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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. Sleep inertia is stronger when you wake from deep sleep or at the wrong time, so if something woke your baby rather than her waking naturally that could lead to more sleepy signs upon waking.

Sleepy Signs in Babies (as shared by our Facebook followers, most common ones are bolded).eye rubbing, yawning, blank stare, red eyes tugging on hair, getting “sassy” ;), head nuzzling, wanting to be held constantly, active babies slowing down/sitting, wanting to nurse at non-feeding times, babbling, face rubbing, rubbing ears, cuddling with toys, shaking head from side-to-side, bursting into tears for no obvious reason, staring into space, puffy eyes, eye rolling, serious expression (no smiles), humming a sleep song, covering face with a small blanket/lovie, grumpiness, signing “sleepy,” laying down with a book or stuffed animal, slow play, slow babbling, hiccups, putting head down on someone’s lap, giggles, silliness, floppy behavior, eyes shut during diaper/clothing changes, hair pulling, nose rubbing, head bonks, buries head in parent’s chest, sighing, hyperactivity, glassy eyes, thumb sucking, pterodactyl screeches ;), hyper-kicking, blowing raspberries, avoiding eye contact, melting down when put down, head banging, delirious laughter, begs for pacifier, clinginess, whining, snuggles anything in sight, repetitive sounds, frustrated with snuggles/kissing, (in Australia and the UK) getting grizzly, whingey and sooky

Toddlers and Preschoolers (~15 months – ~4 years). Sleepy signs in toddlers and preschoolers usually relate to an obvious problem. For example, your child may skip a nap and then show sleepy signs at the end of the day. In toddlers and preschoolers, sleepy signs tend to be melting down, or increasing testing behavior. The best way to manage your child’s sleep when you see these cues is to do an early bedtime to help your child catch up on sleep. For example, if your child skipped her nap, then consider proactively putting her down early in order to help her stay rested before you even see a sleepy sign. Remember though, an early bedtime is only a temporary fix. You don’t want to offer early bedtimes every day and skip naps altogether. The daily balance and distribution of sleep between day and night is incredibly important and while an early bedtime is just the thing to make up for an occasional missed nap, consecutive early bedtimes will ultimately lead to early waking if you try to transition your child out of a nap before she is ready.

As your child grows out of her nap, you may also find that she only needs to nap occasionally. This is normal, but in order to ensure that she gets the rest she needs, it’s important to stay in the habit of having her go into her room every day for “quiet time” even if she doesn’t sleep every day. This will allow her to sleep when she’s tired, but not when she’s not. It’s extremely difficult to get a toddler or preschooler to go into their room to take a nap if she’s out of the habit of going into her room every day.

Sleep loss in toddlers and preschoolers can also stem from bedtime troubles (see more info on how to fix those here), transitioning to a toddler bed too early (more info on that here) and an early wake time (more on that here). If your toddler or preschooler is showing sleepy signs, the first task is to identify the source of the trouble and then work on that to keep your child rested.

Sleepy Signs in Toddlers/Preschoolers (as shared by our Facebook followers, most common ones are bolded). yawning, falling down, hyperactivity, repetitive phrases, sneaking the pacifier, cuddling a blanket/lovey, tantrums, decreased emotional regulation, eye rubbing, getting clumsy, crying, asking for a nap (!), spacing out, thumb sucking, irrational “bi-polar” behavior (e.g. I want that, I don’t want that; I’m happy, I’m not happy), glassy eyes, whining, low frustration threshold, humming, head down, ear pulling, cool forehead, poking finger in ear, less talking, soft talking, shushes dolls/stuffed animals, puts dolls/stuffed animals down for a nap, wobbly, irritability, shaking arms, meowing ;), biting, scratching, hitting, playing with belly button, less impulse control, hair twirling, difficulty with small motor tasks, aggressive behavior, asking to nurse without but then not having an interest in nursing, pointing to crib, finger sucking, fidgety, stomping, yelling

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