You are not a bad mom if you can’t differentiate newborn sleep cues vs hunger cues. This is a learned skill, and guess what no one ever taught you. Intuition can help but honestly learning newborn development and behavior will get your far as a new mom. It will allow you to feel confident and leave you no longer asking the question, “is he hungry or tired?”
Once you learn these skills make sure you help your partner learn them as well. As a mom of two I found my husband’s answer to any fuss or tear from either of my kids was…”the baby’s hungry.” Now he was right on some occasions, because honestly newborns eat a lot, but it’s not always the answer.
If you are offering your breast or the bottle too often then your newborn is not getting a good feed and filling up. That means you will feel like you are feeding ALL DAY LONG. It’s exhausting. Learning to differentiate their newborn hunger cues vs sleep cues will allow you to maximize your time for greatest efficiency. So you will spend less time trying to figure out what they are trying to communicate and you will be able to act to meet their needs before it becomes a problem.
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Why Do I Need to Understand Newborn Sleep Cues vs Hunger Cues?
This is important for your newborn and yourself for multiple reasons. It develops a good relationship between you and your baby as they can learn to trust you to meet their needs. If you can identify and interpret their communication early and act quickly then trust is built. That bond becomes very strong and you both will become this well oiled machine.
If you interpret a lot of their communication for hunger, which so many of us do (I did this as a new mom as well). You end up offering food frequently. They may actually just be tired, but they eat a little and fall asleep eating. If this continues over and over again then they are eating small little snacks all day long and don’t ever get a full good feeding. Which will sustain them for longer periods of time.
This in turn affects their sleep because they will need to continue snacking all day and night to get enough calories to sustain themselves. This can make you feel overwhelmed, overtired (you won’t be getting any sleep at night), and frustrated as your little one is constantly eating all day long. Their naps will also be short because they will need to eat again soon, because they only had a little snack.
Another problem that can arise if you are using food as the solution, especially if you are bottle feeding, can be overfeeding your baby. Learn more about proper bottle feeding and how to avoid overfeeding in newborns in this other post.
I want to help you learn these skills so you can feel confident in providing your child with what they need. I also want to help you feel better in that newborn phase. If your child is getting good feeds throughout the day they will have better naps, and sleep better at night. It can bring life into that newborn phase so you can truly enjoy it more!
Understanding Sleep Cues
Sleep is an essential part of newborn development. Your newborn will spend a lot of their time sleeping. Their biggests cues to you in the first few months will be “I am tired” and “I am hungry.”
Sleep is biological but becoming an independent sleeper takes learning. Your newborn will need your help to develop good sleep skills that will help with their sleep into the future. Helping them when they are exhibit early sleep cues is the best option for learning good habits.
Now I’m not a newborn sleep specialist, just a mom who understands how much good sleep can help your child.
I have invested time and money into helping my children become good sleepers.
Waiting until a newborn is overtired is going to require a lot more soothing and interventions on your part as a parent to help them get to sleep. It’s okay if that happens some of the time, but if that is all the time it can become very difficult for you as the parent and they will rely on you completely for naps and bedtime sleep.
As a mom that has been there, it will take a toll on you long term.
So try to identify those early sleep cues and help facilitate naps and bedtime based on those cues.
Early Sleep Cues
- not making eye contact/glazed eyes
- seeming disinterested or staring into the distance
- little red under the eyes
- limb activity decreases or body becomes more still
- long slow blinks
- rubbing their eyes
- jerking body movements
- sucking fingers
Overtired Sleep Cues
- crying a lot
- arching the back
Understanding Hunger Cues
When you are feeding your newborn when they are hungry the will have better feeds which will in turn lead to better sleep and moods throughout the day.
If you are waiting until the late hunger cues you will end up with poor feedings. When your newborn is crying, agitated, and squirming around it can be difficult for them to latch. Their sucking will also be disorganized from getting all worked up making it difficult to get a good feeding.
Identifying early hunger cues and acting on them will help you to feed on demand and avoid the all day snacking which is completely and utterly exhausting.
- smacking lips or opening mouth
- sticking out the tongue
- move head side to side or turning towards the chest
- hands up to face or sucking on the hands
- put hands into a tight fist
- agitated body movements
- turning red
- Fussing at the breast
Why Context is Important?
Now it’s easy to confuse sleep cues with hunger cues. Some of the early signs are so subtle and easy to be confused. So this is where context becomes so important.
If they ate 20 minutes ago, had a diaper change 15 minutes ago, and woke up from a nap 40 minutes ago then they are probably tired. Newborns are typically awake for only 35-60 minutes. So understanding the context of the situation will help guide you when you are following your child’s cues.
In those early postpartum months it’s sometimes helpful to use a tracking tool to keep track of everything so you don’t have to when it feels like your brain can’t keep it all straight. I know it was a life saver when trying to balance my medications with the baby’s schedule on a major lack of sleep.
I used a free app to track my baby’s care but I have recently discovered this amazing tool that I would totally consider if I had another child. It’s called Talli and it is a physical device that you push based on the care provided. It also links up to your alexa so you can just tell alexa if you need to be hands free. Game Changer!
Tips for success
- Understand age appropriate wake windows: These will serve as a guide to interpret the cues your newborn is giving you.
- Keep track of your diapering, feeding, sleeping, etc to help you have context to your newborn’s cues
- Pause: when your newborn is crying just take a minute and pause. Give them a minute and see if maybe it is something they can work out on their own or do they need your help.
- Crying can mean many things: It is a way for newborns to communicate. Remember they can’t talk to you yet. They sometimes cry when they are going through changes and discomforts. So sometimes crying just means they want your love and attention. It may have nothing to do with being hungry or tired.
- Postpartum Doula: there are so many changes that occur postpartum. Hiring a postpartum doula can support you and your whole family in understanding your newborn’s cues and taking care of their needs.
- If you are exclusively pumping or pumping as part of your breastfeeding experience check out these tips to ensure success.
- It takes time to learn each other and gain the skill of understanding your newborns cues. Not all babies are exactly the same. Give yourself some grace if you miss the cues from time to time.
- Newborns sleep a lot, but it’s not always consistent. Be flexible.
- Wake windows are just general guidelines. Following your newborns cues are much more important than rigidly following wake windows.
- Newborns need to eat frequently. They may also go through periods of growth and cluster feed. These are all normal developmentally.
Frequently Asked Questions
Understanding newborn sleep cues vs hunger cues can be such a huge game changer as a parent. Especially if you and your partner both learn these cues. When you can effectively communicate with your little one and help meet their needs things will go much more smoothly. It’s not going to happen every time so don’t over focus on perfection. It takes time to learn and develop these skills. However, once you’ve practiced it enough it will soon become second nature. You got this mama!
Jess is a registered nurse with over 6+ years of critical care experience for patients young and old and is the mother of two small children. After having her own children she felt inspired to provide mothers with real actionable guidance and education to make informed decisions throughout their pregnancy and postpartum experience.