Hunger Cues – When do I feed baby?

By Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC

Babies should be fed when they indicate hunger. Crying is a late indicator of hunger – breastfeeding is much easier for both mom and baby if mom is able to pick up on baby’s earlier hunger cues.

Feeding Cues


Common infant hunger cues include:

Early hunger cue

Early hunger cue


  • Smacking or licking lips
  • Opening and closing mouth
  • Sucking on lips, tongue, hands, fingers, toes, toys, or clothing


  • Rooting around on the chest of whoever is carrying him
  • Trying to position for nursing, either by lying back or pulling on your clothes
  • Fidgeting or squirming around a lot
  • Hitting you on the arm or chest repeatedly
  • Fussing or breathing fast
Late hunger cue

Late hunger cue

Late (calm baby before feeding)

  • Moving head frantically from side to side
  • Crying

“My newborn wants to sleep all the time! Should I wake him to nurse?”

Yes, if he doesn’t wake on his own. Many newborns are very sleepy in the early days or weeks and may not exhibit hunger cues as often as they actually need to eat. Newborns should be nursed anytime they cue hunger, but at least every 2 hours during the day and at least once during the night. Once your baby has established a good weight gain pattern (at least 4 ounces per week, for babies under 4 months), you can stop waking baby to nurse and let him set his own pattern.

“My baby just started sleeping longer at night. Do I need to wake him to nurse?”

If your baby is younger than 4 weeks, then it is a good idea to wake baby at least every 4-5 hours at night to nurse if he does not wake on his own. If your child is older than 4 weeks, you can allow baby to sleep as long as he wants at night as long as he is peeing, pooping, and gaining weight within normal parameters.

“My baby frequently sucks on his hands. Does this always mean that he’s hungry?”

After the newborn period, hand sucking is not as reliable an indicator of hunger. Starting at around 6-8 weeks, baby will begin to gain more control over his hands and will soon begin to explore his hands and everything else using his mouth. It is also common for babies to suck on their hands when their gums become tender in preparation for tooth eruption. Symptoms of teething can sometimes occur weeks and even months before the first tooth erupts. More here on teething.


More information:

Signs That Your Baby Is Hungry, a video from baby gooroo’s Amy Spangler, RN, MN, IBCLC

Newborn hunger cues video from janellevideo

Baby feeding cues (great photo handout here), from Queensland Health

Infant Hunger Cues, from Lactation Education Resources

Feeding Cues, from the Australian Breastfeeding Association

The Clock and Early Breastfeeding, by Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA

Feeding on Cue, NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 4, July-August 2003, p. 126

Nursing your newborn — what to expect in the early weeks @

Should baby be on a schedule? Links @

Examining the Evidence for Cue Feeding Breastfed Infants by Lisa Marasco, BA, IBCLC and Jan Barger, MA, RN, IBCLC

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