Convincing an overtired baby that it’s time to settle down and go to sleep is maybe the most frustrating hurdle you’ll ever face as a parent. That’s because the more you try to soothe an overtired baby, the more they may protest — and they can’t help it.
When your baby becomes overtired, their stress response system goes into high gear, triggering cortisol and adrenaline to flood into their little bodies. Cortisol helps to regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle; adrenaline is the fight-or-flight agent.
With these two hormones at elevated levels, expecting your baby to just settle down and go to sleep may not be realistic. In fact, if your baby is overtired, they may also find it hard to stay asleep.
With an overtired baby, you may find yourself caught in a cycle of less sleep that leads to more tiredness that leads to less sleep…yawn.
Your baby is already smart enough to communicate. While it can be tricky to spot the signs of a tired baby, the list below makes it easier.
- Yawning. Like us, babies yawn more when they’re tired.
Researchisn’t sure what, if any, purpose yawning serves. It could be that yawning wakes up the brain or it’s a way of communication.
- Touching their face. A tired infant may rub their eyes and face or tug at their ears.
- Becoming clingy. Your baby may hold on to you determinedly and insist that you take care of them.
- Whimpering. Tired babies may whimper and then move on to full-blown crying.
- Lack of interest. If your baby withdraws and loses interest, remember that it’s hard to interact when you’re tired.
When your baby gets past the tired stage, they’ll move on to the overtired stage. Here’s what to look out for:
- More yawning. This is an obvious one, right?
- More crying. An overtired baby becomes more fussy and cries easily.
- Difficult to soothe. Remember those hormones we spoke about? These culprits can render your attempts to calm your baby pretty futile.
- Lower frustration or pain threshold. Tiredness means your baby won’t tolerate as much frustration or pain.
- Catnaps. Instead of their usual nap, overtired babies sleep fitfully. These short naps don’t recharge their little batteries.
- Sleeping at the wrong times. You may find that your baby falls asleep while you’re preparing their bottle or scrambling their egg.
- Overactive. An overtired baby can show abundant energy. You can blame those hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.
Okay, it happened. Your baby is overtired. Now what’s the best way to settle them?
- Swaddling. A 2017 review of studies shows that swaddling helps babies sleep. Why? Perhaps the swaddling stops them from startling themselves awake when their legs and arms jerk involuntarily. Or maybe the swaddling reminds them of a safe and cozy womb. Either way, swaddling should only be used until a baby shows the first signs of starting to roll.
- Touch. Hold your baby close to you where they can hear your heartbeat.
- Pacifier. Binkies were invented for times like these.
- Movement. Try rocking your baby in your arms or in the stroller. But don’t overdo it or you’ll prevent them from falling asleep.
- Sound. Some babies are soothed by white noise, soft music or the sound of your singing.
- Dark. Darken your baby’s room to reduce the stimulation.
Babies can become overtired if they are awake for too long or if they’re overstimulated. The best way to avoid an overtired baby is to try to notice the point when they’re tired and ready to rest.
Easing into a sleep schedule around baby’s natural patterns can be a great way to prevent a baby from becoming overtired. Start by observing their natural sleep patterns and keep track of when they fall asleep each day, both for naps and nighttime sleep.
Before 6 months, your baby’s sleep schedule won’t be strict. After 6 months, sticking to a sleep schedule often becomes easier.
Try putting them down for naps and nighttime sleep at similar times each day (even if they occasionally do not seem tired at the usual time). Adjust the schedule as needed if they routinely don’t settle and sleep, or if they wake sooner than expected.
As you get to know your baby and their natural schedule, you’ll be able to more easily spot their sleep cues and settle them down before they get overtired.
It may not seem like it, but your newborn will likely sleep for 16 or more hours a day. The challenge is that these hours come in stretches of a few hours at a time.
But the good news is that by the time they reach 6 months, most babies will have settled into a regular sleep cycle that lets you get the shut-eye that you’ve been dreaming about.
Babies need a certain amount of sleep for optimal growth and brain development. According to this
- 0–3 months: 16–17 hours
- 4–6 months: 14–15 hours
- 6–12 months: 13–14 hours
And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers (12 to 24 months of age) need between 11 and 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.
Sleep is a critical time. While our bodies are busy restoring and strengthening tissues and muscles, our minds are busy consolidating and processing all the new information that we’ve received when awake.
As you savor the bliss of watching your sleeping child, know that they’re actually working pretty hard. And give yourself a pat on the back for helping them to transition into this new stage… yet again.