This question is the one I have heard repeatedly from parents and birth educators. Here are the facts as I know them: Hunger is natural, hunger is strong in most infants, and hunger is more powerful than the swaddle. In fact, a great way to know if your fussy newborn is hungry or just fussy is to swaddle her and do all the rest of the 5 S’s from Happiest Baby on the Block. If she calms for a short period of time and then really cries for you, she is probably hungry. I am assuming you checked her diaper first. Dr. Karp recently posted a short video and suggested that you see if the rooting reflex is super-powerful (you know, touch the corner of her mouth and she searches for the nipple?) A baby that roots and still cries is probably fussy, not hungry. OK, with that out of the way, there are some details about newborns to examine.
A very small number of babies, preemies and otherwise, do not have strong hunger cues. That is not the fault of swaddling, but it is an issue that must be addressed by your pediatrician, doula, or lactation consultant. Problems with avoiding feedings or lack of interest in feeding are important to deal with as early as possible. Children that have developmental issues or neurological issues such as very low muscle tone often struggle to maintain a level of alertness for feeding, and also work very hard physically to suck.
For these children, keeping them alert is important, but an alert-and-fussy state takes whatever energy they had away from them. Swaddling correctly can help get them in that beautiful calm-alert state in which they can nurse or feed longer. They will not be flailing their arms and scratching their face, or crying when they set off the Moro (startle) reflex by their random movements.
Doing a good, safe swaddle isn’t always easy. Read The Happiest Baby on the Block or contact a certified HB educator (like myself) if you are all thumbs with those blankets and swaddle garments. Don’t blame yourself or think that your child either hates it or cannot tolerate it. Check out Why Some Newborns Look Like They Hate To Be Swaddled to understand why more crying doesn’t equal swaddle fear. You might just need a little demonstration and practical advice. Doing a good swaddle is that important. Here is a new post that explains why you need more than a good swaddle to calm them down: Swaddling Success: Layers of Calmness
Babies that have difficulty swallowing can decide that the feeling of choking or reflux is so difficult that they really only cry for food when they are desperately hungry. Again, swaddling isn’t going to dampen down the hunger that will come to them eventually. Swaddling will help them calm and focus, especially if they are fearful. Swaddling supports their arms and trunk, making it easier for you to hold them in the position that reduces their distress. If your baby is finding the suck/swallow breathe pattern harder to synchronize, getting her into a calm but alert state is key.
Babies that are struggling for any reason to develop a calm state are known to develop a pattern of “snacking” because they are using sucking alone to calm down. Read Baby Nursing For Only a Few Minutes Then Fussy? Use the 5 S’s to Settle And Focus your Newborn To Feed, Not Just to Sleep for more information on this problem. Don’t let your newborn fall into the snacking trap, and allow her fail to nurse fully and well during her regular feedings. It is often the first step down the road to flipping days for nights, and sleeping only short periods of time (for her respective age). In this situation, she is never really rested and never really full.. Imagine being always a little tired and a little hungry. How miserable.
Using THBOTB techniques will help you help her. Did you buy a SNOO? You still need to learn how to calm your baby: Why You Still Need the 5S’s, Even If You Bought a SNOO.
The secret to knowing whether she needs to soothe by sucking or if she is really hungry is to watch her behavior. Is the rooting reflex strongly sending her into “search for the nipple” mode? Is she actually swallowing? Is she showing you HER best latch-on skills, and really going for it eagerly? Does she seem to fall into a dreamy sleepy state after nursing/feeding? Or is she taking a few random sucks and then playing with her hands or your shirt? Watching a baby will give you their hunger/satisfaction pattern over time, and knowing when something is wrong is often as easy as seeing a change in the pattern that doesn’t match the next developmental stage. Your support team can help you determine what that stage looks like. It could be your family, your pediatrician, your therapists, or your lactation consultant.
If you have fallen into the common trap of “accidental parenting”, which is possible as early as 4 weeks but more frequently seen after 12 weeks, take a look at my post Accidental Parenting at 4 Months: Out Of The Swaddle And Into The Frying Pan for some guidelines to get you back on track. Jumping from one solution to another and creating unhelpful habits to solve short term problems isn’t a sign that you are a terrible parent; it means that you don’t have a solid plan or a way to evaluate what a good plan looks like.
Using swaddling can really help your baby feed more calmly and feed fully. Swaddling correctly supports successful nursing and bottle feeding. Hunger cues are easier to separate from fussiness and fatigue. Effective swaddling makes it easier to see what your little one really needs from one moment to the next.
For more information on The Happiest Baby on the Block, to request a consultation or a phone support session, please visit my website: tranquil babies