Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Three Newborn Behaviors That Can Mislead Parents

All new mothers want their babies to be well fed, comfortable, and happy whenever possible. Because babies aren’t able to use words, parents have to rely on powerful, but limited, cues that babies use to communicate their needs. In the past, we’ve shared basic information about these cues and what to do about them. While most parents find babies’ early cues to be confusing, there are some cues that can be particularly misleading. We thought it would be useful to put three of the most common misleading newborn behaviors in one post.

Important Note: These behaviors are misleading only if the baby is healthy, his weight gain is good, he has frequent dirty diapers, and he is demanding to be fed at reasonable intervals. If you have any concerns about any of these important indicators that feedings are going well, be sure to see your baby’s doctor.

Why do some babies fuss, turn or arch away from the breast or bottle when they seem to be hungry?

What might you see? Some babies who are using hunger cues will seem to “reject” the breast or the bottle when their caregivers try to feed them. Before they begin to feed, some babies may turn their heads away, arch, stiffen, push away, and cry. This may be more common in newborns and in babies who are easily distracted between 4 and 7 months of age. These behaviors can be misleading to parents who don’t know how to respond to these babies who can’t seem to make up their minds!

Why might this happen? Remember that babies are born with limited communication skills. Newborns have very little control over their bodies and a “vocabulary” that’s limited to “Yes, I want to interact” (engagement cues) and “No, I need a break” (disengagement cues). Imagine a baby is hungry and wants to feed but just as he is about to latch, a dog barks, and his big brother comes running into the room shouting. Using disengagement cues, baby tries to tell mom that he doesn’t like the noise or the movement around him. Because mom is concentrating on trying to feed the baby, she may not pay attention to what is going on around her and she may miss early cues that baby needs something to change before he can eat. When a hungry baby refuses to feed, it is important to pay attention to the big picture. Is baby uncomfortable for some reason? Are the lights too bright? Are noises too loud? Some babies are sensitive to their surroundings, others are not, and some are irritated by distractions only for short periods of time. Sensitive babies may feed better if they are able to do so in a place that is relatively free of distractions.

Why do some babies cry 5-15 minutes after nearly every feeding?

What might you see? Some healthy newborns and young babies who are eating and growing well may routinely cry or fuss after they’ve been fed. At the same time, they may twist, arch, and turn away from caregivers who are trying to help. This can mislead parents into thinking that the baby is still hungry even though the baby is not using any hunger cues.

Why might this happen? These babies may be particularly sensitive to their own bodily functions such as needing to burp, poop, or pee. When babies feed, these functions become active. Since these bodily sensations are new, some babies find them irritating and distracting. Babies, who fuss and twist routinely after good feeds, may be signaling that they “need a break” from their own body functions. How can you tell if this is the problem? Pay close attention to the timing of the fussing. Is it predictable? Does baby routinely need diaper changes just a few minutes after the fussy time? Does an extra burp seem to help? Imagine what life would be like not knowing why your body keeps making your tummy and bottom end so uncomfortable. Comforting your baby until the diaper needs changing can make everyone a little happier. Fortunately, most babies quickly grow out of this phase.

Why do some babies wake up every time you try to put them down for a nap after feeding?

What might you see? Newborns typically sleep more than 15 hours per day. Many parents think that newborns only “eat, sleep and poop.” Of course, new parents are exhausted because babies wake so frequently. It is not unusual for a newborn to drift off to sleep after nearly every feed, only to wake and fuss moments later when mom tries to put her down for a nap. This waking can mislead mom or dad into thinking that the baby is still hungry even if the baby has had a good feeding. After all, wouldn’t a baby who was “full” stay asleep?

Why might this happen? Until babies are about 4 months old, they fall asleep into a light state of sleep called “active sleep.” Dreaming is so important to babies’ brain development that they dream far more than adults. Newborns may dream for 20 or 30 minutes after they first fall asleep. Babies who are dreaming may wake up when you change their position or put them down. You can see when your baby is dreaming (her muscles will twitch and her eyelids will flutter). If you wait a few minutes and put your baby down after she stops showing signs of dreaming, you’ll find she isn’t likely to wake up right away. The periods of initial dreaming (and light sleep) shorten within the first few weeks of life, making it easier to put baby down to nap. When your baby is around 3 or 4 months of age, she’ll fall asleep in a deeper type of sleep and she’ll stay asleep for longer stretches of time!

Next time: We’ll introduce our new series on how parents develop relationships with their babies.


  1. Thank you. I found this article very informative.

  2. Ahhhh....wat a relief...my story...my baby does all these things and I consider her hungry...