How to Recognize Your Child’s Sleep Signs


yawning baby held by smiling mom with dad nearby

Do you know what I think the hardest part of naps and bedtimes are? It’s the timing and sleep signs. Because if you can’t get the timing right, naps don’t happen. And bedtime is painful, drawn out, and a fight every night.

But when you can get the timing right? That’s when things go smoothly, naps are a breeze, and bedtimes are a breeze. That’s why knowing common sleep signs is so important. Because if you can recognize your child’s sleep signals, then the timing is easy. And so is sleep training.

How will I know the sleep signs when my baby is ready to sleep?

Think about how you begin to act when you’re getting tired. We each have certain cues that tell ourselves (and others!) that we’re ready to sleep. Our kids have those tired tells, too.

In my experience, there are two types of sleep signs that we each give:

  1. Early sleep signals
  2. Overtired sleep signs

What’s the difference?

Early sleep signals are the ones to watch for – they’re the ones that’ll let you know when it’s time to initiate naps or bedtimes. The overtired signals? Those mean you’ve missed the prime window for naps or bedtime – and that things could get dicey here for a minute.

Here are my babies’ early sleep signals:

  • Becoming less interested in active play
  • Preferring to watch rather than interact
  • Becoming more cuddly
  • Increased rooting or sucking on a pacifier

Here are some of their “too late!” sleep cues:

  • Eye rubbing – or attempted eye rubbing that leads to tears because babies just aren’t that coordinated
  • Flailing arms that hit everything and everyone
  • Crying that ramps up in volume and intensity
  • Screaming

Putting a baby down for a nap in the early stages of tiredness works. Getting an overtired baby to sleep? That’s a lot harder.

What are common sleep signals in toddlers and preschoolers?

As our children grow into toddlers, the signs adjust some. After all, our kids have gained all sorts of new skills! Even so, they’re pretty similar.

Here are my toddlers’ early sleep signals:

  • Decreased talking or babbling
  • Becoming more cuddly
  • Playing more quietly
  • Occasional eye rub

Here are some of their “too late!” sleep cues as preschoolers:

  • Eye rubbing
  • Tired eyes
  • Crying
  • Screaming
  • Tantrums

As their vocabulary grows, so do the funny things they say as they’re overtired and throwing tantrums. They’ll insist that they aren’t tired. Or that they definitely don’t want a nap. But guess what?

Needs and wants are very different. And just because they don’t want a nap doesn’t mean that their body doesn’t need one.

What can you do if you miss early sleep tells or nap signs in an overtired child?

While you’re figuring out the difference between early and late sleep signs in your children, it’s easy to miss that perfect sleep window.

Hopefully, though, now that you’ve got my kids’ sleep signs, that’s less of an issue!

Even so, if you do miss that perfect nap or bedtime opportunity, all hope isn’t lost. You can still get your child down for a nap – it will just take some additional time, effort, and patience on your part.

This is when you may have to shift into “anything goes” mode. Because if your child won’t calm down enough to sleep in their own crib, it’s time to look at all of the other best places to nap for kids.

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This is when I’d strap my baby into my a car seat and go for a drive. Or, if I had things around the house to do, I’d put them into my favorite, most versatile baby carrier that let them nap while I did dishes.

Or we’d go for a walk and they’d get to nap in this stroller on the go.

In other words, give yourself some grace. This nap may be hard, so that’s okay. Do what you need to so that it still happens and you’re in a good place. Then, try again for the next nap. And if naps weren’t long enough? Move bedtime forward by 15-20 minutes.

That way, you’ll be getting your child’s sleep clock reset so that tomorrow will be better – while preventing a sleep regression or some extra night wakings tonight.

Related Topics:

Want to see how these sleep signs affect adults? In adults, we call it symptoms of sleep deprivation – read more about the Most Common Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation at Very Well Health.

Want to make sleep training even easier?

Kimberly C. Starr

I'm a ginger who loves reading, eating, being a nurse, spending time with my family, and writing about it all. I believe humor is the best medicine, followed very closely by chocolate and tacos. To read more about me, click here.

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