Why Is My Baby Always Hungry?

Baby girl feeding on milk with a milk bottle.

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A common concern many new parents have is that their baby always seems to be hungry. While most parents expect that their newborn will need to eat very frequently, seemingly constant hunger can be confusing and even worrying.

Parents will often question whether or not their baby is actually getting enough to eat, and breastfeeding moms may begin to question if they are making enough breastmilk.

Most likely your baby is just fine. Remember that tiny babies have tiny stomachs, so they need to eat often.

Here's a look at the signs your baby is truly hungry, why babies may go through periods of needing to eat more frequently, and what to do to keep them feeling full and content.

Of course, if you have any concerns, speak with your pediatrician.

Why Your Baby Seems Hungry

If your baby seems hungry, they probably are—even if they've just recently been fed. Aside from the size of their stomach, there are other reasons for this.

Growth Spurt

Babies go through multiple stages of rapid growth called growth spurts. When they are experiencing one, they naturally need to eat more often and for longer periods of time to fuel themselves.

Your baby wanting to eat soon after their last feeding is a key indicator that they are in the midst of a growth spurt. They may seem fussier than usual and/or have changed their sleeping habits, often sleeping more than normal.

Growth spurts may happen in conjunction with learning new skills as well.

Cluster Feeding

Cluster feeding, also known as bunch feeding, is when your little one feeds several times over a period of a few hours. More often than not, cluster feedings occur in the evening hours.

These bunched feedings help ramp up your milk supply (if you're breastfeeding), fuel your baby's growth, and fill their tummy before going to sleep.

Cluster feedings are especially common during growth spurts.

A Need to Suck

Sometimes, a baby may be full but simply have a need to suck. There's actually a term for this: non-nutritive sucking.

Sucking is a primal, instinctual reflex babies are born with. They will suck both to feed and to comfort themselves. If you are breastfeeding, the action of sucking also activates the let-down reflex and stimulates the breasts to make more milk.

Some babies seem to have a greater need for non-nutritive sucking than others. Doing this at the breast is perfectly healthy as long as it isn't overtiring or causing discomfort to the mother.

Another option is to let them use a pacifier. Don't, however, let them suck on an empty bottle as that can cause them to gulp down lots of air, leading to painful gas.

Fussy for Another Reason

There are plenty of reasons a baby may act fussy, and you may mistake their being unsettled for hunger.

Babies can get agitated when they're tired, lonely, too cold, too hot, bored, overstimulated, or uncomfortable (say, they need a diaper change).

If you just fed your baby and they seem hungry again, check that these other concerns are addressed before nursing or reaching for a bottle.

How to Tell If Your Baby Is Truly Hungry

As you get to know your baby better, you may notice some of their typical hunger cues. Once you know what to look for, it gets easier to feel confident about whether or not your baby needs to eat.

Here are some common hunger cues to look for:

  • Your baby begins rooting as if to nurse.
  • Your baby is crying.
  • Your baby puts their hands near their mouth.
  • Your baby ramps up their fussiness, even if you are holding or attending to them.
  • Your baby sucks on their hands or clothing.
  • Your baby turns their head from side to side.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, advises parents to tune into hunger cues and feed their baby on demand (but at least eight to 12 times per day) rather than using scheduled feedings once their baby is gaining weight well and the breastfeeding mom has no issues with low milk supply.

How Much Should They Eat?

Your baby's feeding needs depend on a variety of factors, including their weight, age, and if they were born full-term or premature.

How much and how often they need to eat will change as they develop—and some babies will eat more and grow faster than others. However, generally speaking, newborns need to eat small amounts frequently throughout the day and night.

Formula-Fed Babies

At first, formula-fed newborns only need about 2 to 3 ounces of formula per feeding. Depending on the amount in the bottle, they may need to be fed anywhere from eight to 10 times in 24 hours.

As they grow, you'll need to add about an ounce of formula per feeding each month. Also, note that bigger babies tend to want to consume more.

Breastfed Babies

Until your baby has regained their birth weight, breastfed babies should feed about every two hours for about 15 to 20 minutes each time. Keep in mind that cluster feeding is normal and breastfeeding more frequently is fine.

If you have any concerns or questions about breastfeeding, seek out lactation services. Often, small tweaks in your technique can make feedings much easier, and having an expert to talk to can help smooth out any issues and give you peace of mind.

Are They Getting Enough?

With bottle-feeding, it's easy to see how much milk has been consumed. You can even measure how much is left in a bottle by referencing the ounce marks printed on the bottle itself.

It's a little trickier when breastfeeding. Here are some signs to look for:

  • Babies who get enough milk tend to be sleepy after feeding. If they are fussy right after eating, that's a sign that they may not have had their fill.
  • Watch how your baby sucks. Slow and deep sucks punctuated by pauses for swallowing is an indication your baby is getting a good meal.
  • You should feel your breasts emptying.

If your baby fusses frequently and seems hungry even when they are eating often, check with their doctor to make sure they are gaining weight appropriately and don’t have any other health issues.

Wet Diaper Counts

Keeping track of your baby's daily wet diapers is also helpful.

Depending on their age, they should have a certain number of wet diapers and soiled diapers each day. If that number drops below the expected amount, it could be a sign that they are not getting enough to eat.

Typically, babies go from a few wet diapers in the first few days of life to around six diapers daily after five or so days. This will vary somewhat from baby to baby and even from day to day. Concern arises when there is a big change from the norm.

Check with your baby's doctor to confirm the number of wet or dirty diapers your baby should be producing if you have any questions or worries.

What to Do for a Fussy, Hungry Baby

If your baby seems hungry and all of their other needs are met, feed them, even if they have eaten recently. However, if they reject the breast or bottle, don’t force it. Try something else to soothe them—and try feeding them again in a half-hour or hour.

Calming strategies don't always work every time or for every baby, so mix and match various methods to find what works best for yours. Here are some to try:

  • Adding a clothing layer if they might be cold; taking one layer off if they might be hot
  • Giving them a bath
  • Giving them fresh air
  • Holding them
  • Reducing the stimulation in their environment (e.g., turning off the TV, dimming the lights)
  • Rocking them gently
  • Taking them for a walk in a stroller (or carrier)
  • Wearing your baby in a carrier or sling

If your baby still won't calm down, check for signs of illness, such as a fever or stuffy nose. Contact your doctor if suspect that your baby is sick, particularly if they have a fever.

Babies Who Spit Up

If your baby spits up a lot, mention this to your pediatrician. Also try decreasing the length of feedings but feeding them more often to ensure the milk/formula stays down.

With bottle-feeding, reduce the amount of formula in the bottle but increase the number of bottles you offer in a day.

With breastfeeding, simply try ending the feeding slightly early and add in an extra feeding or two.

Transition to Solid Foods

Sometimes parents assume that if a baby always seems hungry that they are ready for solid foods. That may be the case.

It is fine to try if your baby is at least 4 months old, as that is the point at which they finally have the enzymes to digest things beyond milk and formula. However, the AAP and other health organizations recommend waiting until a baby is 6 months old before adding solids.

If you offer something but your baby isn't yet interested in making this transition, you'll know. They may engage in the following, which are also signs that a baby who has transitioned to solid foods has had their fill:

  • Refuse to open their mouth
  • Turn away from you/the spoon
  • Throw or push food
  • Show signs of agitation (sitting back in their high chair, making sounds)

In contrast, a baby who eats solid food may indicate they are ready for mealtime (or another serving) if they:

  • Make noises to get your attention
  • Open their mouth wide when they see food
  • Point to/reach out for food
  • Wave their arms and legs; bang on their high chair in excitement

Know that your baby's appetite may vary with each meal and each day. Do not bank that your baby will eat a certain amount at every breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Simply watch your baby's signs and feed them accordingly.

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12 Sources
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