Sleep: is it Nap Time?

How do you know if your baby is tired?

Naps, we all need them, so does your baby.  While we might all know this, many of us are tricked by our baby’s actions, making us guilty of keeping them up past their nap ‘window’.  Missing the nap window can be a perpetual cycle of no sleep for your baby, and for you. I will eventually have many entries about sleep, this one is specifically about how to identify a sleepy baby.

Tip #1. Seriously, put down the baby books and trust your instincts.

All babies have a sleep “tell”, think of this as your baby’s poker face.  Finding your baby’s tell is simply a matter of paying close attention– to your baby, not to your baby books.

Baby books can offer good advice, and a lot of what I say here represents the inners of these books.  The problem with baby books is that in a sense they claim more authority than the parent (especially first-time parents) –causing the parent to refer to their bookshelf rather than their instincts.


Tip #2. Look for frustration with things that your baby can already do, for example if your baby has mastered rolling over, and you see her suddenly unable to perform this activity, she is likely ready for a nap.

When the girl I currently watch was about 2 months old, I started to notice that her tell was a reddening of the skin near the eyebrows.  A boy I watched years before had a specific cry—these are examples of some sleep cues.

Some common sleep signals: yawning, rubbing eyes (when they have the motor skills to do so), laying their head down, crankiness and frustration. Frustration can be difficult to tell sometimes if you feel like your baby is consistently more sensitive or colicky.  Pay attention to things your child is suddenly having difficulty doing–these frustrations are different than the frustrations of a colicky baby.

Tip #3: Use a sleep journal to help identify your child’s ‘tell’.

If you’re having difficulty finding your baby’s tell I (and all baby books) recommend keeping a sleep journal, write down when your baby wakes up than put her back down for a nap at these intervals:

  •  New Born (first month): One hour after being awake, sometimes sooner.
  • Infants (2-6 months): The gap between naps will start increasing by about every 15 minutes.  Start with putting her back down 1hour and 15 minutes after being awake, slowly increasing wakeful time as your baby grows.
  • 7-10 months: Between 2 ½ and 3 hours after waking up.
  • Toddlers (11-19months): These months vary; your baby may be shifting to one nap a day, or may still be on 2.  I recommend keeping 2 naps as long as possible, there’s no need to rush ridding your baby and yourself of naps.

Keeping the sleep journal should help you to identify your baby’s “tell” by paying especially close attention to your baby 20 minutes before her scheduled nap.

Tip #4: Every couple months your baby’s sleep “tell” may change so make sure to remain alert.

As your baby moves through different stages their sleepiness can get easier or often harder to notice.  Your baby is going to be pretty pumped-up that he can move his legs, crawl, walk, talk, etc., in this excitement he will likely not show signs of sleepiness or his tiredness will be masked with hyperactivity.  Your baby still needs to nap, even if he appears full of energy. You can refer back to tip #2 for this.

Note to my fellow Nannies: If you know what the baby’s tell is, don’t be afraid to cue the parents into this discovery. Sometimes being the nanny can make it awkward to inform the parents about their child, but you can pose it in a way that won’t make the parent feel ill equipped. Ask the parents what they think, something like:  “I’ve been noticing this funny thing Lizzie does (insert ‘tell’) and she always seems to do it about 2 hours after she woke up–I wonder if that’s her way of telling us she’s tired, what do you think?”