When my firstborn was about 2 months old…
he seemed to cry…A LOT. I know that babies cry, but he would seem to cry at set points throughout the day for seemingly no reason. Usually in the early afternoon and then again at bedtime (around 7 PM). And at bedtime, it was a strange cry. He would get this wild look on his face like a trapped animal and nothing I did would settle him down until he finally passed out from exhaustion. So, I would run through the list of potential issues:
- Was he hungry? I would try to nurse him and he would refuse.
- Maybe he wanted to be rocked? I would sit in the glider and rock him and sing to him and he would cry louder. (And, despite what you may be thinking, my singing isn’t THAT bad.)
- My husband would walk the floors with him and he would continue to cry.
- Maybe he had a dirty diaper? No luck there, it was clean.
I had a conversation with another new Mom who said, “Don’t you get him to nap during the day?” I know…seems really obvious, right? But the reality is, in the first month, he slept almost non-stop (as most newborns do). It didn’t occur to me that I needed to put him in for a nap or help him fall asleep because he basically fell asleep anywhere in that first month.
In the second month, he started to become more aware of his surroundings and was taking in everything from his new environment. Gone were the dark, warm, cozy womb with the constant whoosh sound and the distant sound of my heartbeat and voice. All of a sudden there were loud, sudden noises, bright lights and a lot of space. Doing some research helped me to understand that naps would do more than give my baby rest. They would give him an opportunity to escape the barrage of new experiences he was trying to process.
It was at this point that I realized how important it was to take note of my baby’s sleep cues. Have you ever noticed how your baby will bury his head in your shoulder or chest when he’s tired? It’s because he’s trying to shut out the world. He’s had enough of the sensory overload and needs to be somewhere calm and peaceful to give his brain and body a rest from the constant stimuli. Ideally, you want to get your baby in for a nap before he reaches this point.
So how can you tell when your baby is ready for a nap?
Many babies have sleep cues. But I will tell you, they were difficult for me to pick up in the early months with my first son. Once I learned what my baby’s sleep cues were, I would stop everything and put him up for a nap, in order to avoid him becoming overtired. Here’s a list of the most common sleep cues – some are less obvious than others:
- A frowning or worried look
- A “red line” between your baby’s eyebrows
- tugging or rubbing his ears
- rubbing the eyes
- a distant gaze
- jerky movements of arms and/or legs
- glassy or “glazed over” eyes
Some other signs that your baby is close to getting overtired include:
- arching of the back
- looking for a feeding or bottle
What if I can’t identify my baby’s sleep cues?
In some cases, your baby may show no sleep cues or they will be subtle and easily missed. In that case, it’s important that you watch the clock in order to ensure your baby does not get overtired. By the time they’re overtired, it’s infinitely harder to get them to fall asleep – and stay asleep long enough for the nap to be restorative (usually more than one hour of sleep). Here are some guidelines:
- From 3 to 6 months, tiredness sets in after 1½ – 2 hours of awake time.
- Between 6 and 12 months, your baby may be tired after 2-3 hours of being awake.
- From 12 to 18 months, your baby may get overtired if he misses his morning or afternoon nap
What are my children’s sleep cues?
When he was younger, my big guy would get a frowning look and a red line between his eyebrows. He would also rub his ears (and still does). Now (at 3½), he gets glassy-eyed, rubs his eyes and starts to act up. I can always tell when I’ve missed his sleep window and he’s overtired when he tries to refuse sleep or argue about his bedtime routine.
My little guy (he’s 21 months) will tug at his ears or put his lovey up to one ear (I used to think this meant he was getting an ear infection but now I realize that’s a sleep cue for him) and will get very clingy, wanting me to carry him around or sit in my lap. He will also lay down on the floor with his lovey.
Now it’s your turn!
What are your baby’s sleep cues? Leave a comment below about what you’ve noticed in your children.