Do Babies Feel Hunger in the Womb? How Fetuses Get Nutrients

While pregnant, if you feel hunger, your baby may not experience the same sensation because they are continuously receiving nourishment through the placenta and umbilical cord.

However, your little one may be more active when you eat or experience hunger.

According to a 2018 study published by the Fetal Medicine Foundation, a significant increase in fetal activity was noted in mothers more than 6 hours after a substantial meal, with a mean number of over 20 kicks reported in 3 minutes compared with just 7-8 kicks in well-fed mothers.

Thanks to the body’s complex and amazing nutrient-delivery system, even if the mother’s appetite is not the best, the baby will not go hungry and will more than likely be healthy and happy. 

Severe malnutrition, however, can increase the risk of certain health complications for you and your baby.

Your Baby’s Sense of Hunger in the Womb

Babies are incapable of feeling hunger due to their constant flow of nutrients through the placenta. 

Passive fetal activity, however, can increase around meal times due to your and your baby’s blood sugar lowering, and this may occur as early as seven weeks into your pregnancy.

When blood sugar is low, it encourages movement in the body to find food followed by a decrease in movement once the body is fed, so you may find your little one kicking more often when you are hungry.

When To Consult Your Doctor About Increased Fetal Movement

Fetal distress is usually associated more with decreased rather than increased activity, but if you notice any of the following, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor.

  • A change from your baby’s regular patterns.
  • Continuous, rapid, or unusual movements.
  • Any change in the type or nature of movements.
  • If you’re worried or feel that something isn’t right.

How Nutrients Are Delivered to Your Baby in the Womb

An unborn baby is connected to the umbilical cord, which supplies the fetus with all the necessary nutrients and oxygen. 

At the beginning of pregnancy, the uterus stores glucose and glycogen, which are used to nourish the baby until the placenta takes over. 

After about 8-11 weeks, the placenta and umbilical cord take over delivering nutrients from mom to baby.

When Does Baby Start Absorbing Nutrients From Mother?

The baby starts absorbing nutrients from the mother as soon as the fertilized egg embeds into the uterus (about three days after conception).

The fertilized egg is in need of energy, which is why the uterus lining sheds glucose during the beginning of pregnancy.

A week after conception, the yolk sac is formed and will take over, providing the fetus with necessary nutrients and gasses passed from the mother until around week 10 when the placenta takes over.

Normal Hunger During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, a mother’s appetite can be different every day.

In the beginning, a lot of women experience morning sickness, nausea, and food aversions.

Some pregnant women may always feel like they are hungry no matter how often they eat, and that is perfectly normal too.

Growing a baby is hungry work, and you may feel hungrier than normal from time to time due to all the added energy you now need!

As the pregnancy progresses, most symptoms of nausea and aversion should resolve, leading to the mother getting a normal appetite back. 

As your baby grows and takes more nutrients, moms will experience an increased appetite.

Interestingly, those carrying boys tend to consume 10% more calories than women carrying girls.

Hunger During First Trimester

It’s normal during the first trimester to experience little appetite changes, though some women have a notably decreased appetite due to morning sickness or nausea.

Extra calories are not needed at this point in pregnancy. 

Hunger During Second Trimester

Increased appetite is expected in the second trimester.

For most women, morning sickness and nausea are disappearing, making it easier to eat more calories.

The fetus is growing rapidly at this point, so it will need added nutrients to grow. 

Hunger During Third Trimester

Once the third trimester arrives, the mom might notice a decrease in appetite or be full after only eating a small portion of food. 

This is due to the growing baby pushing on all organs, including the stomach, which often leads to the mother feeling fuller quicker. 

At this stage, expecting mothers may find relief in eating small, frequent meals. 

Just for Fun: Cravings and Baby Gender

  • Common Cravings When Pregnant With a Boy: Protein, salty foods like chips, spicy foods, and pickles. 
  • Common Cravings When Pregnant With a Girl: All things sweet. 

Late-Night Hunger During Pregnancy

Late-night hunger pangs during pregnancy are fairly common and are due to all the changes happening in your body such as:

Hormonal Changes

Pregnancy hormones, such as progesterone and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), can fluctuate and affect hunger cues. 

These hormonal shifts may cause increased hunger, including cravings and the need to eat at odd hours, including late at night.

Increased Energy Needs

Pregnancy typically increases a woman’s energy needs. 

As the day progresses and activities wind down, some women might feel hungrier, especially if they haven’t consumed enough calories throughout the day.

Blood Sugar Levels

Some women might experience fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to feelings of hunger, especially during the night.

Discomfort or Nausea

Nausea and general discomfort can make it challenging to eat larger meals during the day.

As a result, you could find yourself compensating by eating smaller, more frequent late-night meals and snacks.

How To Combat Late-Night Hunger in Your Pregnancy

  • Eat Regularly Throughout the Day – Try to have balanced meals and small, nutritious snacks at regular intervals throughout the day to maintain steady energy levels.
  • Choose Healthy Late-Night Snacks – Opt for snacks that provide sustained energy and satisfy cravings like yogurt, a small handful of nuts, whole-grain crackers with cheese, or a piece of fruit.
  • Stay Hydrated – Sometimes, feelings of hunger can actually be masking thirst. Ensure you’re drinking enough water throughout the day to stay hydrated.

Effects of Staying Hungry During Pregnancy

Ignoring hunger cues for long periods can result in malnutrition for the mother, and long-term malnutrition for the mom can result in developmental problems for the fetus.

An empty stomach can also cause heartburn, which can be avoided by eating small frequent meals. 

A pregnant lady scanning the fridge for a snack.

Can You Miscarry From Not Eating Enough?

A single instance of not eating enough or missing a meal is unlikely to cause a miscarriage.

However, failing to get essential nutrients over an extended period can lead to complications and health issues for your baby.

Severe malnutrition during pregnancy has been associated with an increased risk of complications such as low birth weight, premature birth, developmental problems, and potential maternal health issues.

Miscarriages occur due to various reasons, often related to genetic abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, infections, or certain medical conditions, but insufficient eating is not typically a direct cause of miscarriage.

Small Meals & Light Bites in Pregnancy

If you’re stuck for small meal ideas, the following nutrient-dense options are great for keeping hunger at bay. 

Most are super easy to make too (just be sure to pass preparation duties on to someone else if cooking smells are bothering you).

Meals

  • Avocado toast on whole-grain bread
  • Grilled chicken or tofu with quinoa and roasted vegetables
  • Brown rice with steamed vegetables and a lean protein like fish or beans
  • Greek yogurt parfait with fruits and nuts
  • Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce and a side salad
  • Vegetable stir-fry with tofu or lean meat
  • Lentil soup with whole-grain crackers
  • Baked sweet potato with black beans and salsa

Snacks

  • Fresh fruits like apples, oranges, bananas, or berries
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, chia seeds)
  • Cheese sticks or slices with whole-grain crackers
  • Hummus with carrot sticks or cucumber slices
  • Trail mix (dried fruits, nuts, and seeds)
  • Cottage cheese with pineapple or peaches
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Whole-grain toast with peanut butter or almond butter
  • Smoothies made with fruits, leafy greens, and Greek yogurt
  • Popcorn (air-popped or lightly seasoned)

Tips for Healthy Eating During Pregnancy

  • Eat a Variety of Nutrient-Dense Foods: Aim for a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Focus on Folic Acid and Iron: Get these crucial nutrients with leafy greens, citrus fruits, beans, and fortified cereals. Iron is also found in red meat, poultry, fish, beans, and fortified cereals.
  • Get Enough Calcium: Incorporate dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese into your diet along with calcium-fortified foods and beverages.
  • Include Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s support the baby’s brain and eye development. Sources include fatty fish (like salmon), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated. Aim for at least 8-10 cups of water daily.
  • Try to Snack Healthily: Opt for nutritious snacks like fruits, nuts, yogurt, whole-grain crackers, or vegetable sticks with hummus.
  • Be Mindful of Portion Sizes: While it’s important to eat nutrient-rich foods, be mindful of portion sizes to avoid excessive weight gain during pregnancy.
  • Take Prenatal Supplements: Prenatal vitamins can help ensure you’re getting enough essential nutrients like folic acid, iron, and calcium. Consult your doctor before taking any supplements.

Foods To Avoid During Pregnancy

It’s crucial to avoid certain foods/food groups to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and potential harm to the developing fetus. 

  • Raw or Undercooked Meat and Seafood: Avoid consuming raw or undercooked meats (including beef, poultry, and pork) and raw seafood as they may contain harmful bacteria and parasites like Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria.
  • Unpasteurized Dairy Products: Avoid unpasteurized milk, cheeses (such as soft cheeses like feta, Brie, Camembert, and blue-veined cheeses), and juices as they may contain harmful bacteria.
  • Raw or Undercooked Eggs: Steer clear of raw or undercooked eggs and dishes containing them like homemade sauces (like Hollandaise), salad dressings, or desserts (like mousse or raw cookie dough) due to the risk of salmonella.
  • Certain Seafood High in Mercury: Avoid fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish as the high mercury levels may negatively affect your baby’s developing nervous system.
  • Unwashed Produce: Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables to remove any potential contaminants or pesticides that could cause illnesses.
  • Caffeine: Limit your caffeine intake (no more than 200 milligrams a day is advised) as high amounts can increase the risk of low birth weight or miscarriage.
  • Chocolate Liqueurs/Foods Containing Alcohol: Avoid alcohol in all forms during pregnancy as it can harm the developing fetus and lead to various birth defects or developmental issues.
  • Raw Sprouts: Raw sprouts (such as alfalfa, clover, radish, or mung bean sprouts) carry a higher risk of carrying foodborne illnesses.
  • Unwashed Deli Meats and Pates: Avoid consuming unpasteurized pates or deli meats unless they have been heated thoroughly to kill potential bacteria.
  • Excessive Vitamin A: An excessive intake of vitamin A has been linked to congenital malformations in developing babies, particularly in early pregnancy.