How to Decipher Sleep Cues
Updated: Jun 25
Why do babies make a big fuss around naptime if they are supposed to be ready for a nap? That can be one of the most confusing, repetitive questions we ask ourselves everyday as a mom who is trying to get baby down for naps.
What Are Sleep Cues
From infancy, all babies actually do try and communicate their needs to us. Crying is a baby’s innate way of talking to their parents. It isn’t until they are five to six months old that they begin to communicate with their bodies with more fluency. At this point, their improved motor control allows them make gestures with their little limbs, subtle facial expressions and change their body posture to signal their needs – aka sleep cues.
Sleep cues are clues for parents to read. They come in 3 waves: (1) I’m sleepy, (2) I’m ready for sleep, (3) I’m overtired. If the first two waves of fatigue signs are missed, then the baby becomes overtired, extra fussy and naps become a fight. The baby needs to be put in the crib earlier. It’s also important to note that your baby will exhibit only a few of these sleep cues while others can be just part of your child’s personality. Part of being a parent is deciphering which signals from your baby’s is telling you she wants to head to the crib.
Common Sleep Cues
· Decreased or slower activity
· Avoids eye contact
· Disengaged suddenly from activity
· Less babbling/less social
· Less smiles, some crankiness
· Clingy or attached to parent
· Irregular/infrequent fussing or whines
· Soft, irregular cries
· Eyes appear less focused
· Eyelids drooping
· When sitting: Head nods like a person falling asleep in the car
I’m ready for sleep
· Pulling ears
· Head moves from side to side
· Red, bloodshot eyes
· Rubbing eyes or around the eyes
· Skin around the eyes look pink
· Skin around the eyebrows look pink
· More difficult to please or distract
· Eyes droop close only to spring open again
· Eyes wide, unblinking, staring into space
· Arms and legs flail and move very clumsily and uncoordinatedly
· Strong, uncoordinated kicking
· Back arching/stiffening
· Clawing or tugging at own ears or cheeks
· Clawing/scratching at skin/face/hair
· Self-soothing mechanisms like thumb sucking or looking for pacifier
· When being held: baby turns into parent’s body (a way to shut out the surrounding stimulation)
· Challenges with latching or crying while nursing
· Face turns bright red from crying
· Fussing/whining/general irritability
· 3 short cries followed by a hard cry, then baby takes two short breaths and an even louder, long cry
· High pitched cry “I’m bone-tired!” that reach three peaks before baby can calm down
Reading Sleep Cues
It takes careful observation of your baby to learn the language of infancy and the habits of your particular baby. I find observation is best done when your child is exploring on their own at a close distance from you. It’s also important to keep in mind the activities that were happening just before an observation is made (eg. Did you just change the baby’s diaper? Did the baby already just eat? If those two needs were already met, your baby is unlikely fussing about that.)
From birth to five months old, tracking and controlling wake times is the most effective way to help your baby get the sleep she needs with minimal protesting. Starting at five to sixth months of age, wake times and sleep cues should be used hand in hand. When your baby is approaching the appropriate wake time, be on alert and look for signs of sleepiness. This way, you can immediately meet the baby’s need for sleep and prevent overtiredness and minimize crying.
Missing Sleep Cues - catching a second wind
Inevitably, there will be times when sleep cues and wake windows will be missed. In those instances, babies develop what we call a second wind. In their overtired state, their body’s adaptive response to fight fatigue is to produce stimulating cortisol and adrenaline hormones to help keep them awake. As a result, these babies may exhibit daytime irritability, hyper-arousal, fussiness, crankiness, colic-like symptoms and general discontentment. This then makes it hard for them to wind down and interferes with falling asleep and staying asleep.
EYE ON THE PRIZE
It’s too bad things aren’t so black and white. But the good thing is that babies are trying to communicate their needs using their very limited abilities – aka sleep cues.
Even with these (hopefully) momentary setbacks, stay the course. Observing wake windows and sleep cues can provide some clarity in the fog of parenthood and gives your baby the opportunity to fall asleep and stay asleep with much more ease. I always do say, a well rested baby often means a happy and healthy baby.