How To Tell If My Baby Is Crying Out Of Hunger Or Something Else?

Sarah Ong Article, Aware Parenting, Blog Leave a Comment

So many of us mothers, including myself, have this fear of starving our baby. If a baby is crying non-stop, the first thought that comes to mind would most probably be “maybe she didn’t have enough earlier” or “she’s probably needing more milk now” especially when we are breastfeeding.

This makes first time breastfeeding moms feel like their milk supply is inadequate and they resort to topping up with formula when it’s really not necessary.

For older babies, they seem to be constantly nursing because mom is feeding “on cue”. The truth is, the older the baby is, the lesser frequency of feeding she needs.


Her stomach is growing bigger just as she is growing bigger, so she is able to hold in more milk plus the solids that she is taking.

Babies who are nursing more than they need perhaps have showed an indication of feelings that need to be expressed by crying, but the need to release pent-up feelings have been misunderstood by mom as a hunger cue.

As this is repetitively done to stop the crying, it creates a control pattern for baby to ask for breastfeeding each time she feels upset.

Once a control pattern is in place, responding accurately to a baby’s needs becomes more complex.  For example, if a baby is given the bottle every time he cries, he will soon learn to ask for the bottle when he is upset, as well as when he is hungry.  His request for the bottle seems like a need for milk every time.  This control pattern can lead to frequent feeding and night-waking in older babies.

It gets even more confusing in this situation whether or not her baby is hungry or needing to release big feelings.

How can we distinguish the crying from hunger or a need to express upset feelings?

Time factor – I invite you to note down the times your baby feeds. I know many moms who do this as a habit and I know moms who just could not keep up with recording things down. It would be helpful to track your baby’s feeding time as you can’t possibly remember everything.

You could use an app tracker, write it down on a notebook or record it in your notes in your mobile.

If your baby is a newborn, the feedings could be as frequent as hourly in the first few weeks. But as your baby gets to about 2-3 months of age, the feedings could stretch to every 2.5-3 hours. And up to 4 hours when your baby reaches 6 months and older. However, this varies from one baby to another.

From your observation and your notes, you can see a pattern of the time your baby gets hungry.

If it has been less than the time your baby usually wants to feed, and your baby is crying, this may be a need to express any uncomfortable or upset feelings.

I would suggest that moms encourage full feeds from both breasts so that you are reassured that your baby is not hungry.

If your baby “snacks” throughout the day, this could prove really difficult for you to tell if she is hungry or has a need to cry.

Type of crying – A true hunger cry does not begin with a cry at all. Rather, the cues will be in a grunt or a small whine. Then it builds up to a full blown cry only if he is not fed. A sudden cry is unlikely to be hunger. Please check if your baby is uncomfortable, in pain or perhaps has an immediate need.

If your baby is crying loudly and vigorously, and it is less than 2.5 hours since his last full feed, then most likely it is not due to hunger.

Baby’s behaviour after being offered your breasts – A hungry baby will generally latch on eagerly and easily, and then she focuses on sucking. If she come on and off, appears to be agitated or fusses on the breast, it is most likely not due to hunger. Though it could be discomfort from latching (possible if there is birth trauma, snip of tongue-tie that could be painful when latching) or strong let-down.

If your baby latches, but does not seem like she is sucking in a rhythm and have some dissociation like in a trance-like state or have a faraway look in her eyes, this could indicate that there is a breastfeeding control pattern.

Other possible signals of a need to cry instead of a hunger cry is squirming, kicking, biting, sucking sporadically, pinching or hanging on to your skin, other nipple, elbow and so on.

 Guidelines for determining hunger


Don’t be afraid to experiment. A few mistakes from time to time are not going to damage your baby. It is important to do try it out bit by bit and remember that your baby will need to cry at times, and she will indicate this.

If you find that she does not want the bottle or your breast, then she most definitely needs your love, attention and deep presence to hear out her feelings.