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Understanding Your Baby’s Sleep Cues

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

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.

Young 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 sleep cues can help you break the overtired cycle that most babies get caught in early on!

Learn How to Get your Newborn to Sleep

newborn sleep program

Have a new baby or expecting one soon? Grab my Newborn Sleep Program. It’s 8 short videos and 25 cheat sheets of newborn sleep tips and tricks to get your new baby sleeping well. The Newborn Sleep Toolkit is full of graphics and easy-to-read info and is perfect for exhausted new parents! Get it here.

Baby Sleep Cues

I’m breaking this down into beginning 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 initial signs of sleepiness that your baby will exhibit when he is getting sleepy and ready for a nap. Once he starts showing these, 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
baby boy staring off and turning head are baby sleep cues

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 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 tired signs:

  • 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?

Once your baby starts showing the following sleep signs, they are probably overtired! Your baby might have a hard 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)

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.

fussy baby crying usually means an overtired baby

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!
baby asleep in his crib after watching baby sleep cues

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 amount of awake 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.

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!

Amy Motroni

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