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Tips for Reading Sleepy Baby Signals

Tips for Reading Sleepy Baby Signals

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Updated on May 14, 2012

It’s the third night in a row that your baby has fussed, whined and resisted her normal 7:00 bedtime—and the sleep struggle is beginning to take its toll on both of you. What’s going on?

Too often, parents fall into the habit of putting their little one down to sleep at a certain time, relying purely on the clock—instead of examining the day’s events and waiting for telltale signs that their child’s ready for rest. By familiarizing yourself with your baby’s sleepy signals, you’ll have the know-how to put her to sleep at the right moment—avoiding a bedtime battle. Help identify and respond to your tiny dreamer’s sleepy signs—so she’s able to catch the z’s she needs—with these tips:

  • Sleep deprivation. Whether your parents are in town or you’re heading out to a restaurant for a late dinner, resist the urge to keep your child up for the festivities. A baby who’s encouraged to stay awake when her body is craving sleep quickly becomes unhappy, fussy and inconsolable. Over time, the pattern develops into sleep deprivation, which can complicate and your little one’s developing sleep maturity—and lead to a chronically cranky kid!
  • Watch the clock. As your baby grows, she can go longer stretches of time between periods of sleep. Most newborns can only handle one or two hours of wakefulness at a time, while a three-month-old gets tired after two to three hours of being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. A one-year-old can be cheerful for about three to four hours, and a two-year-old can rally for about five to six hours. Once your little one has passed her happy wakefulness stage, she’ll quickly become overtired. Over-tiredness can lead to extra stimulation, making it hard for her to drift off to sleep—and stay asleep. Pay close attention to how long your child’s been up, and help her wind down with a soothing story and dim lighting when she nears the end of her “blissfully awake” stage.
  • Sweet spot. It’s important to put your baby down during her “sweet spot” point of fatigue, when she’s neither too awake nor overtired. Using the clock as a guide—and your child’s sleepy signals as indicators—identify this magic moment and pounce as soon as you see her rubbing her eyes or yawning. From there, it should be a quick but calm trip right to bed; don’t launch into a prolonged pre-bed routine, or you run the risk of your child launching into a second wind!

Typical Sleepy Signals

From spacing out to screaming, every child has her own way of showing you she’s tired. Keep an eye out for some of these more common symptoms of fatigue. Your tired tot may demonstrate one or more of these signs that tell you she’s tired and ready to sleep—now:

  • She becomes quiet and uninterested in babbling to you.
  • She reduces her level of movement and activity, preferring to stay immobile instead of crawling or walking around the house.
  • In addition to losing interest in communication, your baby also seems bored by her toys, and playing in general.
  • She rubs her eyes frequently, and looks glazed or unfocused.
  • She allows her jaw, chin and mouth to become relaxed, giving her an almost “droopy” looking face.
  • She becomes whiny and cranky over things that normally wouldn’t faze her.
  • She fusses and cries, despite being freshly diapered, fed and warm.
  • She loses patience easily, and launches into a meltdown or tantrum in the blink of an eye.
  • She yawns, tugs on her ear or twists a lock of hair around her finger.
  • She prefers to lie down or slumps in her seat, instead of sitting up straight or wanting to be on the go.
  • She watches television or a movie with a blank expression, instead of being interested in what she’s seeing on the screen.
  • She caresses her soft lovey or blanket, and becomes visibly upset if someone tries to take it from her.
  • She asks for a pacifier, a bottle or to nurse.
  • She pulls faces at you, grimacing or glaring when she’d normally smile.

Babies often don’t have the ability to recognize when they’re tired, so it’s up to you to keep an eye out for the signs listed above, or even something entirely different that you’ll eventually able to recognize as a sign she’s ready to hit the hay. These sleepy signs may change at each stage of development, so get into the habit of looking for unusual behavior toward the end of her “happy wakefulness” period of time. By looking out for symptoms of fatigue, you’ll be able to get your child the sleep she requires without a battle at bedtime.

Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley is the president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. She is also the author of twelve parenting books, including the popular "No-Cry" series.

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