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Baby Sleep

Sleepy Cues

June 16, 2022

I’m Catie.
A baby-led sleep and well-being specialist and a mama who's passionate about becoming the mother Jesus made me to be - and helping other mamas do the same.
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Today we’re going to talk about something that can change the game when it comes to getting your baby to sleep — sleepy cues! What are they, why is it helpful to know them, common cues for younger & older babies, and tips for tuning into your baby’s cues. Let’s dive on in!

What are they?

Sleepy cues are actions that your baby does that cue they’re getting tired. There are both early and late cues, and while they can vary from baby to baby, every baby has their own unique set of things that they do when sleep pressure has built to a point where they feel tired. In fact, all humans have their own unique set of sleepy cues — think about what are common things that happen in your body or that you do that clue you into exhaustion? Yawning, rubbing your eyes, zoning out, etc. 

Why is it helpful to know my baby’s sleepy cues?

Tuning into your child’s unique set of sleepy cues can help you discover the perfect time to support them to sleep so that they might go down easier, sleep longer, and have less wakes. When babies reach the point of being overtired, they’re more likely to fight sleep, wake up longer, and have shorter naps because their bodies have gone into more of a state of stress. Tracking your child’s unique sleepy cues can help you to gauge their average wake windows, so you have more of an idea of when to start the naptime or bedtime routine. 

There are both early and late sleepy cues, and it’s really helpful to know the difference between which category your baby’s cues fall into. When they’re only showing earlier sleepy cues, it’s much more likely that they’ll have an easier time falling asleep — sleep pressure has built enough to ease them into sleep, but they haven’t reached the point of overtired where they hit a second wind or their bodies are stressed. Later sleepy cues come after, when they’ve reached a point of being close to overtired. If you’re seeing late sleepy cues, it’s definitely time to hurry and try to get them down (but without stress, because when they pick up on our stress, they fight sleep harder).

What are some common sleepy cues?

Some of these will depend on age, and this isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are some common ones:

Early Sleepy Cues

  • losing interest in things
  • getting quiet
  • red eyebrows
  • rooting or nuzzling
  • glossy or sleepy looking eyes
  • stretching
  • hands by the face
  • jerky movements

Late Sleepy Cues

  • yawning
  • extreme fussiness & crying
  • arching the back
  • going stiff
  • rubbing the eyes
  • getting a second wind or a spike in activity
  • needing vestibular input like bouncing and rocking
  • hard to settle
  • pulling on hair or ears

How do I know my baby’s sleepy cues?

The best way to tune into your baby’s unique sleepy cues are to pay attention and make note of what happens when they start to get tired. The most obvious sleepy cues (yawning, tugging on ears, fussiness) are actually later cues, so think about things that they were doing before those later cues started. It might take a few days of really paying attention, but when you’re watching your baby instead of watching the clock, you’ll be surprised at how easily you tune into their tells. 

Some of my son’s early cues that I’ve noticed are getting spacey, climbing into my lap and trying to give me a kiss, wanting to nurse, and pulling a blanket over himself on the couch. Those are things I’ve noticed over time because instead of watching the clock, I’ve tried to tune into him. It’s been really helpful — now I know when to start winding down for nap & bedtime, AND I know when it’s really time to get him down when his later cues start popping up (tantrums, fussiness, frustration, arching his back, getting super hyper all of a sudden). 

What about wake windows? What do they have to do with sleepy cues?

Wake windows can be really helpful to keep on eye on, but I wouldn’t recommend rigidly sticking to a chart of normal wake windows per age. Every baby has different sleep needs and patterns, so naturally every baby will have their own natural wake windows. It can be helpful to use a chart for recommended wake windows when you’re trying to tune into your baby’s unique schedule, but if the wake window is up and your baby is fighting sleep or not showing any sleepy cues, they likely don’t have enough sleep pressure built up and aren’t ready to sleep. On the other end, if they’ve still got time left in their wake window but are showing a bunch of later sleepy cues, don’t force them to stay up to meet the wake window!

What are some sleepy cues you’ve noticed in your baby? What questions do you have about sleepy cues? Tell us in the comments!

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