Rooting to suck: is baby really hungry? And why you need to know (Hint: beware the comfort feed)

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The rooting reflex is one of the most well-known of all the newborn reflexes.  It helps baby find milk so when you see your newborn rooting to suck, hunger is a likely reason.

But not always.

Yes, like everything baby, it can be a little more complicated than that.

Newborns also root and suck for a few other reasons.  Namely, for comfort.

Sucking is also baby’s attempt to self-soothe in times of stress and discomfort, such as overtiredness, overstimulation or gas pains.

While it’s tempting to soothe baby by feeding and allowing them to suck, there are sadly a few issues that can come with this.  I know, I know, we just want to love and comfort our babies…We want to soothe and calm our babies.  A comfort feed can do just that, right?

Yes.

And no.

Hence this post…

This post will explain the ins and outs of the rooting to suck baby cue and how to spot when it means something other than hunger.  And then outline the importance of not mis-reading it; why comfort feeding may in fact make the situation worse.

Let’s get to it.

The rooting reflex is part of the vital milk finding strategy

Newborns are born with several reflexes – automatic responses to certain stimuli – that are vital to their healthy survival.  These include:

  • The grasp reflex – touch to palm stimulates fingers to close into a fist
  • The stepping reflex – touch to feet when held standing stimulates baby to step
  • The startle or ‘Moro’ reflex – any sudden change in the environment will have your newborn throwing her head back, flailing arms and legs about and clenching fists – think startled starfish.  It’s now thought to be redundant in modern man and a remnant of our tree-swinging days, helping baby cling onto mom.

Then there’s the suck reflex and the rooting reflex.  Combined, these are essential in baby’s ability to find milk:

  • a touch to the corner of your newborn’s mouth will stimulate her to turn her head looking for milk – the rooting reflex
  • on finding the source of the milk, a touch to the roof to the mouth (from the nipple or bottle teat) will initiate sucking – the suck reflex

Alongside the suck and rooting reflex is a hand-to-mouth reflex.  For this reason, you may see your newborn suck on their own fingers or hands if rooting and sucking and they can’t find the milk bar.

But also because baby’s root and suck for other reasons other than nutrition.

When does the rooting reflex disappear

Although the rooting reflex is present for much of the newborn phase (often termed the 4th trimester) your baby will start to consciously (as well as automatically) turn her head towards the breast or bottle earlier, at around a month old.  So at this point, she’ll start to try to adjust and maneuver her head a little to aid the feeding process.

So by the time a newborn is 6-8 weeks old, rooting to suck isn’t only a sign of hunger.  Voluntary sucking and rooting may be a sign that baby is tired, overstimulated or in discomfort.

At around 3-4 months old, the rooting reflex will start to disappear.  So from this point on, all rooting will be entirely voluntary.

The issue with comfort feeding

So, if you see your baby rooting to suck or sucking and baby is over the age of 6 weeks, it’s important to establish if hunger is really the cause, before feeding.

Before explaining how to do this, you need to know why this is important.

So, why the ‘watch out’ and ‘beware’ when it comes to a comfort feed?

Comfort feeding puts baby at risk of ‘digestive overload’ – it can, quite simply, overload your baby’s digestive system.

The stomach of a newborn is small; it can only hold so much.  So although babies do need to feed often, they can also only feed so much and so often.

There needs to be enough time for the stomach enzymes to do their job before milk passes into the gut.

>> Feeding your newborn too soon after the last feed, when baby is not hungry, means their stomach may still be rather full.

>> Semi-digested milk is forced into the gut too early.

>> Undigested fats and lactose (the main milk sugar) ferment in the gut causing gas

>> Gas distends the abdomen causing discomfort and pain

This is a similar kind of discomfort your baby would experience if suffering from an imbalance of gut bacteria (not uncommon in babies) or if sensitive to something in the milk they’re drinking.  So dairy, if formula-fed, or any food if breastfed – but dairy is also the most common for breastfed babies.

Related post: My baby is gassy. Is it a sensitivity to dairy or something else?

The first step if baby suffers from gas pain, or is particularly colicky or gassy: avoid comfort feeding and see if it helps.

A full tummy, taking on even more milk, also puts extra pressure on the esophageal sphincter, the valve designed to keep stomach contents in the stomach.  This extra pressure means this valve is more likely to open leaving baby liable to excess spit-up and acid reflux burn.

The first step if baby is spitting up lots of milk and/or is in pain when doing so: avoid comfort feeding and see if it helps.

Related post: The scoop on REFLUX REMEDIES: natural remedies, over-the-counter ones & prescribed medications

Bottom line: if your newborn is upset, fussy or gassy, a ‘comfort’ feed may only make things worse

So, this post is about the importance of figuring out whether baby is seeking comfort, rather than milk, in order to avoid comfort feeding.

Rooting to suck: as a hunger cue

Hunger is what the rooting reflex and rooting to suck are best known for.  Rooting is an ‘active’ hunger cue.  If you can spot those early hunger cues and then baby starts to root, then this is a good sign that your newborn is hungry, rather than anything else.

Early baby hunger cues

  • making sucking noises
  • trying to suck on anything in the vicinity (lips, tongue, hands, fingers, toes, your finger etc)
  • licking and smacking lips
  • opening and closing mouth (think goldfish)

Active Baby Hunger Cues

  • showing rooting reflex/rooting to suck (turning head, opening mouth and sucking when cheek stroked)
  • trying to get to the breast/get into feeding position
  • launching towards the breast (nipple diving)
  • wriggling and squirming
  • older babies may also hit mom/whoever is carrying her on the arm or headbutt the chest
  • starting to fuss with some sounds or cries
  • breathing fast

Late Baby Hunger Cues

  • moving head frantically from side to side in search of a nipple!
  • turning bright red
  • crying

Rooting to suck: as a tiredness and overstimulation cue

Small babies can only stay awake a short while before needing to sleep.  Likewise, a newborn can only take so much stimulation before becoming overstimulated.

Tiredness and stimulation pretty much lead to the same destination; the need to take a break.

Key to avoiding your baby becoming overtired (because you really do want to avoid this) or overstimulated is to spot the early stress signals.

Early stress signals

Rooting to suck and sucking in babies 6+ weeks old is one of these early stress signals as baby attempts to calm and soothe herself (self-soothe).

You may also see your baby attempt other self-soothing tactics:

  • curl into the fetal position
  • become very still

Other early stress signals include:

  • yawning
  • rubbing eyes and ears (in older babies)
  • lose interest in surroundings
  • not want to hold eye contact
  • frown or knot eyebrows
  • clench fists or clasp hands together
  • straighten legs and generally look less relaxed
  • becoming clingy

Late stress signals

Eventually, your baby’s body will go into defensive mode and react with a fight-or-flight response, releasing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin.  This is baby’s way of coping with the overstimulation and/or overtiredness.

You’ll see a lot of frantic, jerky movements and other signs of tension.  (Full detailed description of tiredness and overstimulation baby cues here.)

Rooting to suck: as a symptom of gut pain

Babies are naturally gassy.  They often swallow extra air when feeding and also often experience abdominal pain due to gas produced in the gut.

An imbalance of gut bacteria is often the cause; research has shown that gassy babies that cry a lot have too many bad bacteria and too few good ones.  This leads to more gas being released in the gut.

Comfort feeding and over-feeding can also lead to excess gas.  (Already a hint at the issue with comfort feeding – more on this later.)

To read more about the causes of and remedies for baby producing extra gas in the gut, this link will jump you straight to the relevant section in the gassy baby post.

Baby cues for discomfort and pain in the gut

Your baby will be fussy and generally irritable, and show tension in her body and face:

  • flail arms and legs
  • clench fists – as in the photo above
  • grimace
  • be red-faced

As well as try to try to alleviate the discomfort and self-soothe:

  • curl into fetal position
  • arch back and neck
  • suck or root to suck

Yet another reason your baby may be sucking or rooting to suck, other than for hunger…

Deciphering your baby’s cues by understanding their cries

In conjunction with tuning in to your baby’s body language,you need to listen to what your baby is ‘saying’.

If you listen hard, you’ll notice that your baby has a full repertoire of different sounds or cries (before reaching full-on meltdown mode when sounds pretty simiilar whatever the issue).

By tuning into these cries you will soon be able to distinguish a hungry cry from others.

Priscilla Dunstan’s ‘universal language of newborn babies’ makes this a lot easier.  She has identified 5 distinct cries as follows:

  • Neh = “I’m hungry”
  • Eh = “I need to burp”
  • Eair = “I have lower gas pain”
  • Heh = “I’m experiencing discomfort”
  • Owh = “I’m sleepy”

You can listen to these different cries here:

So, if it’s an ‘eh’ you can hear, it’s trapped wind.

If it’s an ‘eair’ you can hear, it’s a more serious gas issue lower down.

While if you hear ‘neh’ it’s hunger.

Tips for avoiding comfort feeding

1 – Learn your baby’s cues

As above, observe your baby carefully and listen out for those sounds so you can understand exactly what your baby is trying to tell you. All babies are different so try to spot what hunger cues look like for your baby.  Same with the other baby cues.

This handy baby cues summary chart should also help you try to figure out what your baby needs if rooting to suck or sucking and is older than 6 weeks.

Baby cues chart
A handy baby cues chart – pin it for later!

 

And here’s the full baby cues post for more on each of those cues, plus the cues for trapped wind, ‘play with me’ baby cues as well as the cues for mild discomfort.

You can also look at your baby’s cues in conjunction with:

  • when baby last had a good feed – perhaps hunger is not an issue
  • when baby last slept – perhaps overtiredness is an issue (if you need to figure out how long baby can stay awake before getting tired, then this awake times post has got you covered)

2 – Stop feeding if you see signs of digestive overload

Excess gassiness, abdominal pain and discomfort could mean digestive overload.  Or that baby needs to pass wind.

Either way, feeding is not the answer.

‘You will find yourself in a vicious cycle where baby looks to suck and feed more, in seeking more comfort.  Putting more pressure on the digestive system…

If your newborn only becomes more uncomfortable, distressed and fussy while feeding, it’s likely baby wants comfort, not more milk.

So although with good intention, by comfort feeding you’re likely to make the issue worse.

3 – If you can’t relieve the discomfort, find other ways to comfort your newborn (other than feeding)

A pacifier can help with digestive overload, allowing baby to suck and help her calm down, without drinking even more milk.

Sucking, is part of Dr. Karp’s 5 s’s calming strategy, pretty much guaranteed to quickly soothe your baby.

In brief, the 5s’s are:

1. Swaddle – creates deep pressure calming touch sensation

2. Side or stomach position – lying baby on her side or stomach e.g. lie baby over your shoulder, along your forearm

3. Shushing loudly in baby’s ear or using low-pitched, but loud, white noise

4. Swing – specifically the Jell-O head jiggle which Dr Karp describes as follows as:

“quick little movements like a bobble head… To do it, always support the head/neck, keep your motions small; and move no more than 1 inch back and forth.”

5. Suck – on a pacifier

More detail on the 5s’s and another 6 baby calming strategies to try in this post: Baby won’t stop fussing or crying? 7 winning strategies to calm and soothe.

Finally, check if baby really is rooting to suck? (Beware the early wind cue)

Wind cues? What the…?

So yes, there are a number of cues that your baby has trapped wind, way before baby gets uncomfortable to a point of fussiness and crying.

Early newborn wind cues

These include:

  • the windy stare (gazing in the distance at nothing in particular)
  • rolling or fluttering eyes
  • windy smile (lips at corner of one or both sides of the mouth flickering up, often when baby is asleep) – see photo above
  • a chewing motion with the tongue sticking out

If you see your baby chewing, as if chewing gum like a sulky teenager with no manners, with the tongue occasionally popping out, this is NOT a hunger cue.

This is, in fact, a sign of wind trapped in the upper

The chewing motion can look like baby is trying to suck, but as postnatal educator, author, mom and founder of BabyCues explains:

If you feed baby, rather than help release that wind, the feeding is likely to add to your baby’s gassiness…more gas pain is on the cards…

Wrapping up

So, in the first few weeks of your baby’s life, rooting is a sign of hunger; the rooting reflex is an involuntary response to touch stimuli and part of the vital milk finding strategy that babies are born with.

But at around 6-8 weeks, babies also want to suck for another important reason: comfort.

*Hand sucking, finger sucking and rooting around in order to suck is not just a hunger cue in older newborns, 6+ weeks old, but a desire for comfort. It’s your baby trying to self-soothe.*

Your baby could be seeking comfort due to gas pains or maybe trying to self-soothe in response to tiredness and overstimulation.

Time for snuggles and cuddles – but not for comfort feeding!  Comfort feeding can lead to digestive overload, only making baby more uncomfortable.

Only feed baby if hungry.  So learn those baby cues.

Try to relieve any discomfort in another way.  Try the 5s’s or one of these winning calming strategies.

Finally, look out for the chewing motion with tongue sticking out and don’t mistake it for hunger!

As always, please let me know if you have any questions.

 

 

 

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comfort feeding newborn hunger cues rooting reflex

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Mum of two outrageously gorgeous and ridiculously energetic toddlers – A.K.A. not so little, Littllees.  I’m determined to give them the best without losing my mind.  I reckon it’s possible.  Most days.  

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