Sleep Cues

Picture this;

You’re going about your day, finishing up a work project while your baby bounces in his jumper.
After a few minutes, you notice that he’s not moving around as much.  He sees you, cracks a big smile and jumps again.

After awhile, you notice that he’s quiet again, but this time when you look up, he’s staring at the wall.

Zoned out and quiet.

Your friend recently gave you a reference chart for baby wake times, and according to it,  for your baby’s age, he should be able to stay up for another hour.

“Perhaps he’s getting bored”, you think to yourself.  So you take him out and place him on his play mat.

You go back to working beside him, trying to get items finished before the nap.

Suddenly, you catch him yawning.

Confusion starts to set in. Yawns = tired, do they not?

“But he’s supposed to be able to stay awake another hour,” you think to yourself.

Taking him to his room, to start the wind down process, you decide to put a few items away first.

Getting back to the room, and placing him on the change table, he now is energetically flailing his arms about.
Hmm, that’s odd, he doesn’t seem tired.

Next, he starts rubbing his eyes, and his eyelids are looking a bit pink.

Ok, he’s definitely tired”.

You complete his wind down routine, place him in his crib and he begins to cry loudly.
You then spend the next 15 minutes trying to soothe him to sleep; patting his back, offering a feed, singing, rocking, bouncing, etc.

He finally falls asleep, but wakes up with hard crying 30 minutes later.

I guess he wasn’t tired after all” you think.

But unfortunately, he’s cranky all afternoon, leaving you utterly confused.

So, what happened there?

The Draw Backs of Wake Time Schedules

In the scenario above, the parent, was following a wake-time based schedule. These are prolific in parenting blogs and social media pages; prescribing an age-based formula for how many hours a baby can stay awake between naps and bedtime.

As common as these formulas are, they have a few drawbacks.

The first is that, as we saw in the scenario, by only following wake times, we run the risk of not learning our child’s unique language and cues.

Parents of young children are often tired, busy and stressed-so it’s easy to miss other signs if we aren’t looking for them!

If we are only focused on an allotment of time passing before placing our child down for a nap, they may become overtired, resist sleep, and have short naps and night wakings.

Second, wake times don’t have a lot of scientific evidence supporting them.

Often, they have been passed down from one social media group to another, changing based on sleep challenges presented.

This is one reason why you will see a wide range of recommendations-for the same age-depending on which blog or social media outlet you are viewing.

They are widely subjected to people’s opinion or antedoctal experience.

Finally, another disadvantage is that they don’t consider all of the factors that create quality sleep habits.

Sleep is a multi-faceted biological process, and each component may be slightly unique to your child.

By solely following a wake-time schedule, we risk missing other key items in the falling-asleep process, which could lead to frustration.

What Wake Time Schedules Miss…
  • circadian sleep rhythm
  • sleep habits
  • homeostatic sleep drive
  • level of sleep debt

Don’t get me wrong, wake time schedules can be helpful-as a general guide. But they aren’t the only tool in our baby sleep tool box.

Baby Sleep Cues Decoded

Babies are hard wired to communicate with us, but until someone teaches us the language, it’s difficult to understand what the heck they are saying.

But the good news is that just as kiddos have certain hunger cues, they also have certain cues that indicate sleep needs.

And similar to feeding cues, there are different stages that babies pass through as their need for sleep increases.

The first signs are often very subtle, but if you catch them, the wind down and sleep process become much easier!

When trying to learn your child’s cues, ask yourself…

  • Has my baby been awake long enough to have a full feed/meal?
  • Are they starting to stare into space?
  • Are they quieter than usual?
  • Are they loosing interest in their toys/activities/me?
  • Are their eyes looking glassy or glazed over?

If the answer is “yes”, it’s likely time to start their wind down routine and get them ready for nap or bedtime.

How To Spot Your Baby’s Sleep Cues

It may take time to recognize your child’s unique sleep cues, as the most subtlest ones are usually the most important to act upon.

Likely, from an early age, whether it be in cartoons, movies or TV shows, we are taught to associate more pronounced signs like yawning, lying down and heavy eyelids, as indicators that someone is becoming sleepy.

But when it comes to babies; the more obvious the behaviour, the more overtired they are.

Much more unassuming cues such as staring off into space and getting quiet are often the first indicators.

If you can catch the early signals, the advantage is that it creates a smoother sleep routine and deeper sleep.

There is so much to learn as a new parent, especially when it comes to baby sleep. So, it’s understandable if this is all new to you!

Here are three key steps for learning sleep cues…

  1. For 5-7 days, start keeping a close eye on your child in the last 30 minutes of their allotted wake time.
  2. Make a note of any cues that you see-obvious or not.
  3. Then, put your baby down for their sleep period and record the length and quality of sleep it produced.

Try to do this during a period free from interruptions, lessons, vacations or house guests.

As you do, ask yourself and document;

  • Did my baby show subtle or obvious sleep cues?
  • Did they cry before their sleep, or calmly drift off?
  • How long did it take them to fall asleep?
  • Was the sleep solid, or broken with crying in between?

By recording not only the cues that you see, but also the behaviours that surround that rest period, you will start to notice how your child communicates their sleep needs to you.

If you’re still not sure, check out this handy reference below of common sleep cues.

Baby Sleep Cues


Baby Sleep Cues

It may take a bit of practice to learn your child’s sleep language, but if you are patient, you will see patterns develop. At first it may be a balancing act between watching your child, and watching the clock. That’s ok! Keep going, keep recording and give yourself grace if it’s not perfect.

Want more advice to help narrow your child’s sleep cues down, or anything else? I’m here to help!
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