Understanding Sleepy Cues 

Babies and toddlers can become overtired easily. When babies and toddlers become overtired they start to release more of the stress hormone cortisol, making it harder for them to fall asleep.

Often parents become fixated on the time on the clock and put their little ones down according to set times. This can often result in parents attempting to put them down when they are under tired or overtired.

Given that sleep is not under our conscious control, parents will have more success putting their little ones down according to their biological clock (circadian rhythm), which is when they naturally come to a lull and are ready for bed.

But how do we know when they are ready for bed?

Parents should be guided by age-appropriate awake windows, but more importantly, sleepy cues.

Awake Windows

Let’s discuss awake windows first! An awake window is a fancy term for how long babies are awake between naps. Parents need to find that delicate balance between their little ones being awake long enough to sleep well, but not so long that we cause a meltdown. 

This is just a guide. Every baby and toddler is different. Always be guided by these age-appropriate awake time norms plus your little one's sleepy cues. Please note: the first awake window of the day is often the shortest

Sleepy Cues

Being tired and needing to go down for a nap or bedtime is not just about the length of time they have been awake. The signals and cues that babies give their parents, will help indicate that sleep is near. Observe your little one, trust your knowledge and read the cues your baby is giving you. 


Although these are typical cues that most babies use, it is important to remember that every baby is different! Take time getting to know your little one's sleepy cues. This is their way of communicating with you.

Some little ones settle best when we put them to sleep at the first sign of being tired (such as staring into space) while others will need to be a little more tired before they are ready for bedtime. Trust yourself as no one knows your little one better than you.

If your little one is showing signs of tiredness, start to reduce stimulation and wind them down for bed by having some quiet time. It is a good idea to start introducing a consistent nap and bedtime routine. As a way to let your baby know that sleep time is coming, you can introduce positive sleep associations such as ongoing white noise or a cocoon/sleeping bag. These cues will help your baby relax and set them up for a good sleep.

Example of nap-time routine:

  • Once you begin to notice tired signs walk into the baby’s room or the sleeping environment.
  • Change little ones nappy 
  • You may need to spend some time winding your little one down by having some quiet time or reading a story.
  • Put little one in cocoon/sleeping bag (please note that once your little one can roll, ensure that their arms are free)
  • Turn on white noise
  • Close curtains to darken the room and turn off the lights.
  • Place little one down
  • Say “Goodnight, time for sleep, love you” and leave room

If you’re struggling, please reach out to Jenna and the team at Sleep Science for help.

Sleep Science offers complimentary 15-minute phone consultations, Jenna and the team love to empower parents to create healthy sleep habits for your little one.

Click here to reach out. 

Please note: This is not intended to be medical advice. Certain medical conditions may disrupt sleep and must be resolved before implementing any strategies

About The Author

Jenna has a background in Clinical Psychology and is currently completing her PhD. She has presented her research at national and international conferences and has won numerous prestigious awards for her academic performance and teaching.

Jenna has a special interest in infant and child sleep and is passionate about preventing mental health issues in parents. She founded Sleep Science Guru and works to educate and empower parents in Australia and all over the world to shape healthy sleep habits for their little one using evidence-based strategies. Jenna runs successful workshops for expectant parents and parents with babies, toddlers and children across the country. She has enhanced the lives of thousands of families.