.Signs of Tiredness

Most babies have trouble understanding the feeling of tiredness so they need their parent’s help to identify when they are tired and to teach them to fall asleep on their own. Newborns through three month old are controlled most strongly by reflexes so they do not usually express signs of tiredness that parents are easily able to decipher. Babies older than three months old have more control of their body movements and are very influenced by their environments and their parents’ care. Around a year old a toddler develops cognitive abilities that allow him to ignore the fact that he is tired and act “normal” because he does not want to miss something that is happening


Yawning is a definite sign of tiredness because a baby will not yawn because he is bored, only if he is tired. The first yawn should be a signal that the baby needs to put down to sleep soon. That means finish whatever it is that he is doing and then start putting him down to sleep as usual. The more frequently the baby yawns, the more tired he is and the closer he is to becoming overtired. How many times a baby will yawn before becoming overtired is very individual

Whining and Fussing

This sign starts out as complaining and lack of desire in anything. Most parents interpret this sign as just regular crankiness or refusal of whatever was offered and do not consider it as a sign of tiredness so instead of putting the baby to sleep they keep trying to offer different things like eating, different games, put them in the baby seat or under the activity arch. The baby in the meantime becomes more and more tired and frustrated with having too many stimulations being put in his face, and eventually the whining and fussing turns into inconsolable crying. At this point the most important thing to do is to calm the baby down in any way possible. Next time around he’ll be put down to sleep before the crying escalates to hysterics. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, when a baby is in the midst of inconsolable crying and hysterics he is not capable of learning because he is in a high level of stress similar to the “fight or flight” situation. At that time the baby is not able to take in normal stimulations because he is trying to survive the current “threat” of overtiredness

Seeking Comfort in Sucking

Young babies instinctively use sucking to calm down and fall asleep so sucking becomes a condition for falling asleep, even after the physiological need to suck has disappeared. The sign of wanting to suck a lot of times looks very similar to looking for the nipple, the classic baby sign for hunger, because the baby understands the single action as a way to communicate a desire for more than one need

Changes in the Eyes

Long Blinking – Tiredness causes the body to slow down and movements to become slower which can be seen very clearly in the eye movements. It can look as if the eyelids are lazy and are not managing to pick themselves back up from a blink. Sometimes the eyelids just stay at the half way point so the eyes look half shut

Staring – The baby is just looking off into space and not at anything specific. Moving an object in front of them will not change the stare

Looking away – This sign can be easily confused with the search for the nipple hunger sign because it involves moving the head from side to side. As a sign of tiredness the baby is looking away as an effort to avoid looking at something that is stimulating because he is too tired to deal with it. To young babies the whole world is new and stimulating so looking away is the only way they can close it out in order to relax and fall asleep

Changes in the Eyelids – Sometimes tiredness can cause physical changes in the eyes such as a light reddening and \ or a slight puffiness of the eyelids

Rubbing of the Eyes

A baby will usually only rub his eyes when he is tired, unless there is an eye infection or some other irritant in the eyes. Rubbing of the eyes usually is done when tiredness has already set in so when a baby starts rubbing his eyes he should be put down to sleep in his bed relatively soon

Pulling on the Ear

The meaning here is the baby’s own ear and not someone else’s. If your baby is pulling another baby’s ears then you should be reading a different article than this one. This sign can also be seen as rubbing of the earlobe, nose, fingers or rubbing of a blanket or a specific object. It can be any movement that the baby only does when falling asleep and not at any other time

Body Movements

Arching of the Back and Clenching of the Fists – These signs are usually exhibited by newborns until age three months but occasionally continue afterwards

Bending of the Knees towards the Stomach and Jerky Movements of the Limbs – These movements are classically thought of as signs of stomach pains, gases or of being uncomfortable but they are also signs of tiredness. Also here they are more common in younger babies because older babies have developed control over their body movements and limbs

Clumsy – Clumsiness usually appears in toddlers and children. They fall down, stop walking straight, stumble, bump into things and not manage to accomplish tasks they usually carry out without any difficulty


This sign is when a baby will only calm down when held in the arms of the parent. There are three possible explanations to this behavior. First it can be because the baby is almost overtired so he needs a little extra help winding down in order to fall asleep. If that is the case then it is worthwhile to hold him and even sway him a little bit after he has calmed down and until he has actually started to fall asleep, but still place him in bed before he is actually really asleep. The second explanation is that the baby needs an extra dose of closeness and security from the parent because of fear of something, absence of the parent during the day, some change in their life that is going on or for no clear reason. In this case it also worthwhile to give the baby the extra closeness because the fear or worry will make winding down and falling asleep difficult. The parent should stay in the room with baby next to his bed until the baby has fallen asleep. Placing a hand on the baby and \ or singing a quiet song could also be very helpful and useful. The third explanation for this behavior is relevant if the baby demands to be held and rocked before every sleep. In that case then it has already become a condition for falling asleep and the baby does not know how to fall asleep on his own without being held and rocked. Until the baby is taught to fall asleep independently he will very quickly go into hysterics without being held and rocked when being put to sleep

Lack of Interest in Liked Things and Foods

The baby just is not interested in games and toys that he usually likes and gets excited about, and does not have an appetite for foods that are usually eaten happily despite the fact that the baby should be hungry. It can also be displayed as a short term interest in liked things and activities. The baby will get excited and then suddenly be disinterested and try to push the toy away. Then he’ll be interested again but then again push it away. This behavior is usually accompanied with whining and fussing. Children will just say “don’t want” with the known sour face and the lift of one shoulder

Alertness and \ or Hyperactivity

This is the most confusing sign of tiredness of them all! A year old baby will stand up in his crib, laugh, play and seems more awake than he was throughout the whole day. An older child will be seen running around the house endlessly, jumping and playing with more excitement than he has ever had. The key to understanding when this behavior is actually a sign of tiredness is recognizing it when it appears just after there were definite signs of tiredness. This extreme change from tiredness to alertness over a short period of time is much more sudden and obvious in babies because their ability to balance their reactions to internal and external stimulations is less developed than in children. This sign can happen as a result of one of the following two reasons

One reason is a result of a “second wind” – a sudden wave of energy and alertness that comes at the peak of tiredness. Just like with adults when we start to fall asleep while sitting up and get suddenly woken up from our head falling or some alarming noise. Usually for short time following that we are running on a second wind. So babies and children experience the same thing, however just like in adults it disappears as quickly and suddenly as it came and again we become very heavily tired. Each drop gets to a further level of tiredness. With babies these sudden drops happen in conjunction with hysterical screaming and inconsolable crying. Children experience anger and aggression during these sudden drops of energy and may start tantrums or turn to aggressive behaviors

The second reason you may see this sign in your baby or child is connected to the appearance of their cognitive abilities. At some point around a year old the babies start to understand that they can evoke specific behaviors and reactions from their parents by behaving in certain ways. The classic example is the year old toddler who stands up in bed smiling and singing their favorite song that involves clapping hands and putting their hands on their head. The parent gets all excited because it’s so cute and fun so they join in, and not before long bedtime becomes quality playtime with the parent. The process usually starts because the child realizes that the parent is completely focused on him, and not his cellphone, computer, cooking or cleaning so the child takes advantage of this opportunity in which he has his parents’ undivided attention. All is good and fun until the parent remembers that it is bedtime and the child needs to go to sleep so they stop the fun and suddenly return to putting the child down to sleep. So the child baby gets offended and upset and the crying and anger start

So what should the parent do? Be sure to give each child his daily need of quality playtime with the parent during the day, and during bedtime and throughout the night behave in accordance to a nighttime atmosphere. That does mean ignore the baby’s effort to communicate, it means react but without joining in and encouraging songs and games that are appropriate for daytime activities

By Leezah Chipman - Sleep Consultant for Idan Hahoroot