Babies are really clever, they know how to tell us when they’re hungry from birth. Have you ever seen the newborn breastcrawl? (You can see an amazing example of this here.
Babies don’t necessarily cry as soon as they are hungry, in fact, crying is the last feeding cue a baby will exhibit, so we want to look for their earlier cues. Whether breast or bottlefed, a newborn baby will show you they are ready for something to eat nearly always as soon as they wake up! Early feeding cues include opening their mouth, lip smacking, turning their head side to side, and bringing their hands to their mouths. These behaviours often become more frantic and exaggerated if we don’t respond to them quickly, and baby will cry to signal that they are now really hungry and really want your attention, so we should offer baby a feed as soon as they show any of these cues.
Responsive feeding means responding to the baby’s cues, rather than trying to restrict or schedule feeds. This is best for baby as their tummies are tiny and they like to be fed little and often. At the breast, baby can control their own milk intake, whereas with bottle feeding we need to be a bit more conscious of pacing the feed. With a bottle, give baby frequent breaks to wind them, and hold them upright, with the bottle horizontal to the ground. If baby starts to reject the bottle, turn their head away or spit it out, they have likely had enough to eat for the time being. If we try to get baby to finish this bottle they may then end up overfeeding and become uncomfortable. Overfeeding in infancy can lead to obesity in later life, so it’s really important that we only give babies what they need, when they ask for it.
With breastfeeding, responsive feeding also relates to the mother. It’s not possible to overfeed a breastfed baby, because baby is in control of how much milk they take at any time. We would always encourage mums to feed their babies if their breasts are engorged, if mum is feeling overwhelmed, feeling ‘blue’, or simply wants to sit down and have some quiet time with her baby, it is perfectly safe to do so.
If your baby is crying and reluctant to feed because they are upset, it’s a good idea to soothe them with rocking, or try some skin to skin to calm them down, before trying to feed them. Babies that are calm will accept a feed much easier than if they are in distress.