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  • Writer's pictureNutured Birth Ottawa

Understanding Baby Sleep Cues: How to Recognize When Your Baby is Tired


Doulas in Ottawa place yawning baby down on a white ruffled sheet for bed.

I think we can all agree that sleep is fundamental to being happy and healthy. I know for myself (and I know I’m not alone), that when I have a stretch of time where I am not getting the sleep and rest I need my immune system goes down causing me to be more likely to get sick, my brain is foggy, and I can be short tempered. 


One of the biggest changes when you have a baby is the impact on sleep. Babies do not have the same schedule adults do, of sleeping only at night for up to eight hours in a single stretch. Babies not only need more sleep then adults, but they also have shorter sleep cycles. When looking at your baby's sleep it can be helpful to think of it in a 24 hour time frame instead of night and day. 


So what can we do as parents to support our baby's sleep and create positive sleep associations to help everyone in the family get the sleep they need to feel their best?

The best place to start is to become familiar with your baby's sleep cues. Babies cannot communicate with words, but they do have signs that show us how they are feeling and what they might need. Sleep cues are physical cues that let us know when a baby is feeling tired. Understanding when a baby is tired is beneficial because we can then create a situation where they are able to sleep, and ideally before they become overtired. It is helpful to catch the window before baby is overtired because, once they become overtired, it may actually make it more difficult for them to fall asleep. This is similar to how it can be challenging for adults to fall asleep when they are upset. 


So what are sleep cues that you can look for? 

Early Cues 


  • Red eye brows 

  • Averts eye contact 

  • Turns head 

  • Blank staring 


Tired Cues 


  • Yawning 

  • Eye rubbing 

  • Pulling on ears 

  • Pulling on hair 

  • Fussy mood 

  • Sucking fingers 

  • Frowning 

  • Seeking hugs and snuggles 

  • Clumsiness

  • Bored with toys 


Late Tired Cues 


  • Intense cryiing 

  • Arched back 

  • Hands in fists 


Overtired Cues 


  • Arching back 

  • Emotional 

  • Hyperactive 


As you get to know your baby, and their unique temperament, you will start to see which cues they use. Their cues may change and vary over time as they grow and develop.


As a mom of three I was amazed at the differences between how each of my babies could be in their temperament, how they communicated differently and how their sleep was different. Two of my babies always needed a longer wind down time before bed. Sometimes it would seem that the more tiring and stimulating their day was the more time they needed to wind down enough to fall asleep. On the other hand when my second was tired, she could always fall asleep very quickly with little wind down time. We are all unique! 


Happy sleeping :)


This post was written by Ottawa Doula and Infant Sleep Educator Elizabeth Foster, a dedicated birth and postpartum doula and a gentle infant sleep educator. Elizabeth is passionate about empowering families, providing them with the tools and support they need to parent confidently and in a way that feels right for them. Elizabeth specializes in infant sleep, helping families create strategies to ensure everyone gets the rest they need to thrive. She is honoured to support families as they welcome new additions, be it through doula support or helping them get a good night of sleep. Learn more about Elizabeth's infant sleep support & education.


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