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Understanding Hunger and Fullness Cues: Responsive Feeding

April 11, 2022 3 min read

From food tossed on the floor to smeared across their faces, when you’re starting your baby on solids, it can be a fun and messy experience. 

But in addition to what we feed children, how we feed children is also important to your little one’s healthy development and growth.

Responsive feeding is a style recommended by USDA Guidelines that emphasizes recognizing and responding to the hunger or fullness cues of an infant or young child. Ready to learn more? Let’s dive in.

What Is Responsive Feeding?

Responsive feeding is all about letting your baby lead the way with food. By helping your child learn to self-regulate their food and beverage intake, they begin to build healthy eating habits from a young age. 

With responsive feeding, you are allowing your little one to decide how much, and how often, they want to eat. While this may feel like it can lead to inconsistent eating patterns, this is actually perfectly normal for your little one. Just like you, they may be hungrier one day than the next.

And you don’t have to wait to respond to the child’s hunger and fullness cues. As soon as they start solids, you can start engaging in responsive feeding and learning these cues together. 

As a parent, your responsibility is to provide healthy foods at specific meal and snack times, while your child gets to decide how much of each food to eat. 

When trying new solids, you can expect your child to push foods out of their mouth. Remember that the goal here is to introduce new foods, tastes, and textures, and this takes time.

What Are Baby Hunger Cues?

From infancy to 23 months, signs that your child may be hungry or thirsty can include:

  • Putting hands to mouth or belly
  • Turning head toward breast or bottle
  • Puckers, smacks, or licks lips
  • Clenching hands
  • Reaching for or pointing to food
  • Opening their mouth when offered a spoon or food
  • Getting excited when they see food
  • Motions to their mouth with hand movements, or making sounds to let you know they are hungry

The best time to try new foods is when your baby is showing signs of hunger, but is not too hungry. If they are fussing and crying as a late sign of hunger, it may be better to fill their bellies quickly with formula or breastmilk, and try solids again later when they have more patience to practice eating skills.

What Are Baby Fullness Cues?

From infancy to 23 months, signs that your child may be full can include:

  • Closing their mouth
  • Turning their head away from breast or bottle
  • Relaxing hands
  • Pushing food away, pushing food out of their mouths with their tongue
  • Closing their mouth or turning their head when food is offered
  • Using hand motions or making sounds to let you know they are full

Once your child displays any of these fullness cues, it is important to stop feeding and not make your child eat more than what they want to eat. Forcing them to eat just one more bite can teach them to ignore their internal fullness cues and lead to unhealthy eating habits later in life. 

Help Prepare Your Little One For A Healthy Future

By helping your child self-regulate their food and beverage intake, they begin to build healthy eating habits from a young age. They learn to listen to their body and eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are full. 

Once your child starts trying solids around 4-6 months, diet diversity (including food allergens) should continue to be a part of your baby’s daily feeding routine as they grow.