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Identifying Newborn Sleepy Cues

Christine Brown | Sep 28, 2023

When my twins were 3 months old, I brought one of them to the emergency room because he was rubbing his ear and I knew that was a sign of an ear infection. It was a quick, embarrassing visit. His ears were clear and the diagnosis…he was tired! After that, I put my tail between my legs, brought my son home and quickly hit Google to learn more about identifying newborn sleepy cues!


I didn’t know anything about sleepy cues aside from yawning and rubbing eyes, which are things that I do when I’m tired. However, these weren’t things that my boys did so I continually missed their signs and signals that they were ready for sleep. I had two VERY overtired little men on my hands and I knew that I needed to be able to identify their sleepy cues to help them to get more sleep!


Fast forward nine years and 7+ years as a sleep consultant who has worked with TONS of newborn families. I will save you from my embarrassment and provide insight into identifying your newborn’s sleepy cues. This will help your baby and you get the most sleep possible during this time!


What Are Sleepy Cues?


Imagine if our babies could say, “Hey Mom, now is the perfect time to get me down for sleep!” But babies don’t talk. Instead, babies will show us when they are tired. These are called sleepy cues or tired signs.


Sleepy cues are our baby’s way of saying to us: “I’m Sleepy”, “I Need a Nap Now” or “I’m Overtired”. I’m going to describe these signs in more detail below.

Why Are Sleep Cues Important?


We run the risk of our newborn getting overtired if we miss their sleepy cues. This can make sleep very difficult. If your baby’s brain says it is time to sleep and they don’t sleep, they go into a state of fight or flight. This results in a hormone release, including the stress hormone, cortisol. This can make it impossible for your little one to fall asleep, resulting in an overtired baby.

Overtired children:

  • have a harder time settling
  • experience more restless sleep
  • have shorter naps
  • wake earlier in the morning

These are all things that we want to avoid, right??? Read on to learn how to identify your newborn’s sleepy cues.


What Sleepy Cues Should I Watch For?

Here’s a breakdown of the types of sleepy cues and when you’ll see them.


Early Sleep Cues – “I’m Sleepy”


When your little one is showing their early sleepy cues, you have a short period of time before they are overtired. When you see these signs, it’s a good time frame to start the routine of getting your little one down for sleep:

  • Red eyebrows
  • Averts eyes / looks away
  • Decreased movement
  • Blank stare

Time To Get Your Little One Down For Sleep – “Nap Now Please”


It’s time to act quickly and get your little one down for sleep because they are ready for a nap or bedtime in the VERY near future.

  • Big yawns
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Rubbing or pulling on ears
  • Turning the head from side to side, like “no” into your chest or shoulder or while they are laying down. This is oftentimes confused as a newborn hunger cue vs. a sleep cue. For hunger, your baby will also be routing.

It’s Time To Calm Your Overtired Baby Down and Attempt Sleep – “I’m Overtired”


Even the most attuned mama is going to miss sleepy cues! We can’t stare at our baby 100% of the time and that’s ok! When this does happen (and it will!) this is what you’ll see:

  • Becoming fussy
  • Arching back
  • Becoming rigid
  • Making fists
  • Hysterical crying

When this happens, first give yourself a lot of grace! You are learning your baby and that takes time.

Second, use the Five Overtired Newborn Calming Steps below to help calm your little one down and encourage sleep.


What Should I Do If My Newborn Gets Overtired?

As the day goes on, it can be easier to miss sleepy cues. Overtiredness can also be a contributor to the witching hours, which happen in the late afternoon / early evening.

If you’ve got an overtired baby, use our Five Overtired Newborn Calming Steps to help calm your little one and get them into a sleepy state:

  • Step 1: go into a quiet room
  • Step 2: dim the lights
  • Step 3: turn on white noise
  • Step 4: use the 5 Ss soothing methods, which include swaddling, side position (only while awake), shushing, swinging, and sucking.
  • Step 5: help your little one to sleep by rocking or feeding

I Never See Sleepy Cues Until It’s Too Late


This happens! Sometimes babies are good actors or sometimes we miss them altogether with the busyness of life. If you are having a hard time catching your little one’s sleepy cues, keep these things in mind:


Keep An Eye on Wake Windows


Ideally, we follow sleepy cues as these are the ultimate guide to when our little ones are tired and need sleep, but if you find that you are still learning your baby’s cues or your baby is a good actor, using wake windows can also help to ensure your little one doesn’t get overtired.

Newborns can really only handle short periods of wakefulness before getting overtired and it is really easy to overestimate how much time they can handle being awake. Reference this Newborn Wake Windows Chart to determine how long your little one can be awake.


I remember Googling “How do I play with my newborns?” I wanted to make sure that I was playing with them and not giving up on opportunities for learning. In hindsight, I think I was actually overstimulating them!


Your newborn can easily be overstimulated, which will make your little one tire quicker, resulting in overtiredness and lots of crying. Playing with your newborn is them looking at your face; you singing and talking to them and tummy time.


Stimulation is important. Most importantly though is to remember that when your little one is exhausted, their need is for sleep, not stimulation. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to go to the gym or the library when I’m tired! Your baby is the same!


Honor your little one’s sleepy cues and wake windows. Don’t believe the myth that the more babies stay up during the day, the better they’ll sleep at night. That is total BS! We debunk more baby sleep myths.


Identifying Newborn Sleepy Cues Wrap-Up


Learning your baby and their signs and signals is a process! Therefore, you’ve got to give yourself lots of grace during this time!


If you have lots of questions about your newborn and sleep, contact me HERE  today. 

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