Baby seems always hungry

Hungry Baby - Why Is My Baby Always Hungry?

We all appreciate that young babies have tiny tummies and are growing at a rate that is faster than any other time in their lives. Hence, they need to eat often. However, when parents express concern about their ‘hungry baby’ this refers to a baby that appears to be excessively hungry, who demands feeds more often than expected, or is eating well above the recommended volume of milk for a baby of his age and size.

The ‘hungry baby’ phenomenon where babies act like they have an insatiable appetite is especially common in babies younger than 3 months of age.

The first step toward finding a solution that will satisfy your baby is to distinguish between the reasons for genuine hunger and the appearance of hunger. In this article, I explain what causes healthy babies to act like they’re excessively hungry and what you can do to promote your baby’s contentment.

Genuine hunger

There are several reasons why babies might be genuinely hungry and need to feed sooner or require more milk than you expect. These include:

1. Normal behavior

2. Cluster feeding

3. Growth spurt

4. Catch-up growth

5. Poor latch

6. Low breastmilk supply

7. Diluted baby formula

8. Extreme vomiting or diarrhea

1. Normal behavior

If you’re a first-time parent, it may be that you are unfamiliar with the huge range of ‘normal’ infant feeding patterns and behaviors. The first step is to clarify your expectations about your baby’s feeding with his healthcare professional.

If it’s confirmed that he’s feeding more often or consuming greater volumes than expected for a baby of his age and weight, consider if any of the multiple reasons for the appearance of hunger, described later in this article, apply.

2. Cluster feeding

‘Cluster feeding’, which is a pattern of frequent nursing in the afternoons and evenings, is an example of normal feeding behavior for breastfed babies. A breastfed baby could demand feeds every one to two hourly when cluster feeding.

3. Growth spurt

How quickly a baby is growing will influence his appetite. Babies' growth occurs in a step-wise pattern. Growth spurts (a period of accelerated growth) are separated by growth plateaus (a period of stagnant growth). During a growth spurt, your baby may appear to be hungrier than usual. If breastfeeding, he may demand nursing more often. If bottle-feeding, he might drain the bottle and want a little more. 

On the flip side, during a growth plateau, your baby’s appetite will reduce and his milk volumes decrease. He might also go longer periods of time between nursing or feeding sessions. 

4. Catch-up growth

Catch-up growth is a period of accelerated, compensatory growth (faster than typical for age) which occurs after the removal or resolution of a problem that previously caused under-nutrition or growth delay.

5. Poor latch

If a breastfed baby is unable to feed to satisfaction as a result of a poor latch, he will demand frequent nursing.

6. Low milk supply

If a breastfeeding mother has a low milk supply, her baby may demand to feed more often. (See our article on How to tell when baby is getting enough breastmilk.)

7. Diluted formula

If a baby’s infant formula is accidentally diluted, perhaps due to using the wrong scoop or not accurately following the manufacturer’s instructions, this would decrease the calories he would receive, and he would want to feed more often. 

8. Extreme vomiting or diarrhea

If your baby vomits often and hence loses much of the milk he receives while feeding, he may demand to feed more often. However, it’s important to take care to avoid overfeeding because it’s one of the most common reasons for healthy babies to vomit.

Similarly, if he has frequent watery bowel motions as a result of a digestive disorder, for example milk protein allergy or intolerance, he may be losing nutrients and calories due to poor digestion, and hence demand more frequent feeding.

Rule out the possibility of a feeding management problem such as lactose overload before assuming the cause is due to milk protein allergy or intolerance, as this is one of the most common reasons for healthy, thriving babies to have frequent, watery stools, extreme gas, and abdominal discomfort.

Needless to say, if your baby appears unwell or is not gaining sufficient weight, consult with his healthcare professional. 

Surprisingly, it's typically babies who have no problems putting on weight that are the most difficult to satisfy. If this is the case, it may be that one of the following reasons is mistaken as hunger.

Why babies APPEAR hungry 

Infant behavioral cues are not easy to read, especially before 3 months of age. There are many reasons why parents might think their baby is hungry when he is not. These include:

1. Misinterpreting behavior cues

2. Frequent feeding patterns

3. Underlying sleeping problem

4. Abdominal discomfort linked to overfeeding

While it's possible for there to be only one cause, generally there is a combination of the reasons listed below.

1. Misinterpreting behavioral cues

Hunger is one of the first things we suspect when a baby fusses, cries, or looks like he wants to suck. However, hunger is only one of many different reasons for babies to display these behaviors. Other reasons include:

Infant reflexes

Infant reflexes such as rooting and hand-to-mouth are often assumed to be signs of hunger. Sucking and swallowing reflexes are often mistaken as confirmation that a baby is genuinely hungry. However, these reflexes can be triggered irrespective of whether a baby is hungry or not.

Sucking urge

Young babies have a strong urge to suck. They often want to suck when tired, overstimulated, bored, uncomfortable,or for pleasure. Consequently, a baby's desire to suck is not proof that he is hungry.

Tiredness cues Babies display signs of tiredness differently than we expect. Tired signs displayed by young babies include clenched fists, waving arm and leg movements, facial grimaces, fussing and grumbling then crying. Infant tiredness cues are often overlooked or misinterpreted as hunger, boredom, or pain. 

Thirst

A thirsty baby may give the impression of hunger. Once a baby starts to eat solid foods, it’s recommended that he be offered small volumes of water during the day in addition to his usual milk feeds.

2. Frequent feeding patterns

Babies can develop a pattern of frequent feeding - often referred to as snack-feeding or grazing - where they take small volumes of breastmilk or infant formula at each feed. As a result, they demand feeds more often.

Snack-feeding is easily identifiable when a bottle-fed baby consumes small volumes. However, it’s not as readily recognizable when a baby is breastfed. Many breastfeeding mothers mistakenly blame low milk supply when their baby wants to nurse every hour or two.

3. Speed-feeding

Babies have an immature nervous system. It takes time for their brain to register that their stomach is full. Speed-feeding means a baby consumes the milk too quickly. Speed-feeding can result in newborn babies overfeeding before they recognize they have had enough. (See How long to feed for ideal feeding duration for age.) 

4. Underlying sleeping problem

An unresolved sleeping problem is a major reason for infant feeding problems including the appearance of hunger, fussy feeding behavior, overfeeding, and underfeeding. A sleep association problem is the most common of all reasons for healthy babies to experience sleeping problems such as brief naps, frequent night awakenings and irritability due to sleep deprivation.

Without understanding the effects of sleep associations on their baby’s ability to fall asleep and remain asleep, many parents mistakenly assume the cause is hunger.

While there are many different props, activities, or conditions that individual babies could learn to associate with the act of falling asleep, feeding to sleep is especially common during the newborn period.

A feeding-sleep association, which means a baby has learned to link feeding with the act of falling asleep, is even more likely to cause a baby to give the appearance of hunger.

Once a feeding-sleep association is established (which can occur in babies as young as 2 weeks of age) the baby will act like he wants to feed whenever he wants to sleep because he's learned that "This is the way I go to sleep".

3. Abdominal discomfort linked to overfeeding

One or a combination of the reasons for the appearance of hunger described above, e.g., misinterpreting behavioral cues, a feeding-sleep association, and speed-feeding in combination with an active sucking reflex will increase the risk of overfeeding in newborns. 

The symptoms of overfeeding can include spitting up, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort.

What do babies like to do when uncomfortable? They like to suck! If a baby’s desire to suck for comfort is mistaken as hunger, he will be offered another feed, perpetuating the overfeeding cycle. 

What you can do for an insatiably hungry baby

1. Resolve any feeding problem: This includes feeding position, latch, flow rate, supply problems, and bottle-feeding equipment.

2. Resolve any sleeping problem: Better sleep = better feeding, and the combination adds up to a content baby.

3. Don’t assume he’s hungry: If your baby appears hungry sooner than expected, consider the possibility of other causes like tiredness, discomfort, or desire to suck, before assuming the cause is hunger.

4. Satisfy your baby’s sucking needs: Provide a pacifier, or your finger to suck on. He will let you know if he’s not satisfied to suck without receiving milk.

Completing the above steps will go a long way towards helping you to gain more confidence in understanding your baby’s needs and accurately interpreting his behavioral cues. 

How Baby Care Advice can help

We appreciate that unless you have extensive experience in child development and the effect of different infant feeding and settling practices on a baby’s behavior, it can be difficult to know how and where to start to resolve a baby care problem. There are two ways in which we can help you gain a greater understand of your baby’s needs and your role as your baby’s parent and caregiver.

1. Rowena Bennett’s parenting books

2. Baby Care Advice consultation 

3. Rowena's Online Bottle-Feeding Aversion Program

1. Rowena Bennett’s parenting books

‘Your Sleepless Baby’

Good quality sleep not only promotes babies’ contentment it will reduce the risk of feeding problems. Information contained in my book, ‘Your Sleepless Baby’, is designed to help parents to understand their baby’s sleep needs, how their actions influence their baby's sleep, and ways in which parents can improve the quality of their baby's sleep.

2. Baby Care Advice Consultations

Baby Care Advice consultants have extensive experience in providing parenting education and assisting parents to resolve feeding and sleeping problems that affect healthy babies. A Baby Care Advice consultation will assist you to explore all possible reasons for your healthy baby’s discontentment. The information, guidance, and advice you receive will help you to gain greater confidence in your ability to accurately interpret your baby’s behavioral cues and provide for his needs. (For more on our consultation service).

3. Rowena's Online Bottle-Feeding Aversion Program

By Rowena Bennett, RN, RM, CHN, MHN, IBCLC.

Written Revised Aug 2021

Copyright www.babycareadvice.com 2021. All rights reserved. Permission from the author must be obtained to reproduce all or any part of this article.

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