How to Recognize and Use Your Child’s Sleep Signs and Cues


Do you know what I think the hardest part of naps and bedtimes are? In my experience, it’s figuring out the timing based on your child’s signs and cues. Because if you can’t get the timing right, naps don’t happen. And then bedtime is painful, drawn-out, and a fight every night. So, how do you learn to recognize your child’s sleep signs and cues?

Easily recognized sleep cues, tired signs, and signs of fatigue are all clues that your child is actually past ready for sleep and may already be overtired. Instead, learn to recognize and use the earlier cues to time sleep so that getting your child to sleep is an easy, enjoyable task for everyone.

Because 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 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. Ready to make it happen? Keep reading and let’s do this.

What Are Sleep Signs and Cues?

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.

Common tired cues include:

  • yawning
  • eye-rubbing
  • reduced interest in what’s going on around us (maybe even staring off into space)
  • increased blinking or eye-watering
  • more easily upset
  • may get hungry

These sleep cues are common to people of all ages – adults and babies alike. Pretty crazy cool, huh? In any case, I’ve noticed that sleep signs for kids (and adults, too, actually!) can be more easily categorized into two groups:

  1. Early sleep signals
  2. Overtired sleep signs

Why is there a difference – and what does it mean?

How to Use Sleep Signs

Now that you know what sleep signs are, let’s use them to make naps and bedtimes easier.

Well, a peculiar thing about sleep is that when we get enough sleep, we can keep getting enough sleep. Falling asleep is easy. But when we’re overtired? We all have a harder time falling asleep. It’s the same for babies and children. As Dr. Harvey says it: sleep begets sleep.

So late sleep signs are when you (or your baby) are already overtired – and it’ll be harder to fall asleep. Those mean you’ve missed the prime window for naps or bedtime – and that things could get dicey here for a minute. Getting enough sleep will be harder, too.

So 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.

Every individual’s early and late sleep signals may vary a little bit. For example, I may yawn before I start rubbing my eyes. But you may do things the other way around. That’s why it’s important that you learn your baby’s sleep signals.

So, let’s go into some examples.

Examples of Baby’s Sleep Signs and Cues

After extensive research and talking to hundreds (and thousands) of parents, I’ve found that my own baby’s early and late sleep signals are pretty average. So, here are what my kids’ early and late sleep cues were as babies.

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

And 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 (yes, it’s possible – this article of mine will show you how to do it!)? That’s a lot harder – unless you start looking for the earlier signals.

Common Sleep Signals in Toddlers and Preschoolers

As our children grow into toddlers and then preschoolers, the signs adjust some. After all, our kids have gained all sorts of new skills! Even so, they’re pretty similar. Research and talking to parents shows that my kids’ tired tells are pretty average here, too. So, here they are.

Here are my toddlers’ early sleep signals:

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

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

  • 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. My kids hate when I remind them of this – and reminding them doesn’t make the nap time go any easier. *Sigh.*

So as my kids grow up and nap time phases out, we replace nap time with rest time. That way, they can at least get some rest time. And sometimes miracles happen – and that tired toddler falls asleep for a short nap.

What Can You Do if You Miss Early Sleep Tells?

While you’re figuring out the difference between early and late sleep signs in your children, it’s easy to miss that perfect, golden window of sleep opportunity. So if you’ve missed that window, don’t feel bad.

All you can do is focus on the future – and making things better from here on out. And now that you’ve got my kids’ sleep signs, hopefully, that will be less of an issue!

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.

Try putting your child down for a nap (or bedtime) anyway. Keep the pre-sleep routine boring, sleep-positive, and do what you can. And do it as soon as you can!

Then, focus on making the next sleep session earlier. Watch for those early cues – or just go ahead and schedule it for earlier than usual. Especially if it’s bedtime – in my experience, an earlier bedtime is the key to managing sleep issues. It helps reset the “overtired kids are cranky children who have a hard time sleeping” back into a “sleep begets sleep” cycle.

And know that sometimes 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.

Like maybe in front of the television while cuddling. Or maybe it’s time to strap everyone into an appropriate car seat (except you – you’re an adult) and go for a drive.

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Or, if I had things around the house to do, I’d put them into my favorite, most versatile baby carrier (click here to see the pricing on Amazon) that let them nap while I did dishes (or whatever chore it is I needed to get done). Or we’d go for a walk and they’d get to nap 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.

Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too. To read more about me, click here.

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