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Sleep Cues for Your Baby or Toddler

November 18, 2021

A cue is defined as a signal that helps us to understand what is needed in a particular situation. Newborns are born “hard-wired” with a desire to socialize and communicate; they use cues to bridge that communication gap until they are old enough to more formally communicate with us. Many parents might guess that crying is how a newborn communicates, but in reality, crying is a baby’s last resort. There is always a behavior or cue that comes before a cry. Our babies will use their hands and body movements to communicate, and each time we respond to our babies, they become better at communicating. 

So if we watch and respond to our newborn’s cues, we learn to become proactive with our care practices. By contrast, if we do not understand that a cue comes before the cry, we are reacting to the cry but still not truly understanding what the baby is trying to tell us.  

Research on child development and behaviors tells us that by responding to infant cues, we can help to decrease the amount that a normal newborn will cry. By allowing your baby access to their hands, you are helping your baby learn to better communicate with you. Access to their hands supports the skill of self-soothing and it also can help your little one learn to “talk” with their hands, body movements, and behaviors. When we consider the types of cues newborns use with their caregivers, we like to say that there are cues to “connect” and there are cues to “disconnect.” Let’s look at a couple examples of some of these cues: 

 

Cues to Connect  

-Relaxed face and body

-Gazing at your face/listening to your voice

-Raising head

-Making feeding sounds/motions with mouth

-Rooting reflex

-Bringing hands to mouth

-Crying

 

Cues to Disconnect 

-Turning head to the side and looking away

-Arching back and turning body

-Extending fingers with a stiff hand

-Tensing body

-Yawning/falling Asleep

-Crying

 

Sleep cues fall under the cues to disconnect category because when our babies become tired, they may exhibit increased irritability and fussiness if you are not aware of what to watch for. You may assume that a tired baby will simply fall asleep independently. However, babies and toddlers often show us sleep cues and behavioral signals that require our attention and support in order for them to be able to fall asleep. We provide comfort through soothing techniques as well as through practicing consistent sleep time routines. It is also possible that if we miss the sleep cues, our babies and toddlers will become overtired which makes falling or staying asleep more difficult for them due to a build up of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies. 

So, how can parents learn the secret to understanding and responding to their child’s sleep cues?  It  helps to first understand a little more about sleep science. Sleep-wake homeostatis is a biological regulator driven by sleep hormones that build until it reaches a tipping point which causes sleep. This regulator builds throughout the day for babies and toddlers to a pressure where a daytime nap is required. These naps can be 20 minutes to 3 hours long depending on the sleep your baby’s body needs. As this sleep-wake homeostatis is building, your baby or toddler will begin to show sleep cues as signals that their body is in need of sleep. Some parents believe  it’s important to follow wake windows, or a specific amount of time that a baby is awake before they need to sleep again. However,  every baby is different, and every day can be different which can impact sleep patterns. Therefore, only think of wake windows as very loose guidelines. Instead, pay very close attention to your baby’s behaviors and learn to watch for sleep cues that will help you to plan your routines with your child. 

As your baby grows and matures, they will become more skilled at showing more defined cues.  With newborns, you may feel like you have to become a baby detective to understand their cues! But in general, newborns need much more sleep than older babies and toddlers so they typically follow a wake-feed-sleep routine and are only awake and alert for short amounts of time. Older babies and toddlers will have the ability to have longer awake periods that are spent interacting with their caregivers and playing, so they are more likely to try and fight that sleep-wake homeostatis if they are having fun and want to stay awake. This is all the more reason that parents need to learn how to read their child’s sleep cues so that they can catch the cues early and prepare their child for naps and bedtime in order to prevent overtiredness.

Here are some examples of sleep cues by age/stage:

Newborns:

  • Looking or turning away
  • Red eyelids
  • Pulling/rubbing ears
  • Sucking is slower/weaker during a feeding
  • Yawning
  • Fussiness or crying

Infants:

  • Red eyes/eyelids
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Pulling/rubbing ears
  • Glazed look in eyes
  • Slowed activity level
  • Less vocal/social
  • Quieter/calmer
  • Harder to distract
  • Yawning
  • Fussiness or crying

Toddlers:

  • Red eyes/eyelids
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Glazed look in eyes
  • Slowed activity level
  • Loss of interest in activity or play
  • Yawning
  • Fussiness/irritability/whining
  • Ignoring requests from caregivers/disobedience
  • Temper outbursts
  • Demand for attention/clinginess
  • Clumsiness
  • Fussiness with meals/food
  • Crying

 

You are the expert of your child, so have faith in your ability to learn your own child’s cues. The more you respond to your baby’s cues, the better your little one learns how to communicate with you. In essence, parents and children develop their own special form of communication based on cues and responses. When it comes to sleep cues, remember the importance of having a consistent routine for bedtime. 

A consistent bedtime routine can actually serve as a cue to your child that sleep time is soon approaching, and this helps them begin to wind down, relax, and allow themselves to anticipate sleep. If your child has also had the time and opportunity to develop self soothing skills, they will often continue to use those skills during your wind down time and you will notice behaviors like thumb/finger sucking, rubbing their hands on their cheek or near their mouth, or sucking on a pacifier while you read a bedtime story or sing a loved nighttime song. It is critical that we help our little ones learn to pay attention to their own sleep cues also, so that we encourage the practice of resting when tired. By responding to your child’s sleep cues and providing a consistent sleep time routine, you are helping to raise a happy and healthy child with great sleep habits. 

 

Helpful resources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318551/

https://www.mother.ly/life/health-wellness/its-science/its-science-reading-your-babys-cues-benefits-their-development-your-bond/

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Avatar for Emily Osborne

Emily Osborne

Parenting Expert at Owlet - Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, Certified Lactation Counselor and Safe Sleep Educator that specializes in newborn behaviors and postpartum support for new parents. I have been teaching new and expectant parents for 14 years.

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