One of the most effective things you can do to promote your baby’s contentment is to recognize when your baby is ready to sleep. This article describes signs of tiredness and when your baby is likely to be ready to sleep.
Why recognize tired signs?
Your baby can’t tell you what he needs, but through his behavior he can express how he’s feeling - content, excited, troubled, frustrated, angry or distressed. Physical fatigue is a major reason (but obviously not the only reason) for “I’m not happy” behavior.
Providing your baby with an opportunity to sleep when tired will obviously be an effective way to promote his contentment. But the challenge lies in recognizing when he's tired. If you try to get him to sleep before he's ready, this will upset him. Alternatively, if sleep is delayed because behavioral cues that indicate tiredness are overlooked or misinterpreted as hunger, boredom or pain (as is often the case), any uneasiness he feels due to fatigue will continue to build and increase the risk of him becoming distressed owing to overtiredness. Once overtired he may find it difficult to fall asleep.
Knowing how babies of different ages behave when tired, and how long they can comfortably tolerate awake, may help you to gain increased accuracy and confidence in identifying when your baby needs to sleep.
Birth to 3 months
The way newborn babies demonstrate tiredness can be quite different to that of older babies. Babies of this age have limited control over their limbs. Their body movements are controlled mostly by reflex actions. For this reason newborn babies rarely display the behavioral cues that we expect when tired; rather their behavior demonstrates increasing levels of distress.
Behavior that may indicate tiredness, starting from more subtle to less subtle behavior, include:
· fussing >> whining >> crying >> screaming
· glazed stare >> looking away >> turning head away >> back arching
· facial grimacing (a painful looking facial expression)
· clenched fists
· waving arms and legs >> jerking limb movements
· pulling up knees
· seeking comfort by sucking or feeding
What’s helpful to know!
Newborn babies demonstrate similar behavior for anything that troubles them, such as hunger, tiredness, too much stimulation among other possible reasons. A process of elimination, taking into consideration the context of the situation, for example how long since your baby last fed and the time he’s been awake, could help you to pinpoint the cause.
Babies of this age often pull up their legs into a fetal position when they cry, for any reason. It does not provide evidence of tummy pain.
Newborn babies are in an oral stage of development. Most have an innate desire to suck that is not satisfied by feeding. They may want to suck when hungry, tired, uncomfortable, upset, and for pleasure. Babies who repeatedly fall asleep while feeding (breast or bottle) may learn to link sleeping with feeding, and consequently appear to be hungry when tired. (See sleep associations.)
When tired signs are overlooked
A baby's temperament will influence how quickly and to what degree his behavior will escalate if early signs of tiredness are overlooked. 'Easy-going' babies will often fall asleep without too much fuss. 'Slow-to-warm up' babies tend to slowly become increasingly more upset. 'Spirited' babies have a low frustration tolerance and quickly escalate to the point of distress if their needs are not quickly met.
If a baby remains awake, or is kept awake, longer than he should, he could reach the point of overtiredness. Once distressed due to overtiredness, he might find it difficult to fall asleep and appear like he's ‘fighting’ going to sleep or that something is preventing him from sleeping. [See Overtired Baby for reasons.] The distress displayed by an overtired baby is commonly mistaken as pain.
Newborns are vulnerable to overstimulation owing to immaturity of their nervous systems; more so when they become overtired. Overtiredness can make a baby intolerant of sensory stimulation that occurs as a result of normal handling (e.g. diaper change, being bounced, rocked, bathed or even spoken to). Additional stimulation that occurs when parents use strategies aimed at relieving a distressed, overtired baby’s ‘pain’ (e.g. burping, tummy massage etc.) can tip him over edge. The combination of overtiredness and overstimulation can cause a newborn baby to scream for hours despite parents' best efforts to soothe him. After what can feel like an eternity, he will eventually fall asleep from exhaustion.
3 to 12 months
By this age, babies have gained greater control over their arms and legs, and no longer displays frantic limb movements when tired as they did at a younger age. They tend to fall into a semi-predictable feeding and sleeping pattern, and this makes it easier to recognize when they’re tired.
Tired signs typical for this age group include:
- fussing >> whining >> crying >> screaming
- rubbing eyes or nose
- pulling ears or hair
When tired signs are overlooked
An overtired baby of this age often becomes very clingy. He may want to be held constantly. He might not be content for you to remain seated while holding him, but rather fuss unless you walk around while holding him, or rock him in some way.
The more fatigued your baby becomes, the more distressed he will become. A distressed, overtired baby might display behavior such as screaming, back arching, hitting, biting, head banging, throwing toys, refusing to eat or throwing food. He will cry in your arms but cry even louder if he's put down.
Over 12 months
Children of this age are often very active and very curious. Many will ignore feelings tiredness because they don't want to miss a thing. By this age, your child will be starting to assert his independence. Even when tired, he might resist and protest when you try to encourage him to go to sleep.
Early signs of tiredness in this age group includes:
- loss of co-ordination; bumping into things, falling over, spilling things (more than usual)
- rubbing eyes
- behaviors described in the 3 to 12 months age group
When tired signs are overlooked
How your child responds to his feelings of fatigue depends on his temperament. Some children are eager to go to sleep when tired; others are not. If you're attempts to encourage your child to sleep are met with resistance or protest it’s tempting to kid yourself into thinking it will be easier to leave him up and hope that he will simply drop off to sleep wherever he happens to be. However, it’s not necessarily going to be easier if in the process he becomes overwrought due to overtiredness. When a child of this age becomes overtired, he may display challenging and/or defiant behavior. He might hit or bite, throw things, yell or scream, ignore or refuse to follow your instructions, and/or tantrum over minor frustrations.
Unlike adults who become lethargic when overtired, young children often become hyperactive.
When to anticipate tiredness
Many of the behavioral cues listed are an expression of a baby’s or child’s mounting frustration over unmet needs. The cause could be tiredness or another reason. Knowing how long babies of different ages comfortably tolerate awake, can be useful to assist you to identify if tiredness is the cause of your baby's unsettled behaviour.
Below you’ll find the average daytime periods spent awake before needing a nap.
The amount of time your baby can comfortably tolerate awake before needing sleep may vary. Use the timeframe as a guide, but watch for signs of tiredness before trying to get him off to sleep. If your baby is becoming unsettled and the timing is right, you can feel reasonably confident that tiredness is the reason. Of course, you also need to consider other potential reasons for "I’m not happy" behavior as well.
Please note: A baby who naps only briefly might be ready to return to sleep much sooner than the suggested timeframe.
What you can do
Enhancing your ability to identify your baby’s early signs of tiredness and providing him with an opportunity to sleep can help to minimize any distress he might experience associated with overtiredness. However, accurate identification of tired signs is only half the story. How you settle your baby to sleep will influence whether he remains asleep long enough to get the amount of sleep his little body needs or whether he wakes too soon. See sleep associations.
Written by Rowena Bennett.