How to Prevent an Overtired Baby: Wake Windows vs. Tired Cues

overtiredness tired cues wake windows Mar 01, 2022
How to Prevent an Overtired Baby: Wake Windows vs. Tired Cues

Have you ever found yourself struggling to get your baby to sleep when they are overtired? I know how frustrating this can be. The truth is, when babies are overtired, it can be difficult to get them to fall asleep, and then stay asleep! Helping your baby to become an amazing sleeper overall takes lots of effort and practice; but making a few tweaks to prevent over-tiredness can be quick and extremely beneficial!

Though there are ways you can help an overtired baby get to sleep and back on track, it’s best to try and avoid your baby getting to this point altogether.  The key to doing this is following your baby’s wake windows closely and learning about their own specific tired cues. Here’s how you can do it.

Signs That Your Baby is Overtired

When babies become overtired, they have a surge of adrenaline and cortisol [1], giving them a “second wind” that keeps them awake and even helps them appear to tolerate staying awake.  

Here are a few other things to look out for as signs that your baby may be overly tired:

  • They are fighting naps 
  • They are taking short naps (or “cat naps”)
  • They are fighting bedtime
  • They have frequent night wakings
  • They wake 1 hour (sometimes even sooner) after being put down for bed
  • They have night terrors (this typically only occurs in toddlers and older children)

If you do find that your little one has reached this stage of being overly tired and it’s clear that they could benefit from some restful sleep, it’s best to help get them to sleep and back on track! Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in an overtired cycle.

Since overtired babies have a harder time falling asleep, you may have to help them get to sleep by rocking them to sleep, feeding them to sleep, taking a contact nap, or using whatever you know will help your baby fall asleep and get some much-needed rest!

Wake Windows vs. Tired Cues

Before you find yourself trying to calm a fussy baby and get an overtired baby to sleep, it’s best to understand how you can avoid your baby becoming overtired. The best way to do this is by implementing wake windows and learning how to understand your baby’s tired cues.  

A wake window is the amount of time that a baby can handle being awake without becoming overly-stimulated and overly-tired. These wake windows are based on developmental age, so if you have a baby that was born prematurely be sure to use their adjusted age when figuring out their wake windows! 

Wake windows should start as soon as you pick your baby up from the crib or bassinet and include your baby’s feed, diaper change, and playtime (which will be a really short amount of time for newborns). After the window of awake time has passed, then it’s time to start the nap routine and put your baby right back down into their crib.

If you’re unsure how long your baby should be awake during the day, here is what I recommend:

  • 0-8 weeks: awake for 45-60 minutes
  • 2-3 months: awake for 90 minutes MAX
  • 3-6 months: awake for 2 hours MAX
  • 6-9 months: awake for around 3 hours MAX
  • 9-12 months: awake for around 3-4 hours MAX
  • 12-18 months: awake for 5 hours MAX

Want an easy-to-save on your phone digital chart of all wake windows, nap transitions, and sleep needs by age? CLICK HERE to download my Free Sleep Tips for ages 0-3 years old!

Following the wake window specific to your baby’s age (along with your baby’s specific sleep cues) is the magic formula for finding the perfect time to put your baby down for a nap, and the key to avoiding an overtired baby! It’s also ESSENTIAL for helping your baby to learn how to fall asleep on their own and in their own sleep space! 

Tired cues are also helpful when it comes to avoiding your child becoming overly tired, however, they should never be relied upon alone! Baby’s are always giving us cues (like crying! But are they hungry, tired, in pain…?), and figuring out exactly what they mean can be daunting and easy to misinterpret or miss completely. On the other hand, some babies don’t show very obvious tired cues and waiting for a sign can mean your baby ends up being awake for way too long.

Here’s a list of cues to watch for and to give you an idea of when to put your baby down in order to get optimal rest AND avoid having them fight sleep due to being overly tired!

Early Tired Cues:

  • Rubbing eyes/nose
  • Pulling ears
  • Zoning out/cranky
  • Less social/clingy
  • Red brows/eyes

Late Tired Cues: 

  • Yawning
  • Crying
  • Difficult to calm
  • Turning away
  • Hyperactivity ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

It’s also important to note that many of these cues CAN look identical to hunger cues. Especially your baby turning their head to avoid stimulation, because it looks like rooting toward the breast. The easiest and best way to differentiate between hunger and tired cues is to follow an eat-play-sleep schedule! 

Check out this blog more about an eat-play-sleep flow and why it’s useful!

Since it’s common for some babies to not show a wide range of tired cues or for their tired cues to be very similar to their hunger cues, (which can become confusing), it’s really best to follow wake windows as a guideline for your baby rather than relying solely on reading your baby's cues. 

How to Prevent Your Baby from Becoming Overtired

Getting stuck in what can seem like an endless cycle of an overtired baby can be exhausting and overwhelming to fix (though it is fixable!). 

Here is what I recommend for preventing your baby from becoming overly tired:

  • Offer opportunities for restful naps
  • Keep bedtime as consistent as possible (+/- 30 minutes) 
  • Follow a consistent bedtime routine
  • Aim for an early bedtime (7-8pm is ideal!)

Learning your baby’s wake windows and understanding their unique tired cues takes time! But with consistency, you can have a well-rested baby! 

If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or schedule a call with me for some personalized support. 




Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!


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