How do I know if my baby is hungry, or full?

How do I know if my baby is hungry, or full?

Jul 11, 2022
7 min read

When my son was born I remember feeding him and thinking, “How will I know when he’s had enough? Will he just stop when he’s full? How long will that take?” These were questions that I had never considered before but now it felt like all I had was questions about his feeding! 

When you become a parent there is a lot of advice online, in books and from family and friends. Sometimes though, the more information and advice you have, the harder it can be to know what is best for you and your baby.  

In this article we will explore:

  • How to tell if your baby is hungry or full
  • Overfeeding
  • Fussy feeding
  • Feeding and sleep

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When your baby is born, their circadian rhythm will be all over the place to start with! This means that your baby is going to sleep and feed at all different times throughout the day and night.

Your baby’s feeds are likely going to be quite frequent initially, as their stomach is tiny! A newborn’s stomach capacity is only about 20ml, less than an ounce, so you can see why they need to feed so frequently. 

As your baby grows though, so does their appetite. By one month old, your newborn’s stomach capacity will have increased by 5-7 times it’s original size. It’s quite amazing really!

By the time your baby is 6-8 weeks old, they should settle into a more predictable pattern of feeding and sleeping. 

If you are breastfeeding, your baby will start to get more efficient at feeding, meaning they will be taking in more milk but the duration of their feeds may stay the same or even get shorter. You can read more about breastfeeding HERE

If you are bottle feeding, you’ll likely find that your baby starts taking larger feeds around this time too. You can find out more about bottle feeding HERE

How to tell if your baby is hungry:

Signs that your baby is hungry can include...

  • Rooting - turning their head side to side looking for the breast or bottle teat
  • Opening and closing their mouth
  • Increase in movement, becoming more active
  • Sucking on their hand or fingers

If you notice your newborn doing any of these things,  try offering them a feed. Babies are very good at self-regulating their milk intake, so if they’re not hungry they won’t take a feed. 

Sometimes these "hunger" signs can mean something else though. If you’ve offered your baby a feed and they weren’t interested, it may be that they are actually:

  • Tired OR overtired - how long have they been awake? A restless or unsettled baby is often an overtired baby!
  • Wanting comfort - a cuddle, carrying them in a sling or skin-to-skin can help reassure and soothe your baby.
  • Needing a diaper change - some babies are more sensitive to being wet or having a dirty diaper
  • Struggling with discomfort - this could be wind, reflux or an allergy, we’ll look at this in more detail later.

How to tell if your baby is full:

  • They are relaxed and content after a feed - if they are still showing hunger signs, they may not be full
  • They push or turn away from the breast or bottle
  • They close their mouth
  • They are not interested if you offer more milk
  • Their hands are relaxed and open

When your baby has finished feeding make sure to wind them really well. Sometimes we think our babies are full but really what they need is a good burp! Once they’ve got rid of this wind they are able to finish their feed.

Good, full feeds will sustain your little one for longer, meaning they are more likely to sleep well and you are more likely to get a break!

You'll know your baby is getting enough milk if they are gaining weight, have plenty of wet nappies and are able to last 3 hours between feeds. If your baby is not checking off all of those boxes, it may indicate an underlying feeding issue which we'll talk more about shortly...

Can you overfeed a baby?

One of the biggest worries we can have as parents is overfeeding our little ones. You can breathe a sigh of relief however as babies are much better at self-regulating their milk intake than we give them credit for! 

Most babies, especially breastfed babies, will simply stop feeding when they have had enough. If your baby is turning away from you or closing their mouth, that is their way of telling you that they’re not interested in any more milk. 

Do keep in mind that babies' appetites will vary from day to day. Often just when you’re finding a rhythm with feeding, your baby can throw you a curveball where they don’t seem to want to feed as often or as much as usual. Or they may hit a growth spurt and it seems like you can’t fill them up as all they want to do is feed! 

Both can be perfectly normal. However, if you notice that your little one isn’t having as many wet or dirty diapers, do contact your healthcare professional to rule out anything else that may be going on such as sickness. 

Sometimes after a feed your baby may bring up some of their milk and this can make us question if this is because we have overfed them. Babies often spit up due to an immature valve at the bottom of their oesophagus, which can let milk back up and results in them bringing up some of their milk. As babies get older and their muscles strengthen, this often settles down, especially once they are able to sit upright.

In the meantime, make sure you wind your baby really well after a feed. If you find your little one is taking small frequent feeds or bringing up some of their milk this may be due to air trapped in their stomach. So consider winding them halfway through their feed as well. It is just as important to wind breastfed babies, as bottle-fed babies.

It's rare, but technically, it is possible to overfeed a bottle-fed baby, since they don't have the same control over the flow of milk from the bottle compared to the breast. Pace feeding is a popular way of bottle feeding babies, which is closer to how a breastfed baby feeds and can help to prevent overfeeding. You can learn more about pace feeding HERE

Fussy feeding

You might be doing everything you can to follow your baby’s hunger cues but something just doesn’t FEEL right with their feeding and you can’t put your finger on it. 

You might notice your baby:

  • Comes off the breast or bottle frequently
  • Moves their head side to side when feeding 
  • Has trouble latching onto the breast or bottle
  • Makes clicking noises when feeding
  • Appears uncomfortable, even after feeding 
  • Brings up a lot of milk
  • Cries during or after feeding
  • Struggles with lots of wind 
  • In extreme cases, refuses feeds or loses weight

If your baby is fussing during their feeds, it's important to try to get to the root cause of what’s going on. So, what could it be?

Reflux

As we mentioned earlier, due to a baby’s immature esophageal valve, spitting up is common. However, reflux is different. This is when your baby is bringing up undigested milk and stomach acid. The acid causes your little one pain and so feeding can be an unpleasant experience for them. 

If your baby isn’t spilling but you are noticing a lot of the fussy feeding symptoms listed above then it may be that they have silent reflux. This is when the milk and acid is coming up and causing that pain but they’re swallowing it back down. 

Tongue tie

A tongue, cheek or lip tie can affect your baby’s feeding as they may be unable to latch effectively, meaning they aren’t able to transfer as much milk. This can then lead to smaller, more frequent feeds during the day and night.

Your baby is also likely to be taking in extra air if they cannot get a good latch, this will result in more wind and an uncomfortable baby. Learn more about how to identify if your baby has a tie HERE

Food allergies

If your child has an allergy, such as a cow’s milk protein allergy, this can have a big impact on their feeding and you may notice a range of allergic reactions. You can learn more about cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) HERE

If you are breastfeeding, food allergens can pass through your breast milk to your baby. So your baby can have an allergic response to something in your diet. Most allergens passed through breast milk are more likely to result in a delayed allergic response, rather than an immediate reaction. We would recommend you seek medical advice if you have concerns that your child may have an allergy. 

Feeding and Sleep

It probably comes as no surprise that feeding and sleep go hand in hand. If your child is struggling with feeding, perhaps because of one of the reasons discussed above, then it’s no wonder they will struggle to sleep too! If your baby is hungry or in any kind of pain or discomfort, they simply aren’t going to be able to settle or sleep well.

When it comes to overnight feeds, babies have a certain amount of milk they will need to intake every day to meet their calorie needs. This depends on their age, sex, weight and other factors and evolves constantly. The more milk your baby has during the day, the less likely they are to wake at night for feeds.

Until a baby is established on solids, 1-2 wakes overnight for feeds is considered quite normal. Between 4-6 months, as babies get ready to start solids, they will also often start to wake for an additional feed overnight. Once your baby is fully established on solids, usually somewhere between 6-8 months, they should be able to sleep through the night without needing a milk feed. 

If your baby is taking small, frequent feeds throughout the day and/or night, they may be in a snack feeding pattern. Unfortunately, these short feeds won’t sustain them for very long before they need to feed again. This can mean your baby wakes early from naps or frequently overnight to feed. You can try to encourage full feeds throughout the day by slowly increasing the time between feedings.

Top tips

  • Follow your baby’s lead - if they show you they’re finished don’t force them to finish a bottle or breastfeed
  • Remember appetites change from day to day and evolve as your baby grows 
  • Look out for hunger cues and offer a feed before your baby becomes over hungry and is crying - if this happens, calm them down first then feed
  • Trust your gut - if something doesn’t feel right then consult a medical professional/lactation consultant for support and advice 

If you’d like further support with your child’s feeding or sleep, you will find everything you need in the Little Ones App. You’ll also have access to the Little Ones Village, where our certified sleep consultants can help you troubleshoot if feeding isn’t going to plan.

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Bibliography

Bergman, N. J. (2013). Neonatal stomach volume and physiology suggest feeding at 1-h intervals. Acta Paediatrica, 102(8), 773–777. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.12291 

CDC. (2021, July 22). Signs Your Child is Hungry or Full. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/mealtime/signs-your-child-is-hungry-or-full.html 

La Leche League GB (2016, February 23). Allergies & Food Intolerances. La Leche League GB. https://www.laleche.org.uk/allergies/ 

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