It can be challenging as a first-time parent to distinguish between two crucial yet very similar cues, sleepy versus tired. So, is your baby hungry or tired? Here’s how to tell.
Babies can be tricky to read, especially in the early days while you’re still recovering from birth. Thankfully, a few tips can help distinguish the difference between your baby’s hunger and sleep cues more easily.
How do I know if my baby is hungry or tired?
For some children, signaling sleepy and hungry cues can happen very quickly or even at the last moment. Babies cannot tell you, “I’m hungry; please feed me some formula,” or “I’m getting sleepy; I’m ready for bed now.”
So, it’s up to you – the parent – to watch the clock and learn their cues to make the best-educated guess you can.
What babies can do is cry. Their cry is a form of communication; sometimes, it’s their only communication. It sends out a signal to you, “I need something,” and you must figure out what they need.
Keep reading to learn more about hunger and sleep cues.
A closer look at hunger vs. sleep cues
Three types of hunger cues
Hunger cues are signs your child sends to you non-verbally to communicate that they’re feeling hungry, including head bobbing, rooting, and mouthing. These cues can become verbal at a certain point – crying or screaming – when the baby is hungry.
1. Early cues
“I am hungry.”
- Mouth open
- Smacking lips
- Turning head
2. Mid cues
“I am starving.”
- Head bobbing
- Hand to mouth
3. Late cues
“I am overly hungry. I need to be calmed down before I will accept food.”
- Turning red from crying
- Agitated body movements
- Frantic movements
Three types of sleep cues
Sleepy cues are signs your child sends out to you either non-verbally, such as hand gestures and yawns, or verbally such as cries or verbal acknowledgment (i.e., I’m tired).
Even a tantrum can cue you with them saying, “I feel exhausted but don’t know what exhausted means, and I cannot tell you.”
There are three types of sleep cues your child express. It’s helpful to think of them as a traffic light.
1. Sleepy cues: the green light
“Please start my sleep routine.”
- Red-ish eyebrows
- Staring ahead
- Looks away
- Red eyes
2. Tired cues: the yellow light
“I’m starting to get cranky; start my sleep routine ASAP.”
- Rubs eyes
3. Overtired cues: the red light
“I cannot regulate my emotions; I need help to go to sleep.”
- Arching back
- Pushes away
- Rigid body
Figure out your baby’s sleep and hunger cues
1. Take a moment and pause
It’s possible you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the sleep vs. hunger cues. Try not to worry.
One interesting thing about crying is that your baby will form a pattern – sort of like their own language – and each cry will signal something different.
Listen to your baby intentionally, and you will notice different tones, sounds, and pitches for varying needs. It might take time and practice to decipher the differences but remain patient.
When your baby cries, I recommend pausing to allow yourself to observe and listen to determine what they need.
If we rush in to support too quickly to interject, we can miss subtle – but essential – cues. We may also unintentionally signal to them that something is wrong when they were saying, “I’m bored; play with me.”
Let’s break those steps down for you again.
- Your baby cries
- Observe what their cues – what do they look and sound like?
- Respond based on what they’re communicating
The pause technique is powerful, as you’re allowing your baby to communicate with you, and then you respond based on the information you gathered from them.
You learn to respond to their actual cues, not rush in because you feel like you have to react because they cry.
2. Watch the clock
The clock will be so helpful. Tracking when you last fed and the baby last slept can be beneficial. There are apps to help, or a simple piece of paper and pen will do.
Newborns eat around every two to three hours. So, if it’s been that long, it’s probably time to feed. If you find they’re still fussy after a feed, ensure you burp them and change their diaper.
Then, if they’re still fussy and it’s been around 60-90 minutes since their last nap, put them to sleep.
Because the newborn signs for hunger and sleep often are not clear, keep wake windows – the time between sleep – short to ensure they don’t get overtired. Being overtired can make it difficult for babies to fall asleep.
Last thoughts on baby cues
Remember, if your baby is already crying, it is a sure sign that they may need extra support if they are hungry or tired; they need help to calm them down to accept food or go to sleep.
Ultimately, you will begin to understand your baby’s unique language as you grow and learn about each other. This process doesn’t always happen quickly and can take time, trial and error, and a lot of patience.
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Kensey is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Certified Child Sleep Consultant with over 12 years of clinical experience in parent coaching. She empowers parents in supporting their children's sleep needs, considering a child's temperament, development, and parent values and goals. Kensey believes that sleep shaping is about helping children in a way that complements their unique progressions so you can feel rested, not stressed. She lives in Ontario, Canada, with her son and partner.