Feeding cues

Babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but you can learn to ‘read’ them. In this blog, we explain feeding cues – aka how your child communicates that they’re hungry or full.

Responsive feeding is recommended internationally as the best way to feed young children. Responsive feeding is a two-way relationship between a child and their caregiver. The practice of responsive feeding hinges on a caregiver’s ability to recognise and respond to their child’s feeding cues.

By learning and responding to your child’s feeding cues, you help your child feel safe and secure. This helps you and your child develop a strong relationship, which is vital to your child’s development. Your child’s feeding cues will change as they grow and develop. Some examples of how your infant or toddler can communicate that they are hungry and full are listed below. It is unlikely that your infant or toddler will display all of these cues. However, by paying close attention to your child when you feed or eat with them, you will get to know their specific cues.

Feeding cues of infants (0-6 months)

Even though your baby can’t talk, they will use sounds and movements to communicate when they are hungry or full.

Hunger cues:

  • Wakes and tosses
  • Puts hands to, or in their mouth
  • Chews on hands or sucks on fists
  • Clenches hands
  • Puckers, smacks, or licks lips
  • Makes sucking noises
  • Flexes arms and legs
  • Turns head towards breast or bottle
  • Opens mouth while feeding
  • Cries or fusses – this is usually a later sign of hunger and babies will likely show the other signs first.

Fullness cues:

  • Unlatches and re-latches from the breast often (note: this could also be a sign of discomfort when feeding)
  • Slows down or stops sucking
  • Closes mouth
  • Turns head away from breast or bottle
  • Pushes breast or bottle away from their face
  • Spits out nipple or bottle teat
  • Spits out breastmilk or formula
  • Gets distracted easily or fidgets constantly
  • Falls asleep

Feeding cues of infants (6-12 months)

Around six months of age, you will start to introduce solids to your baby. Your baby has grown and developed in many ways, so they will start to show some new hunger and fullness cues.

Hunger cues:

  • Tracks food with their eyes
  • Get excited when they see food
  • Turns head or leans towards breast, bottle, or food
  • Points to, or reaches for food.
  • Grabs spoon
  • Expresses desire for specific foods with sounds, or gestures
  • Opens their mouth when they are offered a spoon or food
  • Eat at a consistent pace
  • Uses sounds or gestures to let you know they are still hungry

Fullness cues:

  • Slows down the pace of eating
  • Turns head away from the spoon or food
  • Shakes head to say “no more” or “all done”
  • Pushes spoon, or food away
  • Closes mouth when food is offered
  • Spits food out
  • Throws food
  • Uses sounds or gestures to let you know they are full
  • Become disinterested or easily distracted
  • Try to leave the highchair or table

Feeding cues of toddlers (12-24 months)

Toddlerhood can be easier in a sense (they can talk) but it can also be tricky! Toddlers are curious and energetic, so getting them to sit down and eat can be difficult. This stage is also characterised by a toddler’s need to develop their independence and sense of control – they want to do things for themselves, and they like to test boundaries.

Hunger cues:

  • Get excited when they see food
  • Points to, or reaches for food.
  • Expresses desire for specific foods with sounds, gestures, and words
  • Want to feed themselves
  • Eat at a consistent pace
  • Uses sounds, gestures, or words to let you know they are still hungry
  • Crying, tantrums or meltdowns – it’s possibly been too long between eating for your kiddo, and they are ‘hangry’!  

Fullness cues:

  • Slows down the pace of eating
  • Spits out foods they usually like
  • Covers their mouth or face with their hands, cross their arms, push their food away, or makes other gestures to indicate they are full
  • Uses sounds and words to indicate they are full
  • Plays with, or throws food
  • Become disinterested or easily distracted
  • Try to leave the highchair or table, or want to go play

References:

Harbron, J., Booley, S., Najaar, B., & Day, C. (2013). Responsive feeding: establishing healthy eating behaviour early on in life. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 26. S141-149. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/sajcn/article/view/97829

Australian Breastfeeding Foundation. (2022). Feeding cues. https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/resources/feeding-cues

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Signs your child is hungry or full. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/mealtime/signs-your-child-is-hungry-or-full.html

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