Why you shouldn’t feed your baby every time he cries - and how to know what to do instead

Feb 19, 2020

One of the hardest things about being a mother is knowing that you have a little (or not-so-little-anymore) human being who’s depending on you… and be completely at a loss about what to do for them.

While we wish that our kids would clearly communicate what they need (I’m working on teaching my kids to say “Mommy, I need attention” instead of kvetching - it’s a work in progress 😅), the fact is that they don’t always.

And this starts… just about at birth.

Baby’s crying! Now what?

And, for most people, the answer (often the only answer they can think of!) is: feed ‘em.

But what if that’s not actually what the problem is? And is there a way to know what they actually need?


Step 1: knowing what our children’s needs are

Before we can figure out what that crying means, first you need to know what your options are.

So here’s a basic list of needs that most babies have:

  • Food/hydration
  • Sleep
  • Parental interaction (touch, eye contact, speech, etc.)
  • Environmental comfort (temperature, being clean and dry, etc.)

Once children get a little older, they need some level of control and attention, too.

So those are our babies basic needs.

And they are all important for a healthy, thriving baby. The need for food does not outweigh the need for touch and eye contact, and the need for environmental comfort does not outweigh the need for sleep.

Somehow, though, food gets placed aaaaaall the way at the top of the list… and, oftentimes, sleep is nearly forgotten at the bottom. (Though if you’re here, I’m presuming you’re not forgetting about sleep!)

But here’s the thing about those needs: if any one of those needs is not being met, our children will generally let us know by crying.

From your preschooler needing some attention, to your toddler’s need for control, to your 7-month-old’s dirty diaper, to your newborn’s overstimulation, the response will be a vocal protest.


The complicated part

So here’s where things get complicated.

Because, for the most part, all crying sounds pretty much the same (Disclaimer: yes, I have seen Priscilla Dunstan’s work on the different sounds of different cries, but I know, from myself and my clients, that it’s not always clear or discernable -- especially as a baby gets older).

And babies learn LOTs of new things, process lots of information, deal with lots of new stimuli (some of which they may not enjoy)... and will react the same way to everything: crying.

Diaper full? Cry. Got a boo-boo? Cry. Shirt too itchy? Cry. Upset tummy, uncomfortable gas, teething? Cry.

Learning something new? Cry. Sibling stole a toy, can’t reach the object he wants, frustrated, tired, uncomfortable, hot, wet, cold, just wants mommy for a cuddle? Cry.

Overtired? Overfed? Overstimulated? Cry.

Lots and lots going on… not lots of ways to express it.

And it’s frustrating when, instead of mommy looking at him and saying, “What is it, zeeskeit? What’s wrong?” and trying to figure it out -- to actually relieve the pain or discomfort -- she says, “What is it, zeeskeit? Are you hungry?” and grabs a bottle or settles on the couch to nurse him.

To put it in adult terms: imagine you stubbed your toe and someone gave you a lollipop. Or your ears are cold and you get a bar of chocolate.

Um.. Hellooooo? Anyone there? Right?

It may give a distraction, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Of course, what makes it even MORE confusing is that suckling - whether nursing or on a bottle - is soothing. Which means that often that suckling “solves” the problem outwardly: baby falls asleep nursing, or is soothed by the sucking or being held.


What to do instead

(Can I have a trumpet blow, please?) Cue-feeding and routines are here to save the day!

The first - and most important! - way to know if your little baby needs to eat is to watch for cues. Little babies (under 6 months) are great at being real about what they need and will generally show some hunger cues before they start crying -- mouthing, rooting, licking lips, hand-to-mouth (for babies under 4 months) etc.

Remember that crying is always a late sign -- and means that you missed the signs that your child was ready for you to meet a need when it first arose. Ideally, we strive to meet our babies’ needs before they have to start crying for them.

But the other amazing tool to know what your baby needs is with routines.

For newborns, the Eat, Play, Sleep (EPS) routine does the job perfectly: it gives you the opportunity to be sure your baby got a full feed before he starts getting drowsy, and then, when you’re at the end of the awake time limit and you hear a kvetch -- you know that it’s not hunger, it’s tiredness!

Once babies are a bit older, they have a longer awake time limit (which means a fewer number of times during the day that they’re awake), and also start to drop nighttime feeds. To ensure that they’re still getting the number of feeds they need during the day, we move to an EPEPS routine -- two feeds between sleeps. 

NOTE: If you’re doing an EPEPS routine, be sure to avoid causing an eat-sleep association!


Knowing what our children need at any given moment can definitely be a challenge -- but I know you’re up for it! What tools do you use to determine what your baby actually needs when he cries?

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