Licking and looking is one of the least recognized, least discussed feeding cues for newborn breastfeeding babies. Having breastfed two daughters, I never once was alerted to notice this with my own children, but after learning of this in my lactation educator course, was delighted to distinctly see it displayed by my just born nephew.
Most books discuss rooting, but rooting is really more of a reflex than a cue. Rooting is the newborn reflex that causes a baby to turn their head towards a check that is rubbed. This reflex enables the baby to latch onto the breast when it is presented. Books will also tell you that crying is a late cue, which isn’t all that helpful.
The licking and looking cue is fairly distinctive once you see it at all. The baby’s eyes are open and fairly alert, either still or looking around. But the little tongue is darting in and out like a lizard, licking the lips repeatedly. It’s pretty adorable once you notice it.
During the licking and looking phase the baby is not fussy or demanding in any way, which makes it easy to miss, especially in the early days when a newborn infant may be getting passed around to relatives during hospital visits. If a mother saw this cue and said, “Oh, he needs to eat” a relative not ready to give the baby up would likely insist he is fine.
If the breast is offered to the baby each time the licking and looking cue is observed, which is likely to occur a lot more often than every two to three hours, it is highly likely that the baby would barely cry, at least for feeding! The truth is that a baby doesn’t expect to have to cry in order to get this message across, when other cues have been delivered for some time.
A challenge for educators is that it is sometimes difficult to convince mothers or nursing staff that the licking and looking cue means that it is time for nursing. When I saw this with my nephew, he didn’t end up nursing for some time, because right about that time a nurse came in to transfer the mother to postpartum, and then some family came to visit. I tried to gently communicate that the baby needed to eat before the transfer, but since he seemed fine (he *was* fine… he was just ready to eat!) and the transfer would “just take a minute” (don’t fall for this one, ladies), it didn’t seem urgent. By the time we got around to getting him latched on for a feeding, it was more challenging than it likely would have been when he was ready to latch on calm and alert.
Recognizing the licking and looking feeding cue can be a really useful tool for mothers, hospital personal and lactation professionals, and should not be overlooked simply because it is not loud or obvious. This sort of subtle signal from a newborn is one of the very lovely ways a newborn baby “comes programmed” to interact with the world, if only we can learn to read the signs.
For more information on how to interpret and understand a baby’s many newborn behaviors, see Kevin Nugent’s excellent photographic guide (interestingly, Nugent doesn’t specifically address the licking and looking cue in his book, but after reading my note about this in my review of his book, wrote me personally to say he would try to incorporate this in future editions!):