Read baby’s cues for better sleep – a handy checklist

By Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Newborns

Your newborn needs lots of sleep (up to eighteen hours a day!) but your baby doesn’t know that! He exists in the moment and responds to his body’s needs and his environment. Many new parents don’t realize that their baby’s sleep needs are powerfully driven by instinct. When your infant is tired, he’ll sleep–but only if the conditions are right. If not, he will fuss and cry about not sleeping.

The good news is that when your baby is tired he will show you this in many different ways. Catching his cues allows him to fall asleep easily and will improve sleep for all of you.

If you miss these signs your baby can move quickly into over-tired mode and his fussing can rapidly escalate and prevent him from being able to fall asleep easily. Once you learn to read your baby’s signals and respond to them appropriately sleep will be stress-free and blissful.

Typical infant communication signals

These are a variety of typical signs of tiredness that babies show us—your little one may demonstrate only one or two of these, or a whole assortment of these signs. Although babies are each unique in their communication, there are some typical ways that newborns show their fatigue. The following list of the most common things that say “I’m tired!” will help you to learn to read your baby until you learn his own specific sleepy signs.

Signs that your baby may be tired:

  • A lull in activity; slower movements
  • Quieting down, making fewer or simpler sounds
  • Losing interest in people and toys
  • Appearing unfocused; staring off in the distance
  • Limp, relaxed face and jaw
  • Fussing or whining
  • Eyes open wide and unblinking
  • Rubbing eyes, ears, or face
  • Not settling down in your arms, squirming
  • Yawning
  • Being awake for one to three hours

Signs that your baby might be overtired:

  • Fretful crying (can also indicate hunger)
  • Flailing, uncoordinated movements of arms and legs
  • Chin down, head nodding loosely
  • Drooping eyelids, slow blinking, eyelid fluttering
  • Dark circles appearing under the eyes; eyes appearing red or bloodshot
  • Being awake for more than three hours

When you see signs of tiredness

When your baby shows signs of fatigue it’s not time to launch into a pre-sleep ritual. It’s time to put your baby immediately to bed. When your baby signals tiredness, there is a window of opportunity for quickly falling asleep. When you identify and respond to that window of opportunity, you will enable your baby to fall asleep much, much, MUCH easier.

If you miss these signs of tiredness, Baby can quickly move into an over-tired phase. The problem with this is that an over-tired baby doesn’t fall asleep easily – instead he gets a second wind, becoming ramped up, fussy and anxious, and those feelings can prevent the sleep that he craves.

In no time at all, by watching your baby carefully you’ll get to know your own baby better than anyone else in the whole world. And soon, even if your baby doesn’t show any of the signs on the list, your intuition will let you know when Baby needs to sleep.

Elizabeth Pantley is a mother, grandmother, and author of the bestselling book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution and 8 books in the No-Cry Solution Series, which helps moms and dads through all key stages of parenting.

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  1. My Baby is 8-month-old, and she keeps yawning but doesn’t go to sleep 🙁 I have tried singing her lullaby and tried feeding her but never works 🙁

  2. Hi Samantha – Sometimes yawning is a late sign of tiredness. Try watching her for earlier indications and whe you see a sign then put her in a dark room with some “white noise” (like the sound of ocean waves – Homedics makes an inexpensive, portable unit that emits a lovely, relaxing sound.) Hope that helps!

  3. Good one Elizabeth, I thought babies never tire so thats quite useful. My niece is 5 month old but refuses to take her mother’s milk ever since she was given Lactodex by the nurse and she drinks that only. We are worried as mother’s milk important for her health. Any advice what to do here

    1. Hi Rita – The best approach is to see a Lactation Consultant. Your local hospital can put you in touch with one. Or visit La Leche League’s website for a search to find one in your city. Don’t wait! Most of these groups with step in with immediate help.Good Luck!

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