Erica's New Book Releasing the Mother Load is coming in April! You can pre-order your copy NOW!
Erica's New Book Releasing the Mother Load is coming in April! You can pre-order your copy NOW!

November 9, 2023

October 4, 2023

Interpreting Newborn Hunger Cues and Sleepy Signs: How to Learn Your Baby’s Needs

Interpreting Newborn Hunger Cues and Sleepy Signs: How to Learn Your Baby’s Needs

What You'll Learn

  • Why It’s Important to Recognize Newborn’s Hunger and Sleepy Cues
  • Understanding Typical Newborn Hunger Cues
  • Newborn Hunger Cues and Signs of Fullness
  • Typical Newborn Sleepy Signs
  • Why We Should Release Rigidity Around Sleep
  • The Importance of Flexibility for Moms

Understanding our baby’s needs can be confusing. Are they tired? Hungry? Do they just need a cuddle? Babies don’t come with an instruction manual. But when you understand newborn hunger cues and sleepy signs, it becomes much easier to learn from and communicate with your baby. 

Today, I’m joined by Sharon Mazel, author of Bite-Sized Parenting: Your Baby’s First Year, to unpack newborn hunger cues and sleepy signs and learn how to tune into your baby’s needs. 

Newborn Hunger Cues, Sleepy Cries, and New Mom Overwhelm

I’ve heard from countless moms that leaving the hospital with a completely dependent little human was terrifying. We’re handed our tiny baby with very little guidance and sent home, where we have to figure out how to meet the needs of a little being whose only method of communication is crying. 

We have to learn how to recognize newborn hunger cues, how much to feed them, when to feed them, how often to feed them. We have to learn when they should sleep and how they should sleep (and how on earth to get them to sleep)! 

We have to decide whether to feed on demand or go with a schedule, how to distinguish their cries, and how to respond when they don’t do what Google says they’re supposed to do—and we usually have to do it while exhausted, sleep deprived, and in physical discomfort. 

It’s no wonder so many of us struggle in the early days! That’s why I loved the concept of Sharon’s book—breaking down the world of information we’re supposed to learn into practical, digestible tips that sleep-deprived new parents can actually learn and use. 

I was so excited to have her on the podcast to unpack newborn hunger cues, sleepy signs, and other infant needs. 

Why It’s Important to Recognize Newborn’s Hunger and Sleepy Cues

Sharon is committed to sharing digestible tips with parents, simplifying the overwhelming amount of contradictory information out there. She said that when we have too much information, it’s essentially the same as having no information. It makes it hard for moms to develop confidence.

We’re bombarded with recommendations, methods, and gadgets. It often feels as if there are “right” and “wrong” choices for everything. This can feed into perfectionism and mom anxiety, leaving us concerned over every little decision. 

But Sharon pointed out that many decisions in parenting aren’t high-stakes. What brand of pacifier we choose or which bottle to buy doesn’t have to be a major decision. 

If we can drill down to just the essentials, it isn’t as overwhelming. From there, we can make choices that work based on our personalities, our baby’s temperament, and what feels right for us. 

We become the best parents when we feel good about parenting our baby.

Sharon pointed out that we become the best parents when we feel good about parenting our baby—and we do that by making choices that feel best for us as individuals. Breaking away from the gadgets and the promises of quick-fixes online, and instead focusing on learning our newborn’s hunger cues and sleepy signs, can help us do that. 

Sharon said that becoming attuned to our baby’s signs can give us confidence in our parenting. But she also urges parents to remember that we aren’t going to be perfect. We aren’t always going to know what every cry or sign means. 

It can be very anxiety-provoking when you’re not able to soothe your baby. But Sharon pointed out that crying is just communication—and it’s okay if it takes us some time to figure it out. Even if we’ve had multiple children or plenty of experience with babies, there will be times when our baby cries and we don’t know what to do.

Understanding Typical Newborn Hunger Cues

Sharon said that we should aim to feed younger newborns every 2-4 hours, since they are very sleepy and might not show normal hunger cues. But it’s ideal to feed on demand. There are three different “sets” of hunger cues in newborns—early hunger cues, active hunger cues, and late-stage hunger cues. 

Early hunger cues are harder to discern, but the more we practice and the more we get to know our baby, the more we can distinguish them. During this stage, your baby might open and close their mouth or smack their lips. They also might suck on their fingers or hand—or any body part of yours that might be nearby. 

The active hunger stage is often easier to notice. Your baby might become more fussy or squirm, they might even start breathing fast, looking for their food source. They might also show the rooting reflex—if you touch their cheek, they will turn to the side looking for the breast or bottle. 

The late-stage newborn hunger cues are a bit more frantic. Our baby might cry or more their head back and forth faster. This often makes it more difficult to latch on and suck efficiently, whether you’re breastfeeding or bottlefeeding. So Sharon pointed out that it’s ideal to feed our baby before they reach this point. 

It’s important to be forgiving of ourselves—we won’t always notice the earlier signs.

But it’s also important to be forgiving of ourselves—we won’t always notice the earlier signs, or have time to warm a bottle or drop what we’re doing and feed our baby immediately. 

She said that when our baby reaches that late-stage hunger, it’s a learning opportunity. We can think back and reflect on the signs that were there that we might have missed, then start to look for those same signs 2-3 hours later. This is how we start to learn our individual baby’s cues. As Sharon said, practice makes progress. 

Newborn Hunger Cues and Signs of Fullness

It’s also important to understand that the feeding journey can take time—whether you’re breastfeeding or bottlefeeding. Challenges such as latching, finding the right bottle, gas, allergies, and more can arise. 

We might blame ourselves for these challenges or panic when they come up. But Sharon said that navigating these challenges and learning how to interpret our baby’s needs is the foundation of how we learn to communicate with our baby. 

She said that watching and learning and adjusting is a beautiful thing—and that over time, we learn how to work together in partnership with our baby. 

Over time, we learn how to work together in partnership with our baby. 

One of the challenges we might face is knowing when our baby has had enough milk—especially if they are breastfed. 

When we feel anxious about this, we might turn to weighing before and after feeds. There are absolutely cases where this is medically necessary, but for the majority of babies, this process might not be needed, and it can even feed into our anxiety and fear. 

Instead, we can look for signs of fullness—such as pushing away from the breast or bottle, or a sense of happiness and satisfaction after feeds. We can also learn to distinguish the swallowing sound so we know when our baby is just suckling versus when they are actually taking in milk. 

There are also overall signs that our baby is getting enough milk, based on weight gain and diaper output (typically 6-8 wet diapers a day, with a pale color of urine.) 

Sharon said that in the newborn stage, we typically want to see babies gain an ounce each day. Unless your doctor recommends at-home feedings, typical appointments will help us gauge this. She also pointed out that babies come in all shapes and sizes—a steady weight gain is often more important than the percentile. 

Typical Newborn Sleepy Signs

We can also learn our baby’s sleep cues to help us understand when our babies are tired. Just like with hunger cues, there are early sleep cues, active sleep cues, and late-stage sleep cues. 

Sometimes the early sleep cues are less obvious in the moment, such as red eyes or a less focused, glazed look. Fair or light-skinned babies might develop redness around the eyebrow or start to lose interest in their current activity, such as slowing down on feeding or playing. 

The second stage of sleep cues might include yawning, eye-rubbing, or pulling on their hair or ears. Babies often start sucking on fingers or thumbs during this stage (which can also be a hunger cue). 

Late-stage sleepy cues often involve crying. Sharon said that it’s ideal to get baby down to sleep before they enter the late stage, because it becomes much harder to settle and soothe them once they become overtired. (Overtired babies also might not sleep as well or as long, created a cycle of tiredness.) 

But just like with hunger cues, we’re likely to miss signs sometimes, especially while we’re getting to know our baby. This gives us a chance to look back and think about what our baby was doing leading up to the late stage, and what we can be looking for in the future. 

Sharon also said that “wake windows” are a helpful tool. These are general guidelines for how long an average baby at each age will stay awake. Sharon pointed out that these don’t need to be rigid—and they can range fairly widely. But if we know that a baby at our baby’s age usually needs a nap every 90-120 minutes, and we start to notice some of those early sleep cues within that window, we can start winding down for a nap. 

Why We Should Release Rigidity Around Sleep

New moms often become very concerned with baby sleep schedules. This makes sense—we’ve been told that we only get to sleep when the baby sleeps, so of course we would want to promote sleep so we can get some much-needed rest. 

But rigidity around sleep can set us up for failure. Young babies are often not developmentally ready to sleep through the night—no matter how many gadgets or sleep classes or sleep routines we try. 

Rigidity around sleep can set us up for failure.

Routines or general schedules can be helpful for babies, but Sharon advised against rigid scheduling. When we try to force schedules on our babies, we aren’t aligning to their cues or their individual needs. 

It can be very helpful to separate our sleep from the baby’s, carving out time for protected, consolidated maternal sleep by leaning on our partner or other support members. Then we can focus less on trying to get our baby to sleep more, instead focusing on meeting their needs and recognizing their cues. 

The Importance of Flexibility for Moms

Ultimately, Sharon pointed out that while understanding our baby’s natural tendencies is important, it’s also valuable to remember what works for us and our mental health. 

For example, many new moms who want to breastfeed feel pressured to avoid a bottle or a pacifier out of fear of nipple confusion. I remember all too well frantically googling whether it was okay to give a soother to my own baby! 

Sharon said that babies naturally suck for comfort, while others will comfort feed without actually suckling. If comfort sucking works for a mom, that’s great—but if it doesn’t, it’s okay to set some boundaries around your body and encourage alternative sucking options, like a pacifier or thumb. 

We can meet our baby’s needs and still create boundaries for ourselves, finding what works for us—we don’t have to sacrifice ourselves completely. The best thing we can do for our baby is often to be flexible with our expectations so we can put our own needs on an equal playing field with everyone else’s. 

That might look like being flexible about breastfeeding, supplementing with formula, having a partner handle some feeds with bottles, or giving a pacifier if you need a break or want to set boundaries on comfort nursing. 

(And for moms out there who are worried about nipple confusion just like I was, Sharon also shared that the statistics don’t support it. Some babies develop a nipple preference, but it’s very unlikely for pacifier use to affect breastfeeding.)

It’s also okay to change what we want based on reality rather than expectations. Perhaps we wanted to exclusively breastfeed but the toll it took on our mental health changed things. Sharon pointed out that if we aren’t feeling good about something, it’s not beneficial for our baby. Babies need moms to take care of themselves. 

If you’re struggling with flexibility or adjusting to motherhood, our mom therapists are here to help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today!


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First year, Flexibility, Baby temperament, Baby sleep

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