Sleep Cues & Why They Matter

We talk a lot about following your baby’s cues and meeting them where they are at when we look at sleep using an attachment focused approach. Part of what this looks like includes avoiding (in most cases)  strict nap schedules or down to the minute wake windows. Instead, getting to know their individual sleepy cues and how they communicate that are ready to wind down for sleep, is an example of something we can do to get to know our baby and how to best support them in developing healthy sleep habits from a place of empowerment. 

The following are all examples of what your child’s sleepy cues COULD be. As with most things for infants and toddlers, it is important to take the time to get to know what is true for your individual babe! Every baby’s tired cues will present a little differently. Factors such as temperament and personality will come into play as well! Get to know your baby and how they communicate with you. Trust your instincts in meeting them where they are at each day.

Let’s dive right in! What are the typical sleepy cues?

We are taking you through both early and late sleep cues. It is best to try to catch your baby in the stage of early sleep cues if possible in order to avoid overtired cycles which we will touch on shortly. If we are always catching baby when they are at their late sleep cues they might be close to becoming overtired and will likely need more support from you. 

Early Cues

  • Red around the eyebrows
  • Glossy eyes
  • Frowning or grimacing 
  • Jerky movements 
  • Crying if you interact with them
  • Grunting 
  • Sucking hands, fingers or thumbs 
  • Not making eye contact as much
  • Getting more clumsy/decreased coordination 
  • Pulling ears or hair 
  • Making the same sound loudly 
  • More or less vocal than usual 
  • Rooting or sucking hands
  • Gazing or avoiding eye contact 
  • Slower movements 
  • Nuzzling into you 
  • No interest in eating or drinking

Late Cues

  • Rubbing eyes
  • Crying 
  • Yawning 
  • Overactive 
  • Busy movements 
  • Irritable or cranky 
  • Needing more stimulation or support than usual such as bouncing or rocking

Under Tired

As we mentioned, it is really important to get to know what sleepy cues, both early and late, look like for your child as there is a wide range of what is considered normal and no two babies are truly the same. 

One thing that is important to touch on when it comes to early sleep cues is that sometimes they can be signs of other things. Your child may be communicating that they are bored or needing a change of scenery. 

If you notice that when you try to put baby to sleep when they are showing what you think might be their sleepy cues but  you feel like they maybe aren’t actually quite ready to sleep or it feels like a battle, it can be helpful to try waiting 10-15 more minutes the next time they need to sleep and observe any differences in sleepy cues you might notice. 

If baby shows what you believe to be tired cues but then sleep becomes a struggle and they are happy to keep playing, it is likely they are just not tired enough. They may simply need a bit more time for sleep pressure to build up so that they’re tired when we’re asking them to sleep. 

We also often see babies who aren’t quite ready to sleep really resisting sleep and beginning to cry as soon as you begin trying to wind them down to sleep. This is often their way of saying, “hey I’m not quite ready yet”!  If you find this to be the case, you may want to try consistently starting a bit later to see if that makes things easier for you and your baby. 

The Overtired Baby 

It is also really important to understand what your baby’s early and late sleepy cues are so that we can help babies avoid falling into overtired cycles whenever possible. Often times, by the time baby is showing late tired cues we have already missed the sweet spot! When a baby falls into an over tired cycle it is likely that you will begin to see false starts, frequent wakings, early rises or a combination of these. This is due to the cortisol baby's body will produce to help keep them awake beyond their natural sleep window. 

If you find that your baby is show late tired cues when you are supporting them to sleep, or that they are requiring a lot more support to get to sleep then it would be helpful to try watching cues for 10-15 minutes earlier than you had been and observing what sleepy cues you notice in that time.

In some cases, you may also see that your baby falls asleep really quickly but then goes on to wake up more than they otherwise would have. This also may be a sign of your baby getting a little past the point of ready for sleep and experimenting with trying to get them to sleep a little sooner the next time may be helpful. 

Signs your baby is overtired, on top of needing more support from you than typical, might include being too frustrated to feed all together, inconsolable crying, frantic movements and unsettled completely, or pushing away from you. 

We know this can all feel so confusing to try to figure out if your baby is over or under tired, but the very best thing they need is an attuned caregiver. These are some things to watch out for, but you absolutely know your baby best! Take the time to observe their cues and become attuned to how they communicate. You’re doing an amazing job mama!