How to spot and understand your baby’s sleep cues

Medically reviewed May 2022
Newborn baby sleep cues - Naytal

Short on time? Then the key things to know are:

  • Baby sleep cues are a pattern of behaviours that show your baby is tired
  • They can include crying, sucking their fingers, scratching, staring or being clingy
  • Not all babies have the same sleep cues or show them when they are tired
  • It’s therefore important to combine your baby’s sleep cues with their awake windows to know when it’s time for a nap or bedtime

Before they can talk, babies have a number of ways to show us what they need. From crying to suckling, they instinctively know how to tell us they’re hungry, playful, need changing or a rest.

Here we share how to recognise your baby’s sleep cues and use these signals to improve your overall sleep routine.

What are sleep cues?

We all show signs of tiredness when we’re in need of rest. And our babies are no different.

Baby sleep cues are natural movements or behaviours that signal your newborn is sleepy, but not overtired. They should help you to spot the optimum time for a nap or bedtime between 0-3 months old.

All babies will have their own set of sleepy cues that show when they are ready for rest. It’s therefore helpful to watch your little one to spot their typical movements, starting with the below list.

The most common baby sleep cues are:

  • Pulling at ears
  • Face/head scratching
  • Staring and looking less focused
  • Not wanting to engage or play
  • Being clingy
  • A whining cry/grizzly
  • Arching their back
  • Sucking on their fingers or fist

If your baby does any of the above, it’s a sign that they are tired and it’s a good time for a nap. But remember, some babies and children will show clearer signs of tiredness than others. So don’t worry if your baby doesn’t show any sleep cues - they could be very subtle or your little one could be overtired, making it harder for them to fall asleep.

Surprisingly, yawning isn’t always a sign of fatigue and therefore isn’t a necessarily reliable sleep cue. Babies can also yawn when they aren’t tired, either because they’re hungry, bored or have just woken up.

Speak to a baby sleep consultant online

As your baby grows, their sleep cues will too. Toddlers and young children typically have slightly different sleep signals including:

  • An increase in demanding behaviour
  • Clinginess
  • Less interested in toys and play
  • Fussy at a meal time
  • Crying and easily frustrated

Understanding sleep cues and wake windows

Identifying your baby’s sleep cues can help you to recognise when your little one is ready to sleep. However sometimes your newborn might display these signals straight after a nap or an hour after waking up. Or they might be similar to hunger cues - in which case, how do you tell the difference?

Once your baby has reached 3-4 months old, they will begin to develop their natural circadian rhythm. This can lead to sleep cues being shown too early or not at all, making them less reliable for guiding nap time.

It’s therefore best to keep in mind both sleep cues and awake (or wake) windows to know when it’s a good time for rest. An awake window is the time your baby is awake between naps and nighttime. They typically increase from 90 minutes to three hours or more in the first year of life, gradually extending every couple of months.

Being aware of your baby’s awake window will help you to think ahead and prepare them for a nap before you miss that sweet spot between sleepy and overtired.

If your baby shows a handful of their sleep cues - and it’s close to their wake window - then it’s likely time to start their sleepy routine:

  • Ten minutes before a nap is due, wind down stimulation and play
  • Create a calming atmosphere with cuddles and kisses, reading a couple of books or a low key activity such as a puzzle with your child
  • Low the lighting and listen to relaxing music
  • Implement a familiar sequence that leads to sleep such as singing a song or looking at family photos and blowing kisses on the way to the bedroom
  • You could also wave night night to the birds outside as you close the bedroom blind or curtain

By keeping a note of your baby’s sleep cues and awake windows, you will feel more in tune to their needs and be more likely to have a successful sleep routine.

Want to speak to someone about sleep cues or awake windows? Book an appointment with one of our sleep consultants at a time that suits you to get specialist advice with any of your concerns.

Claire, Sleep Consultant

Claire has over twenty five years' experience as a maternity nurse, nanny and certified infant sleep consultant. She supports families to develop tailored approaches for dealing with their sleep issues.

Sleep advice
Newborn sleep

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