What is responsive feeding?

Responsive feeding is when a mother recognises the signs of hunger and acts on them to initiate feeding only when the baby is hungry.

  • All babies are born with the ability to feed intuitively
  • They know when they are hungry and exhibit signs of hunger – these include licking/smacking of the lips, opening and closing of the mouth, putting fingers in the mouth and sucking on the fists
  • When a baby’s stomach is full its brain produces a signal to stop feeding – helping the infant to self-regulate their intake
  • The baby also exhibits signs that indicate when they are full – such as looking sleepy or ‘drunk’, calmness, pushing the teat away and losing interest in the feed

Why is responsive feeding important?

Responsive feeding allows an infant to feed according to their own appetite and physiological needs and can protect against overfeeding and associated long-term outcomes.

  • In responsive feeding a caregiver will recognise and act on a baby’s initial hunger cues and their satiety cues at the end of the feed
  • They will initiate feeding when the baby is hungry, not when they are distressed
  • It is thought that not recognising or understanding an infant’s satiety cues may contribute to overfeeding in infancy
  • Rapid growth in infancy may contribute to later risk of obesity
  • The importance of responsive feeding is recognised by Unicef1, WHO2, NHS3 and RCN4

Unicef Baby Friendly Initiative top tips for responsive bottle-feeding1

Parents are encouraged to:

1. Respond to cues that their baby is hungry.
2. Invite the baby to draw in the teat rather than forcing the teat into the mouth.
3. Pace the feed so that the baby is not forced to feed more than they want.
4. Recognise their baby’s cues that they have had enough milk.

  1. Guide to the baby friendly initiative standards. Unicef. Available here. (Accessed December 2016).
  2. WHO, nutrition, complementary feeding. Available here. (Accessed December 2016).
  3. NHS Choices - your breastfeeding questions answered. Available here. (Accessed December 2016).
  4. Royal College of Nursing, formula feeds, 2016.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended that pregnant women and new mothers be informed on the benefits and superiority of breastfeeding – in particular the fact that it provides the best nutrition and protection from illness for babies. Mothers should be given guidance on the preparation for, and maintenance of, lactation, with special emphasis on the importance of a well-balanced diet both during pregnancy and after delivery. Unnecessary introduction of partial bottle-feeding or other foods and drinks should be discouraged since it will have a negative effect on breastfeeding. Similarly, mothers should be warned of the difficulty of reversing a decision not to breastfeed. Before advising a mother to use an infant formula, she should be advised of the social and financial implications of her decision: for example, if a baby is exclusively bottle-fed, more than one can (400 g) per week will be needed, so the family circumstances and costs should be kept in mind. Mothers should be reminded that breast milk is not only the best, but also the most economical food for babies. If a decision to use an infant formula is taken, it is important to give instructions on correct preparation methods, emphasising that unboiled water, unsterilised bottles or incorrect dilution can all lead to illness.