How to Recognize Sleep Signals in Babies - Baby Chick

How to Recognize Sleep Signals in Babies

As parents, it can be difficult to tell whether baby is tired, fussy, or hungry. Here is how to recognize sleep signals in babies.

Updated February 26, 2021

by Brittany Levine

Sleep Consultant

A healthy and consistent relationship with sleep is one of the very best gifts you can give to your baby (and yourself)! Sleep is a pillar of our health and is responsible for ensuring that many of our systems are a “go!” Keeping your baby up for long periods of time is not going to make them sleep longer. In fact, it does the exact opposite!

Therefore, one of the first steps I encourage parents to do from day one with their baby is learning the baby’s sleep signals (or sleep cues)! This is an essential part of helping them figure out sleep! Once you know what to look for, you can help optimize the ideal window to put your baby down for a nap or bedtime.

What is a sleep cue (or sleep signal)?

A sleep cue is a signal that your baby gives when getting tired and needing a nap soon or if you’ve missed the ideal sleep window. Below are the three stages that sleep cues fall into. Keep in mind that your baby’s sleep cues may or may not be on this list. Each baby is unique in expressing tiredness, but it will be consistent most of the time.

Stage 1: “I’m getting tired. We should consider sleep soon.”

  • Blank stares
  • Red eyebrows
  • Moving head side to side like they’re searching for something
  • Decreased activity
  • Appears disinterested

Stage 2: “I really need you to take me seriously and get me to sleep!”

  • Yawning
  • Rubbing ears
  • Pulling ears
  • Getting fussy

Stage 3: “You missed the window! I’m overtired and hating every minute of it!”

  • Arching their back
  • Hysterically crying
  • Clenching fists
  • Rooting

I often see (and am guilty of with my own child before I knew any better) that parents often confuse sleep cues with hunger cues.

Take another look at those signs of tiredness. They look oddly similar to what babies do when they’re getting hungry, don’t they? The rooting, crying, clenching fists. These are all symptoms of a hungry baby, too.

Try this!

If your baby is acting hungry, but they recently ate within 2 hours, but it’s been a little while since their last nap, try for sleep before going for another feed.

If you only offer sleep once your baby is acting fussy and crying, you’ve most likely missed your ideal sleep window and will probably have an overtired baby on your hands. This results in difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.

Why is it so important to put them down before they get overtired?

When your baby’s body and brain need sleep, and the signals are being sent out for sleep, that’s exactly what it’s expecting. When sleep doesn’t happen, the brain assumes that the body is in danger and that it must need assistance to stay awake and “fight off danger.” This is when it begins to pump the stress hormone, Cortisol through the body. This hormone will trigger your baby to be awake and stay awake. Leading to a really tough time falling asleep once we’ve reached this point.

Looking for Sleep Signals

Use the chart below to determine your baby’s ideal wake window range by age. I recommend starting with the lower amount of time listed for their age and gradually adding on if needed.

How to Recognize Sleep Signals in Babies

Once you’ve identified their ideal wake window, keep a close eye on your baby and the clock. When it’s starting to get close to the end of their wake window, pay attention to what your baby is doing.

Are they getting quiet? Moving slower? Staring off into space?

If yes to any, let’s get the naptime or bedtime routine started! This is the optimal time to get baby to bed.

If they are crying and acting frustrated and hysterical, your baby is a bit past the wake window time. You can expect a bit of a struggle to get down for sleep at this point.

Either way, take note of how long it was and what baby was acting like. If you caught baby in the first stage of sleep cues, continue using that wake window time.

If you caught baby in the second or third stage of sleep cues, bring your wake window earlier by 5-10 minutes next time.

Adjust as your baby gets older.

As with most things regarding your baby, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, they go and change things up on you! As your baby gets older, their sleep cues will change. You may even find that they begin not to show any sleep cues at all. Many older babies tend to seem completely fine, then, suddenly, they are riddled with overtiredness.

Therefore, it’s important to also watch wake windows and the clock in conjunction with the cues. If your baby outgrows showing sleep cues, you will have the wake window and clock to rely on and help you determine when a nap is needed.

Being in tune with your baby can alleviate a lot of stress when figuring out what they need. Pay close attention to the signs that they give you and take note of them. Be open and aware that changes and adjustments will be required to the amount of time that they are awake between each sleep.

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Brittany Levine Sleep Consultant
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Hi! I’m Brittany Levine, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of Rest is Best Sleep Consulting. When I first had my son, I had no idea how much sleep deprivation… Read more

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