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How to know when your baby’s ready for sleep

How-to-know-when-your-babys-ready-for-sleep

Babies can’t say “I’m tired” any more than we can read their minds, but if you pay close attention, you can recognize the signs your little one is ready for sleep. 

These signs, or sleep cues, are your baby’s way of saying, “I’m tired,” “I need a nap,” or “I’m overtired.” Here’s how to recognize your baby’s sleep cues, and why sleep cues are important.

Why is it important to recognize sleep cues?

Recognizing sleep cues is important for a number of reasons. Knowing when your baby is tired and encouraging sleep at the right time helps to:

  • build healthy sleep habits early on
  • teach your child to rest when they need it and to recognize their body’s need for sleep
  • prevent overtiredness, which helps baby fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer
  • foster brain development, including learning and memory

Are sleep cues different at different ages?

Some signs of sleepiness are universal and easy to recognize—and don’t change much as your child grows. According to Nilong Vyas, MD, board-certified pediatric sleep coach and founder of family sleep consulting service Sleepless in NOLA, “Sleep cues, generally, can be similar across age ranges; for example, yawning is ubiquitous and can be a good indicator of sleepiness or fatigue.”

However, there are subtle differences in sleep cues during infancy and toddlerhood. “An infant may stare into space to cue that he’s sleepy, but a busy toddler may become more rambunctious when tired,” explains Dr. Vyas.

There are also stages (early to late) in every sleep cue cycle which play a role in your baby’s sleep. If you recognize your little one’s sleep cues early and take action, they will fall asleep faster. However, if they continue to display sleep cues for a long period of time without being put down for a nap, your baby won’t fall asleep easily and can become overtired.

What are some common newborn sleep cues?

For newborns up to three months, there are a few obvious indicators of sleep readiness apart from yawning:

  • Fussiness
  • Eye rubbing
  • Staring into space
  • Pulling their ears
  • Turn away from people and objects

What are some common baby sleep cues?

For babies ages three months to a year, signs of sleep readiness include:

  • Yawning (if your baby yawns more than three times, it’s definitely time for a nap!)
  • Eye rubbing, staring, and blinking
  • Pulling their ears
  • Increased fussiness
  • Decreased activity
  • Reduced smiling and babbling
  • Comfort-seeking movements like sucking fingers or turning their head side to side
  • Avoiding eye contact

What are some common toddler sleep cues?

For toddlers aged 12 months and over, grumpiness is a tell-tale sign of sleepiness, as well as:

  • Being highly active
  • Clinginess
  • Whining
  • Ignoring toys and play
  • Being fussy with food
  • Clumsiness

What are some common signs that your baby is overtired?

Tired signs and overtired signs are often the same, just amped up. Here’s how you can tell if your little one has passed the tired phase and entered the overtired phase:

  • Frequent yawning, more than a few times per minute
  • Increased crying 
  • Soothing does not work as well and takes more effort and time
  • Fitful sleep. Even when they do fall asleep, it’s often restless. Your little one will take shorter cat naps that don’t work as effectively to re-energize them
  • Sleeping at times when they would otherwise be awake, for example, when it’s time to eat

What can you do if you don’t recognize the cues on time and baby becomes overtired?

Recognizing sleep cues is a great way to map your baby’s ideal nap schedule, so it’s important to try and catch the cues when you can. If you miss your baby’s sleep cues, Dr. Vyas says, it’s likely baby will become overtired and won’t be able to fall asleep as easily. 

What you can do is create a calm environment and try again a little later. Dim the lights, cut down on noise, set the thermostat between 68°F and 72°F, and try singing, soothing, and rocking baby to sleep.

Don’t worry if you miss a sleep cue

Yes, sleep is important. By observing your baby for signs of sleep readiness, you’re helping your baby get their best possible rest. But it’s not the end of the world if you miss a sleep cue. It’s a fixable, temporary problem, and your baby will eventually fall asleep and get the rest they need. 

You’ve got a lifetime to help your little one grow and develop, and sleep is only one part of the parenthood journey you’ve embarked on. So keep up the good work—you’ve got this!

Sources:

  1. Sleep and health. 2021. National Institutes of Health (News in Health). Good sleep for good health.
  2. Sleep cues. Gloucestershire Health and Care. Sleep Cues!
  3. Sleep Concerns and their prevention. Better Health Channel. Preventing sleep concerns.
  4. What to do if a baby becomes overtired? Healthline. How to help an overtired baby sleep.
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