Baby Sleep Cues and the Truth about What they Mean

by | May 16, 2023 | Podcast, Sleep Foundations, Sleep Routines, Sleep Schedules and Wake Windows, Uncategorized | 0 comments

BONUS MATERIAL: Grab a copy of my free sleep chart here that outlines my suggested wake windows, sleep totals, and number of naps for little ones age 0-5!

As parents of babies and young children, it’s important to make sure our little ones are getting enough sleep. But sometimes, it’s not so easy to figure out how to make that happen!

A common piece of advice new parents often get is to look out for “baby sleep cues”. These refer to the very first signs babies give to let us know they’re ready for sleep. The widely-held belief that when the yawning starts and your baby begins to look tired, it must mean that he’s ready to go to sleep.  

The reality is that this is not entirely true.

In this article, I’m going to discuss what baby sleep cues look like in more detail and why they are not the most reliable way to determine if your little one is tired. I will also discuss what you SHOULD be using to figure out your little one’s sleep schedule instead.  

But first- why is figuring out your little one’s daytime schedule so important?

Ensuring that your little one is getting adequate daytime sleep is crucial so that your baby or toddler doesn’t become overtired. When we become overtired, our nervous systems secrete higher levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone.

So when your little one has higher levels of cortisol in their system and becomes overtired, it can cause literally every sleep problem in the book:  

Difficulty falling asleep

An overtired baby will have a more difficult time falling asleep. This is because overtiredness can cause them to become fussy, agitated, and have trouble settling down. 

Unnecessary night-wakings

Overtiredness is a well-known culprit of disrupted and fragmented nighttime sleep. Because overtiredness makes it much harder to settle and stay asleep, babies and children tend to sleep more restlessly and wake more frequently during the night when overtired.

Short naps

Because overtiredness makes it much harder to stay asleep for longer periods, naps tend to be shorter and less restorative.

Early rising

When a baby or child is overtired, their sleep is lighter and more restless.  As a result, it’s common for an overtired child to wake up prematurely for the day and be too wound up to fall back asleep.

Decrease in mood and behavior

Overtiredness in babies and children often leads to moodiness and other behavioural challenges. This includes irritability, clinginess, crankiness, and tantrums. It’s not fun!

To avoid these big sleep problems, it’s crucial to ensure that your little one is going to bed JUST as they begin to get tired, before they become overtired. Also, make sure your that child is getting enough sleep throughout the day and night so that they’re well-rested. As the famous saying goes- sleep begets sleep!

Baby yawning sleep cues

What are the most common baby sleep cues?

Alright, so I’ve convinced you to prioritize your baby’s daytime schedule and naps.  Awesome.  But of course, this brings us back to the original question of the day:

HOW do we figure out the right time for a baby, toddler or preschooler to go to sleep so that they don’t get overtired?  

One clue we can use to help us out here are sleepy cues.  Here is a simple list of the most common sleep cues associated with tiredness in babies and young children:

– Yawning

– Eye rubbing

– “Spacing out”

– Redness under eyebrows

– Decreased activity

– Fussiness

– Squawking

– Pulling at ears

– Scratching their face

– Burying face in caregiver’s chest

– Loss of interest in toys

– Turning away from objects or people

Some of the well-known signs of overtiredness and “late cues” you want to avoid include crankiness, getting a second wind of energy, and arching their back.

Now, the advice to follow these baby sleep cues assumes that your little one’s body language is accurate.  But the reality is that this assumption is wrong. Even though baby sleep cues might be SOMEWHAT helpful, they’re actually not reliable indicators of whether your little one is actually tired.

Here’s why baby sleep cues aren’t usually 100% accurate

Baby sleep cues as a newborn tend to be at least somewhat accurate. But by the time your baby is at least 3-4 months of age, sleepy signs usually become unreliable.  And as your little one gets older, their sleepy cues become even MORE unreliable.  Here’s why:   

Your little one might ALWAYS look tired

On the one hand, your little one could easily make you think that he’s ready to sleep when he isn’t.  This scenario is especially common with babies and young children who are waking frequently at night, taking short naps and aren’t getting enough consolidated sleep over a 24 hour period.  

If this describes your baby, he might show you tired signs all day!  And while he might truly be tired from not getting enough uninterrupted sleep over a 24 hour period, it doesn’t mean he’s been up for long enough and is ready for a nap simply because he’s rubbing his eyes.  

There’s a very big difference between a yawn that means “I’m tired because I’m ready for nap” versus a yawn that means “I’m tired because I was up partying 5 times last night”.

In other words, your little one could be yawning AND simultaneously fight sleep if he’s not actually ready for bed just yet.  Getting him down too soon for a nap WILL backfire!

Your little one might NEVER look tired

On the other hand, your little one could make you think he’s never tired! Some babies and toddlers are professionals at masking their tired signs and make you think they’re not tired at all. Or perhaps your little is showing you such subtle cues that it’s impossible for anyone to see, unless you work for the CIA!  

This scenario is especially common with older babies and young children who are always happy and smiling, no matter what.   As babies get older and learn how to play more independently, it’s also easier for them to distract themselves and forget that they’re actually tired.

And even though having a very happy baby or child is a HUGE blessing, the “problem” is that these babies often don’t show clear sleepy signs until they’re already overtired.   Getting him down too late for a nap WILL backfire as well!

 For these reasons, I strongly advise NOT to use sleepy signs as the primary factor to determine sleep times.

*GASP*

That’s right, you read that correctly.  Baby sleep cues are usually NOT accurate.

So what should you be using instead of baby sleep cues to determine sleep times?

My strong recommend is to ALWAYS use appropriate wake windows (also known as wake periods or wake times) as the MAIN factor to determine when your little one needs to sleep.

What are wake windows?

A wake window refers to the amount of time that any baby or child can be up for before they begin to get tired and need to go back to sleep.  When your little one reaches the end of his wake window, it means he needs to go back to sleep.

Your little one’s wake windows will be based on 3 factors:  1) age; 2) temperament; and 3) overall sleep patterns.   As your little one gets older, they will be able to stay up for longer periods of time before getting tired.  

Why wake windows are awesome and super helpful

Figuring out your little one’s specific awake window allows you to accurately gauge when your little one needs to go to sleep without the stress of trying to analyze your baby’s subtle body language (FBI-style). It means that your days of praying to the sleep gods that your guesswork doesn’t backfire are over 🙂 

(Talk about a recipe for feeling like an epic failure as a parent!)

The great thing about wake windows is that they allow you to calculate the perfect time for the next sleep time by simply looking at the clock.  

For example, if your 6 month old wake windows are in the 2-2.5 hour range (which is very common), and your baby woke up from her nap at 1pm, it means she’ll need to go back to sleep for 3:00-3:30pm.  Easy peazy!  

By using wake windows as a guide, it reduces the stress and anxiety you might feel around naptime and bedtime, especially if getting your little one to sleep has been stressful. A smoother and more enjoyable process for getting your little one to sleep will make you feel more confident as a parent, knowing that your little one is getting the sleep they need. It’s a great feeing to have, especially when getting your little one to sleep was previously a big struggle.

Why I don’t recommend “by-the-clock” schedules 

Using a by-the-clock schedule, where you put your child to sleep at the same time every day regardless of their wakefulness, is one of the most common mistakes I see parents make.

Why? In short, because they don’t work.

Firstly, they ignore the individual sleep needs of the child.  Every child is unique and has their own individual sleep needs and wake windows. A by-the-clock schedule does not take into account a child’s individual sleep patterns. These will vary depending on their age, temperament, and daily activities.

Second, these schedules create a TON of frustration for both the parents and child if the child isn’t sleepy at the designated sleep time.  And this is exactly what will happen! When we expect a baby who wakes for the day at 730am to take their morning nap at the same time as a baby of the same age who woke for the day at 6am, it’s not going to work. Putting a child to sleep at an arbitrary time that doesn’t makes sense means he’s going to struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep.  And you can’t blame him!  

On top of all this, a by-the-clock schedule doesn’t allow for ANY flexibility. This makes it difficult to accommodate changes in a child’s routine, such as travel or a change in daily activities.  It’s simply not practical!

This is why it’s REALLY not a good idea to use cookie-cutter “by-the-clock” schedules for your little one.

Still stuck? Download my free sleep chart showing babies’ wake windows based on their age

Now that you understand why to always use wake windows to figure out your little one’s daytime sleep schedule, you might feel lost and have NO idea what your little one’s wake windows should be. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!

**Grab a copy of my free sleep chart here that outlines my suggested wake windows, sleep totals, and number of naps for little ones age 0-5!**  

You’ll need to do some trial and error as you figure out where your little one fits within the suggested ranges I provided. By taking these steps, you’re helping your little one establish healthy sleep habits that will truly benefit them for years to come.

Additional articles and resources on baby and child sleep

How to get your little one consistently sleeping 11-12 hours at night so you can feel like a functioning human
5 Important tips to lengthen your little one’s naps
When can my baby sleep through the night without a feeding?
The truth about your teething baby and their sleep
Early rising- how to get your little one sleeping in later in the morning

 

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