Sleepy Signs: How to Read Them and What to do About Them

From your baby’s first days in the hospital you’ll hear advice guiding you to look for your baby’s sleepy signs, but it can be confusing to figure out what to look for and what to do about them. We surveyed our Facebook followers in order to categorize common sleepy signs throughout the first few years. In this post, we’ll share what these sleepy signs mean and how to use them in your favor.

The Science: When humans (and most mammals actually) get sleepy, it’s hard to hide. Some of us get fidgety, some of us develop physical signs, like dark circles under our eyes, some of us yawn and some of us nod off to sleep. In adults, sleepy signs don’t mean you need sleep right at the moment you start to yawn. In fact, sometimes you might yawn at a time that your body is actually preventing sleep. This is because there are multiple factors that lead to sleepy signs. Your child might be ready for sleep right when she shows you a sleepy sign, but sleepy signs can also tell you that your child is not getting enough sleep overall. As with most aspects of parenting, sleepy signs and the way you interpret them change based on your child’s age and clues you draw from her.

What to look for and what to do by age

Newborns (birth – ~3 months). Newborns need a lot of sleep broken into short bouts throughout the day (see our ages and stages sleep chart here). It’s your job to make sure that your baby is getting frequent sleep opportunities throughout the entire day. If your newborn is showing sleepy signs, then you’ll definitely want to get her down as soon as possible. Newborn sleepy signs mean “I need sleep right now.” Try to get your newborn down before she shows you those sleepy signs. Most newborns need sleep every 1-2 hours, so take a day and watch your baby carefully for her fade point. This could be anywhere in the 1-2 hour range. Once you figure out her limit, then try to get her down before she hits that duration of time awake (until she hits the next sleepy sign milestone). For more basics on newborn sleep check out our series here.

Sleepy Signs in Newborns (as shared by our Facebook followers, most common ones are bolded). yawning, red eyes (red eyebrows, red under eyes, red eyelids), grabbing ears, head to the side nuzzling parent or blanket, sleepy noises/murmuring/grunting, snuggles, fussing without another cause, inability to focus, rubs head, rubs face on parent, grunting, thumb sucking, rapid breathing, arms up, blank stare, (in Australia and the UK) getting grizzly, whingey and sooky

Babies (~3 months until ~ 15 months). During this age range, bouts of wakefulness get progressively longer as a baby’s nap pattern matures. During this time sleepy signs can mean “I’m sleepy right now,” but they can also mean “I’m not getting enough sleep in general.” It’s really helpful to track your baby’s sleep during this age to figure out what to do. If you track your baby’s sleep on a simple grid, then you can see when she’s sleeping, how much she’s sleeping and how that relates to her sleepy cues. For example, you might find that you put her down 1.5 hours after waking for the day, but she consistently starts rubbing her eyes at 1 hour after waking. The consistency in that type of sleepy sign suggests that you should get her down a little earlier for that first nap.

If you see sleepy signs at inconsistent times and your baby’s sleep duration is shorter than average for her age, then the sleepy signs may actually relate to her needing more sleep overall. If this is the case, then you’ll need to prioritize helping her sleep more, perhaps by working on improving her nighttime sleep consolidation (info on that here and here on the four month regression, which usually leads to fragmented night sleep), increasing her daytime sleep beyond one 30-45 minute sleep cycle (see our nap series) or strategically using early bedtimes to catch her up on sleep (info on that here).

Finally, if you see sleepy signs right after your baby wakes up, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t get enough sleep. There is an effect called sleep inertia that is the process that we go through when we wake up. Our brains don’t instantly flip from sleep to wake. It takes time for the brain to wake up, so sometimes babies (and adults!) show sleepy signs upon waking even after getting enough sleep. Sle