FAQ 1. Baby’s cues

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Q: How do I know when my baby wants to breastfeed? What are some breastfeeding cues?

A: Babies use a lot of non-verbal cues to show us what they want and need to survive. Crying is certainly one of them. But there are many signals babies give us to show us they want to breastfeed.

These occur on a continuum unique to each baby, but crying is the last step in this continuum, when mother has not responded to the earlier cues. Once baby is crying, sometimes it is very hard to get baby to stop crying before breastfeeding.

So it is helpful to learn the pre-crying cues that will help breastfeeding go easier for the baby — and mom too! It is also usually easier for mother to learn to breastfeed when the baby has not gotten to the point of crying.

Many babies will tend to breathe faster when they want the breast, and they might do this when they are not even really awake yet. They might start stretching their necks and turning from side to side “rooting” for the breast. They will tend to put their fists or fingers into their mouths or open their mouths, and start vocalizing, such as “ha-ha-ha” or similar sounds.

Usually, they will escalate their signaling until someone responds, hopefully mother, if baby is already in her arms or in a baby sling. If earlier cues do not result in getting fed, then most babies will start moving their arms around to reach for the breast or even start pounding on the chest of whoever is carrying them. They might also squirm and grimace and start to look distressed. They might settle themselves into their favourite breastfeeding body position and press or bob their heads into anyone who is holding them, searching for mom’s breast.

If you can try to get ready to breastfeed before this point, then it might be easier to help get the baby latched before baby gets hungrier or thirstier.

At this point in the breastfeeding-cue-continuum, if all the breastfeeding cues so far haven’t resulted in breastfeeding, then most babies will start crying — sometimes starting as a quiet whimper before escalating into full-blown crying — and some mothers are reluctant to breastfeed unless the baby is crying loudly, because they feel that they should make certain the baby is “crying to breastfeed”. But why not offer the breast anyway? Long before it gets to that intense crying stage. You can’t force a reluctant baby to feed if that is not why they are crying, so there’s no harm in trying to offer the breast.

Another thing that is important to notice is if the baby seems to be gearing up for breastfeeding, but instead of crying, s/he goes back to sleep. This might mean the baby is feeling stressed out and not necessarily changing their mind about breastfeeding. So it’s worth it to continue to help get baby into a good position to be able to latch and then help baby attach to the breast. I think just being near the breast and smelling the milk will prompt a stressed-out baby to relax and follow their breastfeeding instincts.

If the baby is resisting the breast, it might be because you are gushing too forcefully and it might help to express your milk to get the flow to slow down, while leaning back or lying down to help curb the milk flow. This WORKS!

If baby has given lots of pre-crying cues, and the breastfeeding still hasn’t happened yet, then this tends to gravitate to crying, which tends to become inconsolable crying if it continues, and it sometimes takes a while to get the baby to calm down before s/he will relax enough to latch onto the breast properly — and mothers sometimes conclude that this unhappy baby arching her back and turning red “just doesn’t seem to want to breastfeed”. At this point a mom can be very vulnerable to someone giving a bit of formula to calm the baby down, and start the unfortunate cycle of unnecessary supplementing.

So it helps to learn the subtle but important pre-crying cues and respond to them before baby really gets going. Saves a lot of wear and tear all around.

And some parents know that their baby can go from early, subtle cues to full-blown crying quite quickly — so all the more reason to actively notice those early breastfeeding cues so that you can breastfeed before everyone starts getting stressed out.

Now, not all crying means she wants to breastfeed. She might be uncomfortable, hot, tired, or need a fresh diaper. But if there is a chance that she wants to breastfeed, why not try that first? And if you have just changed her diaper, and you are sure she is clean and dry and otherwise happy, it doesn’t hurt to try breastfeeding again. S/he will end the feeding when s/he has had enough, or turn away from the breast if s/he does not want to breastfeed. Soon you will learn the difference between breastfeeding cues and crying to get other needs met.

One way to help learn faster how to read your baby’s cues is to have baby close by. If you keep baby nearby, or carry her in a sling or other baby carrier, you might be more likely to notice her subtle, early cues than if she is in a carriage or crib. Besides, when you have baby right in your arms or on your back, at least you know where s/he is and what s/he’s doing!

Another way to remove confusion about cues is to avoid giving pacifiers and any artificial nipples and unnecessary supplements. If baby is not given other nipples that partially satisfy sucking needs, s/he will never start “preferring” the other nipples, but will only want the breast — all s/he ever needed in the first place!

If baby does start seeming to want the artificial nipples or seems to stop giving breastfeeding cues, these are simply because of unnatural habits that start becoming ingrained if they get integrated as part of a family’s daily routines. But the fact is that babies are ONLY hard-wired to BREASTFEED, not to use artificial devices.

So instead of giving a pacifier to calm the baby down in the car, for example, why not breastfeed before getting in, allow extra time for your trip if you can, and then stop and take a breastfeeding break? By using a little planning and creativity with your time, you really can avoid artificial nipples altogether, and attend to your baby’s breastfeeding cues at the first sign of them! More fun for everyone.

Sometimes babies do things that SEEM like breastfeeding cues, but really just mean the baby is exploring the world. For example, putting fingers or hands in their mouth can mean they are trying out new things as they grow or starting to put things in their mouths to learn to chew. But not newborns! Older babies will do this, but if a new baby in the first weeks of life puts their fingers or hands into their mouth, it almost always indicates an interest in being at the breast.

The ideal time to breastfeed is when baby is in a quiet, alert state and just STARTING to show signs of wanting to breastfeed. And the ideal way to be able to see and sense those cues is when you have baby right next to you, or cuddling in bed, or in a sling, or in your arms.