Sleep consultant Emma Purdue explains how recognising your wee one’s tired signs are the secret to avoiding an unsettled baby
Newborn babies display very distinctive tired signs when you know what to look for, and it’s important to learn these signs. As every new parent quickly learns, an overtired baby is one who cries, rather than sleeps. In the very early days (one to two weeks old) you can literally feed your baby, burp and change them and they will be ready to sleep again. But as the weeks move on, your routine might become more like ‘feed, play, sleep’. It is during the play period that we are looking for tired signs.
There’s a fine line between early and late tired signs. We try to catch a newborn at the early stage, take them to their bassinet and settle them quickly off to sleep. Waiting for a late tired sign, like yawning, can actually mean you have already missed the wave of sleepiness that washes over your baby, and they are now beginning to develop a second wind, which means they’ll fight going to sleep, fight the swaddle, cry and will be difficult to get drowsy again.
Early signs that this wave of sleepiness is beginning to build include decreased activity and slower motions. Your baby might have been busy trying to hit a toy on her play gym when she suddenly slows down and does this less. This is an early tired sign. If you wait another 10 minutes she will start to show increased activity: hitting that toy more and more and appearing a little hyper. This is a clear sign she is now overtired and really needed to be in bed 10 minutes ago.
If you’re still feeding your baby her sucking might become weaker, or if you’re having cuddles she might become quiet and calm or burrow into you and any baby babble stops. These all indicate you should start heading towards swaddling and settling them to sleep.
If you miss these signs and your baby is now chatting very loudly or becoming grizzly or even crying, these are very late tired signs. Many new mums enjoy it when their baby becomes excessively ‘chatty’ or animated, but this is often a late tired sign simply missed by those who don’t know. Babies also start to lose interest in their surroundings when they are tired, they might no longer make eye contact with you, or stop looking at their toy. They are losing the ability to concentrate, just like you and I when we are tired. This can be an easy one to miss if your visitors are playing ‘pass the baby’ after a feed, and it’s likely she will get tired sooner as she tries to learn all the new faces and take in a lot of new information. They can also get droopy eyes or red eyebrows, which are big tell-tale signs for a lot of parents once they spot it.
The main signs new mums tend to look for are yawning and eye rubbing, but these are generally late tired signs and often new babies can’t rub their eyes for a good eight to 12 weeks, they just don’t have the co-ordination. Yawning is a good indicator your baby is tired when they are four months plus, but once mobile they could be out of sight when that first yawn appears. By the time you see a yawn they are grumpy and overtired, because you missed the first three as they were rolling under the table.
The solution to this is a combination of clock watching and baby watching. If you haven’t seen any tired signs in your baby under 12 weeks old, and they have been awake for one and a half hours, I suggest you start your wind-down ritual regardless and get them ready for bed. There is a good chance you missed the sign you are looking for and they are getting overtired.
If your baby is between three to six months old and you haven’t seen a yawn or any of the early tired signs and they have been awake for two hours plus, it’s time to begin their sleep routine. If your baby is waking up crying after 20 to 40 minutes and is noticeably upset, this is also a sign you have missed their tired signs and they’ve gone to bed overtired.
As your baby gets older the switch from early tired to late tired is faster and more dramatic – older children might refuse to eat their solids, or breastfeed/bottle-feed properly. If crawling or walking they will become clumsy and fall over more frequently. Once they’re toddlers and you let them skip a nap or stay up late they quickly move through hyperactivity and deliriously happy to tantrum mode in lightning speed.′
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