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Breastfeeding—how to know when your baby is ready to feed

Your newborn baby has an innate ability to communicate with you and this occurs as early as the first hour after birth. Mothers need to learn to read their baby’s special language so that they can more easily identify their baby’s needs and respond appropriately.

Feeding cues

Babies show several cues to indicate that they are ready to feed—look for, and respond to, early feeding cues that your baby displays including:

  • eye movement under closed lids (rapid eye movement)
  • increased alertness, awakening or changes in facial expression
  • movement of arms or legs
  • tossing, turning or wriggling
  • mouthing
  • rooting—opening their mouth and searching to suck on contact
  • clicking or tongue sucking
  • hand movements to their mouth and sucking on hands
  • squeaking noises or light fussing.

Crying is a late sign of hunger. Avoid waiting for this sign as a crying baby can be more disorganised and therefore more difficult to attach.

Wrapping

Tightly wrapping your baby is not recommended as it restricts your baby’s arm and leg movements as well as their ability to move their hand to mouth meaning that hunger cues can be missed. It is preferable to wrap your baby in a light muslin wrap firmly enough to help your baby feel secure but not too tight that it is restrictive.

Crying

It is almost impossible to attach a crying or screaming baby to the breast. When your baby is crying, they lift their tongue to the roof of their mouth in order to protect their airway. In this position, it is impossible for your baby to receive the nipple in their mouth.

If early feeding cues are not responded to, and your baby is actively crying, they become disorganised and experience more difficulty with latching. Once they do attach, they may suckle briefly, then fall asleep starting a cycle of an incomplete poor feed, short sleep and poor feed cycle. Avoid changing the nappy before the feed if this upsets your baby; instead commence the feed and change your baby mid-feed once they become sleepy.

Occasionally, babies can move rapidly through the feed cues to crying or the situation may not allow you to immediately respond to them. However, placing your baby skin-to-skin against your chest allows their nervous system to calm meaning they can then exhibit early feeding cues. This will improve their ability to attach.

Don’t let your baby ‘cry it out’

Crying is one of your baby’s methods of communication; a way in which they ‘talk to you’. Mater does not recommend babies being on a schedule and learning to cry it out ‘until feed time’ or in order to ‘learn to settle’. We actively discourage their use because of their detrimental impact on breastfeeding.

Letting a baby ‘cry it out’ may be physiologically and psychologically harmful to a baby. Studies that have examined child attachment and development have found that babies who are responded to appropriately to when they display feeding cues are calmer, more attached and more independent children later in life.

Mater acknowledges consumer consultation in the development of this patient information.
Mater Doc Num: PI-CLN-430099
Last modified 08/8/2017.
Consumers were consulted in the development of this patient information.
Last consumer engagement date: 18/1/2017
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