In the baby sleep world, the word “overtired” gets tossed around a lot-- and for good reason! An overtired baby is going to have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep, which leads to a grumpy baby and parent. They are often throwing out a lot of baby tired signs and if we don’t know what the signs baby is tired are, then we just miss them!
Since your baby can’t just say, “it’s time for bed!” or bring you their sleep sack, it’s important to learn about tired cues because that’s how they communicate their needs. They show they are tired through their behavior.
In this blog, we will cover baby tired signs in addition to:
- Why overtiredness is the enemy to sleep
- Signs when baby is tired + early and late baby tired signs
- How to read your baby
- When to trust the clock
- When to start the sleep routine
Once you can read their cues, you’ll be able to time their sleep well and you’ll break the overtired cycle!
Why is overtiredness the enemy to sleep?
When your baby is overtired, it simply means they have gone past the point of being ready for sleep. They have missed their most opportune window for sleep meaning they will fall asleep readily and easily.
Once your baby is overtired, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood your baby’s bloodstream, making it even harder for your baby to relax and calm down. And this tends to be a cyclical pattern; the more overtired your baby becomes, the harder it is for your baby to relax and fall asleep, which makes overtiredness even worse, etc. etc.
This can happen when your baby has stayed awake too long before naps, before bedtime, is waking frequently at night, taking really short naps, or waking early in the morning.
All of those things also exacerbate that overtired cycle. Which is why it is a nightmare that parents try to avoid!
Signs When Baby is Tired + Early and Late Tired Signs
How do you know if your baby is overtired? They may:
- Have a hard time settling to sleep
- Takes brief cat naps/micro naps throughout the day
- Doesn’t sleep in solid stretches at night
- Very cranky and fussy throughout the day
- Unable to handle transitions to new activities, unable to tolerate things like teething pain as well
- More prone to meltdowns
- May fall asleep at random times during the day (in the high chair when eating, for instance, or as soon as they hit the stroller, even if it’s not naptime).
If you need help decoding the types of cries your little one may have, including overtired or just tired ones, check out this article for more information.
Not every baby will exhibit baby tired signs, but most babies will show at least a few of them! You don’t want to see multiple cues as sometimes they will only show them when it’s too late.
Early signs of a tired baby:
- pulling at ears
- closing fists
- fluttering eyelids or difficulty focusing – your baby might even go cross-eyed or seem to be staring into space
- making jerky arm and leg movements, or arching backwards
- frowning or looking worried
- Red eyebrows
- sucking on fingers – this could be a good sign and might mean that your baby is trying to find ways to settle to sleep.
Early tired signs for a toddler:
- grizzling or crying
- demands for attention
- boredom with toys
- fussiness with food
Late signs baby is tired:
- Difficult to settle
- Doesn’t respond to distraction
- Doesn’t eat well/difficulty latching
Your baby may also exhibit some “autonomic” signals that they’re tired and these include:
- Sweaty palms
- Quick breathing
- Blueness around the mouth in infant
How to read your baby & when to trust the clock
Observe your little one over the next few days, logging when you may see early sleep cues, late sleep cues, how easily they go to sleep and stay asleep. This is so you start to notice a pattern of how long they should be awake.
Here is a chart of average awake times between sleeps in the first year:
- Newborn to 2 months: up to 1 hour of awake time
- 3-4 months: 1.5-2 hours of awake time
- 5-6 months: 2-2.5 hours of wake time
- 7-9 months: 2.5-3 hours of awake time
- 10-12 months: 3-3.5 hours of awake time
So how do you use cues and the clock to determine sleep times? Notice the pattern for when they are showing you baby tired signs and when they are falling asleep easily.
If you determine they may not show you early tired signs, then it would be best to trust the clock and get them down before you notice the sleep cues.
That’s because some babies will only show their tired signs when it’s too late!
By tracking how long baby is awake, you will know when his or her next naptime should be. Or at the very least, you’ll know when baby might show signs of sleepiness. For example, if an older baby (not a newborn) has been awake for 30 minutes and begins to fuss and whine, then she might not be tired. Thirty minutes is too short of a wake time for an older baby.
If you have trouble settling your newborn after they've become overtired, check out the benefits of swaddling a baby here!
When to start the sleep routine
Ideally, you’d start their bedtime routine about 30 minutes before you’d like them to sleep and their nap routine about 5-15 minutes before nap time. Some kids need the extra wind down time and others will transition to sleep easily!
It can also be beneficial to read about newborn feeding cues as they can sometimes be misinterpreted!
Some takeaways about baby tired signs
You may get some well meaning advice to keep the baby awake all day and ignore signs when baby is tired so they sleep better at night, but if you’ve tried it, you may have found that it actually backfired with a very cranky baby who actually slept worse at night.
If you're ready to begin some form of sleep training, then knowing the signs of baby being tired will be helpful! Making sure a Kyte BABY sleep bag is part of your routine will help to build positive sleep associations as well.
Getting your little one to sleep under the best circumstances can be tricky, but if they are overtired, you will be fighting a very tough battle! Keep those baby tired signs in mind, learn to read those cues, and get them to sleep earlier rather than later to ensure good sleep for their development!
Ashley Olson is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, owner of Heaven Sent Sleep, and passionate about helping new parents, experienced parents, desperate and sleep-deprived parents form healthy sleep habits for their children.
She has over 3 years of experience in working with families and has completed over 150 hours of coursework plus continuing education related to infant and toddler sleep. The focus of her work is on fostering a routine that grows your bond with your child while improving their sleep habits. She specializes in custom sleep plans and one on one support in changing sleep practices!