Wondering if your newborn really wants to eat or is comfort sucking? Learn how to tell if baby is hungry or wants comfort instead.
If babies suck to both eat and seek comfort, how then can you tell which is which?
For any mom who feels tethered to her baby 24/7, this question has likely popped in your head. Even after your baby should be full, he’ll keep sucking until you take him off or he falls asleep. He has a hard time getting his fingers in his mouth, so soothing with his hands isn’t really an option.
And if he’s showing signs of hunger, does that always mean he’s actually hungry? You’ve fed him, but he’ll scream if you put him down. But once you pick him up, he’ll start rooting again as if he hadn’t just eaten. Once he starts nursing, he’ll quickly fall asleep, and the same pattern continues.
You feel like all you do all day is nurse or hold him to sleep—anything else and he’s screaming and crying. You’re tired and about to lose your mind, and don’t even want to breastfeed anymore because you’re sick of this feeling. You have no clue if it’s even okay to be feeding him this much.
How can you tell if he’s actually still hungry after breastfeeding or just wants something to suck on?
How to tell if baby is hungry or wants comfort
Every mom has wondered if her baby could really be that hungry to want to eat all day. To go from being able to do what you want to feeling glued to him all hours doesn’t feel good, either.
I hear you, mama. As a first-time mom, I felt clueless with just about everything to do with babies, despite my research and preparation. I wanted to know whether my baby was actually hungry, or seeking comfort when he nursed.
And of course, there’s nothing wrong with nursing for comfort. This is one of the best ways to bond with your baby, and is a fantastic way to soothe and quiet him down.
But maybe you need a break for your own mental health, or your nipples are getting chafed and blistered from the constant sucking. How can you tell if he’s crying out of hunger or comfort?
Take a look at these tips and suggestions from what I’d learned during the newborn stage. As one parent said about the article:
“This was written for me, thank you!” -Charlotte
Hopefully you can also get a better sense of what to do when you find yourself wondering this question once again:
1. Check how your baby is sucking
How can you tell if your baby is waking from hunger or habit? Check how he’s sucking.
If he latches on well and takes long, drawn out pulls, then he’s likely hungry and actually eating. But if his sucking motion is shorter and shallower, then he’s probably sucking for comfort.
You can also check whether he’s swallowing the milk. Listen for a swallowing sound, and check if his throat moves with each gulp. If you see it move, then he’s swallowing milk, but if it stays still, then he’s only moving his mouth to comfort suck.
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2. Your baby fights the pacifier
Once breastfeeding has been established, a pacifier is a fantastic alternative to comfort sucking. I’d often offer them to my babies to calm them down or help them sleep longer.
So, when you notice that your baby fights the pacifier—outright spits it out and everything—more than likely, he’s hungry. This is especially true if he normally takes to the pacifier, but sometimes wants nothing to do with it. He wants food, not comfort, and is crying for milk.
3. Your baby is showing hunger signs
Pay attention to common hunger signs that signal your baby is hungry for milk, such as:
- Turning his head toward the breast
- Sucking on his hands
- Smacking his lips
- Sticking his tongue out
4. Your baby sleeps in long stretches
Let’s say your baby sleeps for long stretches—you can imagine then that he’d want to eat all the other times when he’s awake. After all, if he went five hours without eating, he’ll likely be hungry more frequently the rest of the day.
Long stretches happen both day and night. Maybe he takes a long midday nap, which means he’ll wake up hungry throughout the night. Or vice versa: he sleeps pretty well at night, leading to frequent feedings during the day.
Even if he eats often, he truly can be hungry all those times because he goes long stretches without eating.
Best practices for frequent feedings
Even if you can tell your baby’s cries for hunger and comfort, what can you do to make these frequent feedings a little bit easier? Take a look at these best practices and reminders:
1. Keep your baby awake while feeding
Nothing’s worse than hearing your baby cry for another feeding when you’d just fed him not too long ago. As in, literally within a few minutes, he was nursing for what feels like forever. Yet here he is again, crying for more.
One possible reason is that he really is hungry. How? He wasn’t actually eating while he was feeding. Instead, he was in a sleepy state, drowsily sucking before falling asleep.
The best way to make sure that he’s taking in the milk is to keep him awake while you feed. Yep, even if he’s so sleepy—wake him up if need be. For instance, you can:
- Unlatch and re-latch
- Switch sides
- Tickle his feet
- Give him a little jiggle
- Burp him
By keeping him awake, you’ll be more certain that he’s drinking milk. That way, when it’s time to put him down, he’ll be full and happy.
2. Feed on demand
You’d just fed your baby less than an hour ago, and here he is again, awake and ready to eat. Is it normal for him to feed so often?
The resounding answer from doctors and parents is: yes, frequent feedings are completely normal in this stage.
For one thing, your baby’s stomach is so tiny at birth that he can’t exactly load up on milk to tide him over for a long stretch. Breastmilk also digests quicker than formula, which often means frequent feedings. He could be going through a growth spurt that requires plenty of calories.
And even if he ate even 10 minutes ago, he could still be crying for more. Think about a toddler who says he wants more crackers even though he’d just finished a whole bowl of them. A toddler will be able to tell you that he wants more food with words—a baby does the same with crying.
So, don’t feel like you’re doing anything “wrong” if your baby seems to feed often. You’re simply responding to his needs.
3. Know that your baby is probably hungry than not
“Babies almost always cry because they’re hungry,” our pediatrician reassured us. Yes, they might cry because they’re bored, uncomfortable, or feel hot or cold. But the biggest reason they cry is usually to eat.
This helped me mentally whenever my babies would cry, and I’d once again have to feed them even if they’d just eaten. Rather than guessing whether they were hungry or not, I assumed that they were and fed them. Only when they were showing signs that they weren’t actually hungry did I try other options.
4. See the positive side of frequent feedings
For any mom glued to her baby, frequent feedings can feel like a heavy burden to bear. But rather than trying to change the circumstances, what if you changed your perception of them?
Accept that your baby feeds frequently at this stage in his life. Then, think about the benefits of nursing often. For instance, you can…
- bond with him
- build your milk supply
- know that he’s gaining weight
- rest and relax
- read a book or watch a movie
Even in the darkest moments, you can still rest assured that this is a temporary stage in your life. Yes, weeks and months can feel like eons at times, but they’re still a pretty short season when you compare it to the rest of his childhood.
By changing the stories you tell yourself, you can release the anger and resentment and replace them with acceptance and even joy.
One of the biggest burdens we place on ourselves is feeling pressured to “know” our babies. We’re supposed to figure out their sleep cues and differentiate between their cries. And of course, we’re supposed to know when they’re hungry or not.
So, when we find ourselves stumped, we feel guilty for not living up to our expectations.
Rest assured that you’re not doing anything wrong for feeding your baby often, or for wondering whether he’s even hungry or not. Hopefully you’ve now learned a few tricks to see whether he’s eating out of hunger or comfort, as well as what to do to make these challenging times easier.
You’ve got this, mama—even if you sometimes (okay, all the time) feel tethered to your baby 24/7.
Get more tips:
- 5 Reasons Your Baby Keeps Unlatching (But Is Still Hungry)
- Why Your Newborn Is Constantly Hungry and Crying
- Is Your Baby Nursing for an Hour and STILL Hungry?
- Newborn Feeding Every 2 Hours? Top Solutions That Will Help
- How to Get Your Baby to Adjust Using a Newborn Schedule
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