Breastfeeding: How to Know When Baby is Hungry (Rooting Reflex)

The most common reason a newborn cries is to tell you he is hungry. However, this method of communication can make it hard to understand exactly when to feed your baby. The good news is, you'll learn to recognize the signals your baby will give to tell you she's hungry before she starts crying.

While babies might not come into the world knowing exactly how to breastfeed, they're born with something wonderful called the "rooting reflex," an instinctive search for food that helps you recognize when your baby is hungry. So natural is the search for food, that a baby often roots within the first hour of being born.

The rooting reflex is usually triggered by some sort of stimulus—perhaps when you stroke your baby's cheek with your finger—or by something less direct, such as his own shirt or fist. When this happens, your baby moves his head toward the stimulus and opens his mouth in search of food. That's your signal! This action also signals the ideal time to latch him onto your breast.

Rooting Relex: Common Signs Baby is Hungry

Your baby moves his mouth and head toward a stimulus, such as the touch of something to his cheek or lips. He opens his mouth, either widely for a good second or two or in quick little movements (open-close-open-close). He might put his fingers or fist into his mouth. When he realizes there's no milk there, he'll release his fingers and continue his search.

The rooting reflex can be a great help with latching on. When you're ready to breastfeed, stroke his cheek or lip with your fingers or your nipple. When he turns toward you and opens his mouth, latch him onto your breast. Of course, it takes some time and practice to learn the best moment to latch, but it's a useful trick to get your baby to open his mouth wide.

Keep in mind that crying is a late signal that your baby is hungry, although the amount of time between early hunger cues and full-blown crying varies from one baby to the next—some go from zero to 60 very quickly! If you can learn to recognize your baby's natural rooting signals, it'll help make breastfeeding more effective and enjoyable.

Tips for success

  • If your baby turns his head and opens his mouth when he's touched, or he's sucking on his fingers or fists, he's giving you an early feeding cue that says he's hungry.
  • Touch his cheek or lips right before latching to get him to open his mouth wide to get ready for a good, deep latch.

Source: Heather Kelly is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who also sits on the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council. Heather has been practicing in New York City since 2001.

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Heather Kelly
Heather is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.
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