Infant Stress Cues: Signs that feeding is not going well

An infant grimaces and shows discomfort during a feeding – two possible stress cues that signal feeding is not going well.

As a new parent, you know that one of your most important jobs is making sure that your baby eats. Feeding is key to weight gain, sleep, brain development and more. Before you get to enjoy your baby’s first words or first hug, your earliest interactions will be shared over breast and/or bottle feeding, and you will literally devote hours to it every day.

That’s why feeding challenges can be so distressing, frustrating and even overwhelming. Feeding tends to play an outsized role in how we view our parenting abilities in the first few months. New parents, especially mothers, absorb a lot of pressure from family, society and even themselves to instinctively know how and when to feed their baby – even if they’ve never done it before.

If your baby cries during feedings, pulls away from the breast or nipple or appears unhappy, you may feel unsure how to respond. You may also worry that you are doing something wrong.

These stress cues are signs from your baby that something about the experience of feeding is not going well, not that you are incapable of feeding your baby. Fortunately, the feeding experience is something you can tweak and adapt to meet your baby’s unique needs. The first step is learning to read and understand your baby’s language.

What are infant stress cues?

Stress cues are one way your baby tells you she is not happy or that something is wrong. Just like hunger cues, stress cues are movements and expressions that your baby uses as a form of nonverbal communication. In many cases, these cues could be signals that your baby is uncomfortable (and needs a different feeding position), that your nipple flow rate is too fast or too slow, or that your baby is not ready to feed yet. (Find out how to choose the best nipple flow rate for your baby).

During feeding, babies across the globe signal that something is wrong with a consistent set of stress cues:

  • Spread fingers (finger splaying): Your baby may stiffen and/or stretch his fingers wide apart. He may also appear to have stiff or tense arms.
  • Arched back: Your baby may writhe or arch her back.
  • Irregular breathing: Your baby may gulp or pant and make audible breathing noises. You may also notice flared nostrils or noticeable chest movement.
  • Grimacing: Your baby may grimace, frown, look tense or have a wrinkled forehead.
  • Gagging or leaking milk: You may notice milk leaking out of your baby’s mouth. In more extreme cases, your baby may gag, cough, vomit or cry.
  • Pulling away: Your baby may pull or turn away from the breast or bottle nipple or push them out of his mouth.

5 ways to identify stress cues during feeding

The core principle of the nfant® Connected Feeding Program is the importance of connection with your baby, especially with eye contact. Follow these best practices so you won’t miss any stress cues that your baby may need you to spot:

  1. Stay engaged: Observe your baby throughout the feeding. Avoid scrolling on a device, reading or watching TV.
  2. Choose the right position: Choose a position that allows you to see your baby’s face and hands. Don’t sit with your baby lying or sitting facing away from you.
  3. Focus on face and hands: Watch your baby’s eyes, facial expression and hands.
  4. Do not swaddle arms for feedings: Keep your baby’s arms unswaddled during feedings. You may tuck your baby’s arms and hands back in to nap if they fall asleep at the end of the feeding session. This step is important because your baby uses his arms and hand movements to communicate with you. Read more about
  5. Sense your baby’s comfort: Pay attention to how your baby’s body feels in your arms. Be mindful if it feels rigid or tense, as opposed to relaxed.

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Reviewed by Dr. Gilson Capilouto & Dr. Jessie Zak

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