Knowing When To Feed Your Baby


Breast-feeding is a baby-led activity, where the baby dictates his own feeding schedule. Babies have an amazing ability to tell parents when they need to eat and even when they are finished. It is very important to follow the baby’s signs and not enforce rigid schedules. Schedules interfere with the infant receiving the right balance of foremilk (beginning of feeding) and hindmilk (end of feeding).

Parents should learn how their baby communicates, so that they know when to feed him. Babies communicate through crying and body language. The signs that the baby gives for feeding are called feeding cues. These are the early signs of hunger, and the baby may give the signs while he is in the light sleep state, drowsy state or quiet alert state. A baby has six states or physical conditions:

  • Deep sleep: The baby lies very still while sleeping and does not wake easily.
  • Light or active sleep: The baby has rapid eye movement and sucking or mouthing activity. He is easier to wake.
  • Drowsy: The baby is very easily awoken. His eyes may open and close, and he may yawn and stretch.
  • Quiet alert: The baby looks around, interacts and is responsive. He is still but watchful. This is the best time to nurse.
  • Active alert: The baby may be very attentive, he moves his hands and feet and is wide-eyed. He may become fussy.
  • Crying: The baby is very agitated and needs attention quickly.
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When a baby is getting hungry, he will suck or chew on his fingers and hands, open his mouth and extend the tongue, turn his head toward the breast with an open mouth (called rooting), suck his tongue or lips, move his eyes under the lids when in light sleep, start to stroke his cheek with his hand, and start to squirm and move when held. Crying is a late sign, and the infant will need to be comforted before going to breast.

When the baby begins to nurse, his hands will be in very tight fists and his body will be tense. He may even look as though he is frowning. Then as the baby is being nourished by the milk, his body will start to relax and his hands will open. Eventually the baby’s body will be limp. The baby will have a dreamy look in his eyes and his mouth will become slack and milk may drip from the lips. This is called “milk drunk.”

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The baby ends the feeding by “popping” off the breast on his own. However, some babies will still stay latched on the breast and mothers may need to gently take them off. If the baby does not suck and swallow when taken off the breast, then he is finished with that feeding.

Calming a crying baby

There are several ways to calm a baby. After washing your hands, insert your little finger into the baby’s mouth. Gently, turn the pad of the finger toward the roof of the mouth and lightly rub the roof of the mouth. This will start the baby sucking and help to calm him. You also can hold the infant upright wrapped well and talk softly, while rocking back and forth. You may need to darken the room, turn of the television or radio, or have a very quiet atmosphere. Some infants have difficulty focusing and need quiet surroundings to learn to latch on to the breast.

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