Your baby’s sleep cues can be good indicators of when he’s ready to go down for a nap to get the best possible sleep! Learn how to spot those baby sleep cues so you can get him to sleep and avoid an overtired baby.

baby yawning showing a baby sleep cue

I’m sure new parents can relate: as a new mom I would pay close attention (read: watch my newborn baby like a hawk) for her hunger cues and sleep cues.

I really wanted to establish a good foundation with breastfeeding and make sure I fed her whenever she needed it and put her down to sleep before she got overtired.

Newborn babies don’t come with an instruction manual (Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if they did?). But they do give us some signs when they are getting hungry or too tired. These hunger cues and sleep cues are your baby’s body language and can tell you when your baby might need a feed or a nap.

Here are the baby sleep cues your baby might exhibit when he is getting to his sleepy state. Understanding your baby’s tired signs can help you break the overtired cycle that most babies get caught in early on!

Want a realistic newborn sleep schedule? Download my free newborn sleep schedule to see what a day with your newborn might look like. Click here to grab it. It’ll be super helpful.

newborn baby sleeping

Newborn Sleep Cues

Newborn babies are really great at two things: eating tons, and sleeping most of the day. 

During those first few weeks at home, there’s no need to try to stick to a sleep schedule. In fact, you’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to force any sort of schedule! Your new baby is going to move at their own pace.

When it comes to those very sleepy newborn days, give yourself a little grace. Your baby’s sleep cycle is going to be all over the map, and they will be sleeping a lot. They haven’t developed a circadian rhythm yet.

In fact, if you find yourself wondering whether your newborn is tired, the answer is: most likely.

Newborn wake windows are super short.

Some signs that your newborn is sleepy include less movement, zoning out, and drooping eyelids or slow blinks.

What Are the Cues that Baby is Sleepy?

As your baby comes out of the newborn sleepy phase, being able to spot your baby’s sleep cues will become essential for determining the best time to put them down to sleep.

The likelihood of young babies experiencing overtiredness goes up exponentially as they begin to grow more and develop both physically and cognitively.

Your baby will be able to engage more with their surroundings as they grow. That means more distractions and things that keep them from drifting off on their own!

If you’re wondering when the right time to start your baby’s nap or bedtime routine, paying attention to the amount of time they’re awake and keeping an eye out for baby’s sleepy cues is key.

Baby Sleep Cues

Some common baby sleep cues include inattentiveness (or a dazed look in their eyes), less active movements, turning their heads away to disengage, rubbing their eyes or face, fussing or whining, and yawning.

I’m breaking this down into early signs of sleep cues, getting close to being overtired sleepy cues, and OMG I’m exhausted and overtired sleepy cues.

Common Baby Sleep Cues

These are the first signs of sleepiness that your baby will exhibit when he is getting sleepy and ready for a nap. Once he starts showing these early sleep cues, it’s a good idea to start your nap routine or bedtime routine.

This is the optimal time to get him ready for a nap and place him in his crib or bassinet:

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Decreased activity
  • Starts zoning out
  • Less vocal / Quieter
  • Less social
  • Calmer
  • Redness around the eyebrows
  • Turns head away

Once your baby starts quieting down and zoning out a bit, he is probably ready for a nap. Grandparents with the best intentions often try to re-engage baby by playing or singing with them when the baby no longer seems interested, but this is not what your baby needs right now.

I promise you that your new baby is not bored when he is not engaged. It means he is ready to go to sleep.

Once you see baby’s cues such as avoiding eye contact and zoning out, it’s time to scoop baby up and put him down for a nap. Sorry grandma, you’ll get more snuggles soon!

Getting Close to Being Overtired Sleep Cues

These are the sleepy cues your baby might make when they are really tired. It can be a short time between tired and overtired, so go ahead and put him down for a nap once he starts showing these signs of tiredness:

  • Yawning
  • Rubbing eyes or face
  • Tugging at ears
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Jerky limb movements

Overtired Sleep Cues—How Do You Know If Your Baby Is Overtired?

Sometimes your baby is going to get overtired—it happens! When your baby has been awake for longer than is optimal at their age, it’s going to be harder for them to fall asleep.

I know it seems counterintuitive! You would think that if your baby is super tired, they would fall asleep faster. 

But the reality is that when your baby is overtired, they experience an influx of stress hormones that make it harder to get to sleep. They basically get a second wind and then it’s harder to settle down.

When your baby is experiencing that stress, there are some sleep cues that could signal to you that your baby has reached overtiredness.

Once your baby starts showing the following sleep signs, they are probably overtired!.

Your baby might have a harder time falling asleep independently at this point, but they definitely need a nap once they start exhibiting these late cues:

  • Clingy behavior
  • Clenched fists
  • Arched back
  • Fussiness / Cranky
  • Crying
  • Acting out / Tantrums (Geared more toward toddlers)

Life happens, and there are going to be times when you miss your baby’s sleep cues.

It’s okay!

Just be prepared to invest a little more time and energy into helping them settle down for sleep when they’re overtired. It may be harder to get baby to sleep in their bassinet or crib once they’ve reached this phase.

Is Yawning Always a Sleep Cue?

It seems like yawning should be the universal sign for “I’m exhausted,” right? But when it comes to your baby, that’s not always the case.

When yawns are paired with some of the other common sleep cues, you can be pretty confident that your little one is ready to snooze.

But did you know babies will sometimes yawn for reasons other than tiredness? Just think about all the times you’ve yawned simply because you saw someone else do it. Babies might do the same!

And try not to be offended, but babies might even yawn out of boredom. So if you see your baby yawning, look for other sleep cues too before you move on to the bedtime or nap time routine.

What If My Baby Doesn’t Show Any Sleep Cues?

If you haven’t already experienced it by now, you’ll soon discover that not all babies do things exactly the same. This can also be true of your baby’s sleep cues.

Nobody is going to know your baby better than you will. So if you’ve been watching carefully and you just can’t seem to pinpoint your baby’s particular sleepy signs, that’s okay.

Instead of relying solely on sleep cues, I am a big proponent of also using age-appropriate wake windows as a guide to tell you how long your baby can handle being awake.

These baby wake windows are a great tool to provide a guideline for your baby’s daily routine. I’ve got all sorts of resources for you on baby sleep times and wake windows based on your baby’s age.

Baby Sleep Cues or Wake Windows?

For older babies, sleep cues can be misleading and aren’t the best indicator that your baby is ready for sleep. After about 3 months of age, sleep cues are not as reliable for knowing when to put your baby down for a nap.

I know, there your baby goes switching everything up as soon as you figured him out!

Once your baby is past the newborn stage—about three months of age—you’ll want to keep an eye out for their sleep cues but also make sure that you are paying attention to your baby’s wake times.

Some babies no longer exhibit sleep cues at this age, while others will show sleep cues way too early.

For example, my daughter always exhibited sleep cues 15 to 20 minutes before nap time. She would start yawning after she’d only been awake for a bit.

I quickly learned her right sweet spot time and and knew that if I put her down too early (even if she was yawning), then she was going to take a short nap.

I had to stretch her an extra 15 minutes or so and then she would take a good solid nap.

After 3 months of age, I usually went by her wake windows instead of her sleep cues, unless she was sick (in which case we threw all rules out the window to help her sleep while sick). Every once in a while, I would put her down early if she seemed tired and I always regretted it with a short nap.

If your baby seems tired, but still has about 15 to 20 minutes before nap time, the best way to distract them is by taking them outside for a bit, trying a new activity, or enlisting the help of a sibling or family pet.

I always had to take my daughter outside for some fresh air to help her make it to the next nap time.

What Are Typical Wake Windows?

In general, here are the recommended wake times for babies by age. These times often help your baby get the best naps and have better night sleep:

  • Newborn to 12 weeks: 30 to 90 minutes
  • 3 to 4 months: 75 minutes to 2 hours
  • 5 to 8 months: 2.5 to 3 hours
  • 8 to 13 months: 3 to 4 hours
  • 13 months+: 5 to 6 hours

It will take a bit of time and experimenting for you to learn your baby and his sleep cues. If he shows the signs of being tired and takes a good nap, then you might be right on track!

If you’re struggling with short naps, then play with his wake times a bit.

What if Baby Displays Sleep Cues Before Finishing Wake Window?

As I mentioned above, the answer to this depends largely on how old your baby is.

Understanding wake windows is great. But if you’ve learned your baby’s common sleep cues and you begin to see them before your baby’s wake window is over (especially if your baby is younger than 3 months), go with the cues!

There’s a chance that your young baby is ready for sleep before their wake window is up. Maybe they didn’t sleep as soundly as normal, or maybe they’re going through a growth spurt. 

Whatever the case may be, if your baby is younger than 3 or 4 months and is showing you that they’re ready to sleep, you can go with it. It’s best to avoid your baby being overtired at the end of their awake time.

However, sleep cues aren’t as reliable if you have an older baby.

How do I Get an Overtired Baby to Sleep?

If you’ve missed your baby’s sleep cues, and he’s gotten overtired, it’s time to settle him and get him to sleep ASAP.

Plenty of infant sleep problems can come from a baby being overtired, including baby waking up too early, fussiness, false start bedtime, poor feeds, night waking, and your baby only naps 30 minutes.

Thankfully, if your baby is overtired, there are some things you can try to get them to settle down for sleep. 

Now is not the time to push your baby to fall asleep independently—an overtired baby is likely going to need your help getting to sleep!

Feel free to assist your baby with something like the Shush Pat method, or even offer them a contact nap if they’re in need of extra comfort.

If your little one isn’t capable of rolling over yet, you can also swaddle them to help calm them for sleep. Once they’re swaddled, try holding them on their stomach against your chest, or on their side to soothe them for a bit.

Swaying and shushing your baby as you hold them are also helpful tactics when they are feeling overtired. That’s why I love the 5S’s!

The 5 S’s for Overtired Babies

The 5S’s are a great way to calm your overtired/fussy baby and get him to sleep:

  1. Swaddle: Swaddling a baby creates a tight, cozy feel and can help keep an overtired baby’s limbs from getting too jerky. Swaddling can help babies sleep longer and sounder. Follow these tips if you think your newborn hates a swaddle and also make sure you know when to stop swaddling your baby as well.
  2. Side or Stomach: Holding a baby on his side or stomach can help soothe him and help him calm down before placing him in his crib. The back is the safest sleep option for babies, but you can hold your baby on his side or stomach before placing him in his crib on his back.
  3. Shush: Also known as white noise. Using a shushing sound or having a white noise sound machine can help calm a fussy baby. It was noisy in the womb and silence can be deafening to babies!
  4. Swing: Babies are also used to a lot of movement in the womb. While you were carrying them and going about your day, they were snoozing! If you’ve missed your baby’s sleep cues and he is fussy, make sure to support his head and neck, and try a small jiggly motion. Watch the video from Dr. Harvey Karp to see how this is done properly.
  5. Suck: Offer your baby a pacifier to suck on. Sucking can be soothing for babies and be the cherry on the top that they need to fall asleep!
Amy Motroni

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