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Recognizing Your Child's Sleep Signals

It’s an amazing milestone when your baby first learns to speak. The ability to communicate verbally with your child is a joy and a relief that’s almost unparalleled by anything in the first five years of parenthood. (With successful potty training being, quite obviously, a notable contender.)

But until that day, you’re still going to need to communicate. Baby’s going to tell you a whole lot about how she’s feeling, what she likes, what she dislikes, and when she’s ready for bed.

I see a lot of people on my Facebook page saying that a baby’s only form of communication is crying, and I mean a LOT of people. I’m not sure if they’ve got incredibly woeful babies, or if they’re terrible at deciphering signals, but I couldn’t disagree more.

Every baby I’ve ever known has had a huge vocabulary long before they ever utter a word. It’s just that, sometimes, we don’t speak their language.

Learning to decode the messages your baby is sending you is essential to healthy sleep, and let me tell you why. By the time your baby starts crying, which is the universal signal to parents that it’s time for a nap, chances are she’s already gone past her optimal sleep window and is in a state of overtiredness.

That means that her melatonin production has stopped and her cortisol production has kicked in, because the body is thinking, “Whoops! Looks like we’re not going to bed after all. Everybody get back to work,” and fires up the machinery again.

On the other side of the tightrope is the risk that you’ll put her into her crib before she’s sleepy, and she’ll get lonely, bored and frustrated. Again, this will typically get her in a twist and the resulting fit that she pitches will leave her cranked up and unable to get some nice, restful shut-eye.

So what do you look for? Well, with babies under six months, I find the most common indicators to be…

  • Making fists
  • Arching her back
  • Sporting a blank expression
  • Reduced movement and activity
  • Tugging on her ears
  • Caressing or sucking a lovey

Once she hits 7-8 months, you might start to notice her getting clumsy, rubbing her eyes and nose, and pulling gently at her hair. These are all potential signs that it’s time for a nap.

The reason I say “potential” signs, is because nothing here is a guaranteed indicator that baby’s ready for a snooze. You’ll develop a knack for knowing which ones are sleep signals and which are false flags as you get more fluent in her language.

One important footnote here… Some kids are willing, and some ever eager, to go to sleep when they’re feeling tired. Others are dead set against it, and they’ll fight tooth and nail when you try to tell them it’s time for bed. The temptation when they do is to let them, “ride it out,” assuming they’ll give in once they’re tired enough.

Resist that temptation, I urge you. Young children get hyperactive when they’re tired, and the more you give in, the less they’ll sleep, the worse their behavior will get, and the whole thing just snowballs out of control.

In conclusion, I just want to point you to another post I wrote, which outlines how long your baby should be awake for at a stretch. This, combined with a good understanding of your child’s cues, should help you get onto a regular schedule with minimal resistance.

I know it can be frustrating trying to understand the complaints of someone who hasn’t developed any language skills yet, but cherish these moments. Before you know it, they’ll be teenagers, and you’ll be wishing they’d keep it to themselves once in a while.

Baby Not Sleeping Through The Night?

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The Sleep Sense Philosophy

Cry-it-out? Coddle? Co-sleep? Attachment parenting? Ferberizing?
If you’re going to let me help you with something as precious as your child’s sleep, you probably want to know a little bit about who I am and exactly how I think...

Dana’s Sleep Blog

Straight talk about sleep, parenting,
babies, toddlers, relationships… and
just about anything else!
My blog is a great place to find opinions, advice, the occasional rant, and some great videos about sleep.

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