Did you know that babies can talk? I’m not talking about crying because there are an endless number of reasons babies’ cry. Long before a baby cries, they talk to you with their body. These are instinctive behaviors of all healthy babies, birth to around 6 months do. I’m going to focus on how to know if your baby is hungry in their early days and months.
In the years that I have been working with pregnant and breastfeeding moms, this is one of the top two questions that I am asked. We’ve all heard that moms learn a certain cry that signals hunger and I remember focusing on my baby’s cries to try to understand. I did learn to tell what my baby was trying to convey that, but it wasn’t until after they were already upset. Instead of waiting for them to cry, let’s focus on what happens before they use their voice.
These behaviors are referred to as cues. The first hunger cues a baby gives happen before they even fully wake up. Their body starts to shift around, and they start making little sounds. They start moving their mouths in sucking or licking movements. This is a heads up to parents and caregivers that the baby will be waking soon to eat.
I want you to think back and picture in your mind a hungry baby. Where are the baby’s hands? Are the hands open or closed into fists? Believe it or not, babies’ hands can tell you so much about what is going on. A hungry baby will move their hands toward their mouth and their little hands will be closed into fists. They will also start turning their heads toward anything that touches their face, searching for their mother’s breast.
Babies aren’t going to start to cry immediately, but they will get to that point if their hunger cues are not recognized and responded to. The longer the baby talks with their body, the more agitated they become. We often recognize these hunger cues and try to sooth them or give them a pacifier. It might work for a time but that didn’t solve the problem, their hungry! Very young babies can focus on one thing, and if their focus is on their empty tummy, they cannot process anything else. This frequently causes problems with breastfeeding.
Latching onto the breast can become very difficult with babies learning to breastfeed. I remember being so frustrated when my breast was right there and instead of latching, my baby would have their eyes shut tightly, mouth open, head shaking back and forth, and screaming. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up crying with my baby. Moms often feel rejected by their babies when this happens. I frequently am told that the baby didn’t want their breast or did like their milk. This is a natural and normal reaction!
To sum this up, watch your baby for early signs of hunger. Their hands are a key part of understanding what they are telling you. Your baby can only focus on one thing at a time and if they are crying that is what they are focused on. If your baby is already crying, calm them. If they won’t calm in your arms, it’s okay to have someone else calm them! You are not being rejected! If you continue to have problems, please ask for help! There are people around you that can help! Call your doctor, lactation consultant, midwife, etc., just keep asking for help until you receive the help you need!
When I was expecting my first baby, 20+ years ago, I was told all kinds of breastfeeding stories. The second one that stuck in my mind was, “Breastfeeding is going to hurt. You just deal with it”. Unfortunately, I once again believed this old wife’s tale. When it hurt, I thought I must be doing a good job and I tried to deal with the pain. When my nipple developed a deep split in it, I dreaded latching her on. For those of you that have never experienced this type of pain, and I hope you never do, let me give you a brief description. I would hold my breath, curl my toes, clinch my jaw, hold my entire body rigid, and cry. This lasted for 6 weeks! Does this sound normal to any of you? It’s not!
Breastfeeding is not supposed to hurt! Pain is a sign that there is a problem! If you were to experience pain that made you hold your breath, curl your toes, clinch your jaw, hold your entire body rigid, and cry, you would go to the doctor! The answer seems so simple yet for a breastfeeding mom it doesn’t always feel that simple. I think it has to do with two things. We chose to breastfeed our baby, and this goes along with it, and because it is on our breasts. If breast feeding is supposed to hurt and every mom had to deal with it, I doubt the human species would have survived this long. Breastfeeding is not supposed to hurt! Pain is a sign that there is a problem!
Remember how bad I told you it hurt, if I had known to ask for help, it would have taken about 3 seconds to fix it. I’m not exaggerating! Her bottom lip was tucked in when it needed to be flipped out. It is corrected by walking your fingers along the baby’s chin and gently pulling down. The bottom lip pops out and Presto, no pain! As a mom, I couldn’t see what the baby was doing, and I don’t think I would have recognized the problem even if I had. If I had known to ask for help when she was 2 days old, then I wouldn’t have had the 6 weeks of pain.
If it doesn’t feel right, then ask for help! A little discomfort for a few seconds is acceptable for a short time but never beyond that! There are lactation consultants in the hospital, support groups with trained leaders, as well as lactation consultants with private practices. Find someone right away and don’t wait!
Elizabeth O’Dell, IBCLC
When I was expecting my first baby, 20+ years ago, I was told all kinds of breastfeeding stories. The first one that stuck in my mind was “It takes milk to make milk”. If any of you have heard either of these, I have a suggestion, Ignore Them! Seriously, what does drinking bovine (cow) milk have anything to do with making human milk! Sure, there are things in bovine milk that a nursing mom’s body could use like calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins, potassium, and vitamin D. It even has protein. All of us need these important nutrients in our diets, but they don’t have to come from milk.
I have trouble digesting the fat in milk. When I was a toddler, I had allergic reactions to it. I learned to drink low fat milk sparingly. Unfortunately, I believed this old wife’s tale about needing to drink a lot of milk. I made myself sick drinking it!
Drinking cow’s milk does not boost milk production. Staying hydrated is important, however if you don’t drink milk, find a different way to get the fluids and the nutrients you need.
Elizabeth O’Dell, IBCLC
About the Lactation Consultant