Is my baby hungry? Or is my baby tired? Or are they hungry and tired? It can be really tricky to figure out your newborn's needs. With this guide, you will have no more trouble telling the difference between hunger cues and sleepy cues.

If someone had told me 5 years ago that I would become a body-language-reading expert, I would have called them crazy. Today I know I am the crazy one because I live with two small children, and I have indeed become a body-language-reading expert.

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Babies can be really tough to read. Are they hungry? Are they tired? Are they overtired? Sometimes you just can't tell because it always looks the same: some combination of wiggling their arms and crying.

So how do I tell what my baby really needs?

Some newborns signal very early on if they are tired or hungry. Others go from 0 to 100, setting parents into panic mode. Suddenly their baby is crying, obviously signaling that they need something.

If we just knew what that something was.

I wish my baby could just tell me when they are tired…said every mother ever.

Well, I've got you covered. In this article, we will look at typical body language of a newborn baby and how to differentiate between hunger and tired cues.

This article covers:

Why It Can Help To Differentiate Between Hunger And Tiredness

You might wonder why it is even important to differentiate between hunger and tiredness. I mean, couldn't we go boob all day?

Well, you could, but being able to read your baby's cue can bring several benefits:

Baby has reflux

It is often natural and easy for mothers to offer the breast when their baby gets fussy. But babies with reflux can experience discomfort from feeding too much. So it's not really about overfeeding here, but babies with reflux might end up spitting it all up again.

My daughter had severe reflux. I couldn't feed her to sleep anymore when she was only 2 weeks old. She would spit it up again and end up crying. While I still often fed her for comfort, I also made sure that there was a enough time between the feedings.

If you assume your baby might have reflux, it's also better to do small feeding.

Interchanging effects

A hungry baby will not sleep, and a tired baby might not eat. If your baby is hungry, it will stand in the way of sleeping. And if your baby is tired, it might stand in the way of eating.

You get a timeout

The newborn phase can be drowning. Having a baby that is constantly on the boob can drive you crazy. You just never get a break.

Now, I cannot speak for all partners, but my partner would always tell me that our babies were hungry whenever they made a little fuss. The boob was the solution. But when you know to read the signs, you can surely tell them that they aren't. You and your boobs also deserve a break.

You're formula feeding

While breastfed babies cannot be overfed, overfeeding newborns with formula is possible. Formula-fed newborns are more vulnerable to overfeeding because of their limited ability to control the milk intake via the bottle. They cannot control the milk flow from the bottle and cannot really stop when they are full.

Why You Don't Have To Obsess About Differentiating Between Hunger And Tiredness

Unfortunately, sometimes parents are led to believe that their baby is developing bad habits from feeding too often, especially from the breast. The fear is that it will interfere with their baby's sleep.

Newborn babies often have short naps, wake when put down, and are fed to sleep. They frequently wake at night to feed, leaving parents completely sleep-deprived. And when those parents start to google, it all goes downhill. Feeding seems to be a bad sleep association preventing your baby from sleeping. And then they try to time feeds, stretch the time between feeds, or don't want to offer the breast for "only" comfort.

However, all this newborn sleeping behavior is very normal. It's tough but, unfortunately, very normal. Newborn babies feed frequently. They thrive on contact, and the breast is a very effective way to soothe them.

So if you are here because of this, I want to reassure you that your baby's sleeping behavior has nothing to do with offering feeds for comfort. Feeding for comfort is natural, especially in the newborn phase.

Related Article: 12 Ultimate Tips On How To Survive The Newborn Stage And Thrive As A New Mom

How Do I Know If My Baby Is Hungry?

With hunger cues, your baby is communicating that they are feeling hungry. Hunger is very powerful for babies. A hungry baby will not settle to sleep and will even eat worse when they are too hungry.

We differentiate between three different types of hunger cues: early hunger cues, mid hunger cues, and late hunger cues. When your baby already shows late hunger cues, they will cry and sometimes not immediately eat. You will often have to help them calm down until they take a feed.

So the more quickly you respond to your baby's early signs of hunger, the easier it will be to get them to eat well.

An early feeding cue will look like this:

  • open mouth
  • turning the head
  • rooting
  • smacking lips
  • making sucking noises

A mid baby hunger cue can look like this:

  • hand to mouth
  • fussiness
  • head bobbing
  • squirming

A late hunger cue will look like this:

  • crying baby
  • turning red
  • frantic body movements
  • agitated body movements

On a side note, it might be interesting to mention that even a 3-year-old toddler can have trouble expressing hunger. They experience a sensation that something is not right, but they cannot name it as hunger. They might just get hangry.

Related Article: How To Get Your Baby Back To Sleep Fast After A Night Feeding

How Do I Know If My Baby Is Tired?

Baby sleep cues will accompany you until toddlerhood. But especially during the newborn phase reading sleepy cues is important because newborns can easily get overstimulated and overtired.

Reading your baby's tired signs is like playing charades. Only it's not fun, and everybody is losing.

There are three types of common baby sleep cues: early sleepy cues, late sleepy cues, and signs of an overtired baby.

While sometimes sleep cues vary from baby to baby, there are sleep cues that are very common for newborn babies:

newborn sleep cues

When your baby gets more and more tired, the sleepy cues get more intense. They can go from staring away to being fussy and finally crying. So once you start to see early sleepy cues, you should get your newborn ready for sleep.

Related Article: Typical Signs of an Overtired Baby and How to Get Them to Sleep

Your Guide To Read Baby's Body Language

Figuring out your little one's hunger or sleep cues can be overwhelming at times because sometimes baby cues are pretty similar. Even when your baby starts talking or your toddler is already verbally communicating with you pretty well, it doesn't mean they can actually tell you that they are tired or hungry. They just feel like something is not right and are crying or having a meltdown.

And sometimes, your baby might only show subtle cues making it hard for a parent to figure out what their baby needs.

In that case, you can use other "tools" as well that will help you figure out what your baby needs.

Wake windows

Knowing when your baby slept the last time can help you figure out if they are tired. Learn about wake windows and how long your baby can go without sleeping. The younger the baby, the more they need to sleep. So knowing roughly when they had their last nap can help you determine if they might be tired again.

Time of feedings

I was never really a fan of tracking my feedings. I tried using feeding apps but would always give up after a couple of days (if not hours). Writing down the times of all my feedings was just too much work for me, and honestly, I had many days with my newborns where they would basically feed off of me ALL DAY LONG.

However, in some cases, it can be helpful to know when your baby's last feeding was, for example, when you are out and about. Sometimes time just flies when you do things that have nothing to do with your baby. I would then make a quick screenshot and look it up when needed. Of course, if I could find it between all those baby shots.

Observe your baby

While you will most likely see one or more of the baby cues mentioned above, sometimes babies create their own cues. Their tone changes, and they make different sounds for different needs. For example, some babies will increasingly pull their ears instead of rubbing their face. Instead of going into panic mode because your baby is unsettled, learn to observe your baby calmly to figure out their typical cues.