Baby tired signs

Why tired signs are overlooked

If a baby was tired she would just fall asleep, right? Not necessarily!

  • Not all babies or children KNOW when they are tired.
  • Some babies experience trouble 'winding down' in order to relax and fall asleep.
  • Many babies learn to depend on parents help to fall asleep, and therefore also rely on parents to identify when they are tired.
  • Children often don't want to 'miss out' on anything. Many will ignore their own signs of tiredness and keep going.

The way in which we display tiredness changes as we age.  Babies DON'T show the same signs of tiredness as a child, and a child will not show the same signs of tiredness as an adult.  Babies' tired signs are FREQUENTLY overlooked or mistaken as a sign of...

  • wind or gas
  • boredom
  • pain or discomfort
  • hunger

Below describes a RANGE of different behaviors, children of varying age groups display when tired.  Each child may show signs of tiredness in slightly different ways.

Birth to 3 months

A baby of this age has little control of her limbs.  Her actions are controlled to a large extent by infant reflexes.  (A reflex is an automatic or involuntary response).  Because of the influence of reflexes, young babies RARELY display the typical signs of tiredness we take for granted.

If a baby's tired signs are overlooked her behavior will increase in intensity.  Behavior commonly displayed in this age group to indicate tiredness, starting from more subtle to less subtle behavior, include...

  • Fussing  à whining  à   crying  à screaming
  • Glazed stare  à looking away  à turning head away  à back arching
  • Facial grimaces i.e. pulling faces
  • Clenched fists
  • Flailing arm and leg movements (waving arms and legs about)  à jerking, quick limb movements. 
  • May seek comfort by sucking/feeding

Please Note:  Babies of this age often pull up their legs when they cry ANY reason. Knees up is not necessarily a sign of tummy discomfort.

What happens if these signs are overlooked?

A baby's temperament will influence how quickly and to what degree her behavior will escalate if her subtle signs of tiredness are overlooked.  'Easy-going' babies will often fall asleep without too much fuss.  'Sensitive' babies will slowly reach a level of being upset; often very upset by the evenings when their level of tiredness is at a peak.  'Irritable' babies very quickly escalate to the point of distress when they become tired.

If a baby remains awake (or is kept awake) longer than she should, her level of tiredness will continue to increase.  Eventually she can reach a point where she is over-tired.  An overly tired baby often experiences great difficulty 'switching off' in order to fall asleep (even with parents help).   Soon a vicious cycle begins, where the more over-tired she becomes the more distressed she becomes.

Without realizing what is happening parents often mistake her distress as pain and so keep her awake even longer, as they try multiple things to 'relieve' her discomfort.  For an 'irritable' baby this may further add to her over-stimulated state.   Eventually she can reach a point where she screams inconsolably for hours.  After what can feel like an eternity, she finally falls alseep exhausted.

3 to 12 months

By this age a baby's 'startle reflex' has disappeared and she has gained greater control over her arms and legs, so she no longer displays the frantic limb movements when tired as she did at a younger age.

Tired signs (some of which are more commonly recognized as tiredness) which can be seen in this age group include...

  • Fussing  à whining  à crying  à screaming
  • Rubs eyes
  • Pulls ears, nose or hair
  • Yawns

What happens if tired signs are overlooked?

An over-tired child of this age often becomes very clingy.  She may want to be held constantly.  She may not be content for you to remain still and may fuss unless you are walking around holding her or rocking her in some way.  As her level of tiredness further increases she eventually cries even while being carried in your arms (and cries louder still if she's put down).

The more tired she becomes the more her behavior is likely to deteriorate.  She may display difficult behavior such as screaming, back arching (even when being held), hitting parents, head banging, throwing toys or food and refusing to eat.  She's just not happy... no matter what you try to do to amuse her or comfort her.

Over 12 months

By now your child has considerable gross motor skills and can control her movements in a purposeful way.  Although signs of tiredness are often more clearly recognizable at this age, because she appears to be a 'bundle of energy' these signs can easy be dismissed. 

Active and curious, she may ignore her own tiredness because she doesn't want to 'miss a thing'.  She's starting to assert her independence and like many children of this age, she may resist your efforts to get her to go to sleep.

Early signs of tiredness in this age group includes...

  • Loss of co-ordination; bumps into things, falls over, spills things (more than usual).
  • Rubs eyes
  • Yawns

What happens if tired signs are overlooked?

How your child responds to her feeling of tiredness depends very much on her temperament.  Some children are eager to go to sleep others are not. Your child may display many of the behaviors described in the 3 to 12 months age group OR with her increased skills at this age, she may also display other difficult behaviors. 

She may hit or bite; throw things; scream or argue; ignore or refuse to follow parent's instructions; or she may start to 'loose it' over minor things; or temper tantrums may increase i.e. where she throws herself on the floor, kicking and screaming.  (Although temper tantrums are a sign of frustration rather than tiredness, such behavior is often far worse when a child is tired.)

Some children's level of activity increases when they are tired e.g. running around screaming, climbing things, accidentally or deliberately destroying things. 

HOW WE CAN HELP you to encourage your child's healthy sleep behavior.

Written by Rowena Bennett
RN, RM, MHN, CHN, IBCLC, Grad Dip Health Promotion and author of 'Your Sleepless Baby: The Rescue Guide'

Added Feb 2004. Revised 2008; Sept 2013.