby will increase feeds to gain a boost of immunity from your milk; if baby is having a growth spurt, he will increase feeds to signal your breasts to make more milk to meet his requirements; and if your baby is having difficulty switching off from the busy world to fall asleep, there are magical chemicals in your milk that will help him sleep.

By keeping your baby close you will get to know your little one’s very subtle body language that says, “I am hungry” or “I need some help right now and sucking will help me feel comfortable and connected.”

If you feed whenever your baby shows hunger cues – and this could be around every two hours or even more often in the first few weeks, since newborns have a very tiny stomach capacity – your breasts will be signaled to make more milk. You will establish a healthy milk supply so that as your baby’s stomach stretches, she will naturally space out feeds.

If you are worrying, will breastfeeding always take so much time? please be reassured. With this unrestricted early practice at coordinating sucking swallowing and breathing, your baby will soon become much more efficient at feeding so feeds will become a lot quicker too.

Hunger cues

Babies give a lot of subtle cues that they are ready to feed, long before they begin to cry. Your baby’s earliest hunger signals include smacking or licking their lips, opening and closing their mouths, making sucking noises and trying to suck on their fists or fingers. 

These early signals can take a wee while for you to notice but if you miss them your hungry baby will become more persistent. She will try seeking the breast, turning her head towards the person who is holding her and rooting with her mouth. An older baby may start patting or hitting you on the chest or tugging at your clothes.

Soon your baby will become more frantic, often moving their head from side to side, breathing rapidly and making noises that say, ‘I’m working up to a cry’. If these signals are ignored, your baby will yell.

Crying is a LATE hunger cue

When we repeatedly wait until a young baby cries (sometimes it is unavoidable), perhaps because we are trying to implement a strict parent-directed feeding schedule, we can set ourselves on a path to unnecessary feeding problems.

Notice where your baby’s tongue is when she is yelling: a baby can’t latch on to feed when her tongue is elevated towards the roof of her mouth. So if your baby is crying, you will need to calm her first before you offer the breast.

If your baby has been waiting for a feed and is really upset, even if you manage to calm her enough to latch on and feed, her suck is likely to be disorganised, or she may be exhausted from crying and only take a small feed before falling asleep. This, of course, means that she will probably sleep for a very short time then wake for another feed as her tiny tummy quickly empties.

This is why it’s important to get to know your baby’s subtle cues that tell you she wants to feed, especially when you have a newborn.

Should I wake my baby to feed?

A healthy, alert baby will most likely signal whenever he needs to feed but if you have a sleepy newborn, you may have to gently wake your baby for feeds at least every three hours (day and night) during the first two or three weeks, until your mik supply is established and baby is gaining weight.

Although having a baby who ‘sleeps all night’ seems to be the holy grail of parenthood, for the first month, it's better to gently wake your baby if he is sleeping more than 4 or 5 hours at night, depending on feeding and weight gain (check with your health care provider for information about your individual baby).

After this, if your baby is gaining weight and your milk supply is stable, you can let your baby decide when to wake for feeds. Or you can ‘listen’ to your boobs – if your breasts feel very full, it is perfectly OK to gently offer your baby a feed. This will help your breasts regulate to your baby’s needs without risking engorgement and blocked ducts that could lead to mastitis. f your baby doesn’t want to take an over-full mummy feed so leaves your breasts feeling 'full' and uncomfortable or only drinks one side, just express enough for comfort – so you don't over-stimulate your supply.

Night feeds

At night-time, it may take you a little longer to arouse from your own sleep to respond to your baby’s signals before he actually cries but he will usually give a few small ‘warning’ calls before he works up to distressed wailing. If your baby sleeps near you in the early months ( Red Nose Safe Sleeping Guidelines advise sleeping in the same room for the first 12 months) you will be surprised how intuitively you will respond to his movements and noises, even if they aren’t very loud.

There is evidence that by keeping your baby close at night, you and your little one will share sleep cycles so you will be able to arouse easily, rather than being woken from a deep sleep. This makes it easier to respond promptly to your baby’s early signals, so he will feed quickly without waking fully – and because of this natural ‘efficiency’ you will get more sleep even though your baby will probably need night feeds for at least several months.

Night feeding tip!

Most breastfeeding mums say they feel very hungry during the night, especially in the early weeks. Keep a drink bottle of water on your bedside table and, instead of waking yourself fully to get up and raid the fridge, keep some Boobie Bikkies next to your bed or feeding chair – they are individually wrapped so stay fresh and you can nibble a cookie with one hand while you feed your baby.

Remember to keep the lights dim so you and your baby stay in ‘snooze mode’ and if your baby needs a nappy change, do this half way through his feed then nurse him back to sleep – your breast milk has lovely ‘night time’ hormones that will encourage drowsiness and a quick return to sleep for your baby (and you!).