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What does it mean to be overtired?

The state of being overtired can mean several things. Maybe you haven’t had enough sleep in a single 24-hour period or you haven’t had enough sleep over consecutive days for a length of time.

For infants, toddlers, and children, overtiredness could be the result of skipped naps, a late bedtime, or unrestful sleep.

No matter the cause of your overtiredness, it can cause many unwanted symptoms and affect your overall health. Getting a proper amount of daily sleep for your age affects your well-being.

It’s important that you get enough sleep each day to avoid sleep deprivation and overtiredness. A lack of sleep is common in adults, with 1 in 5 failing to get enough sleep regularly.

You may experience overtiredness after a single day of not enough sleep, or you may have chronic overtiredness because you’re missing out on adequate sleep for a long stretch of time. One term commonly used for overtiredness caused by multiple days, weeks, or years of sleep deprivation is sleep debt.

There are several symptoms of overtiredness, including:

  • lack of clear thinking
  • slower processing
  • changes in mood
  • difficulty making decisions
  • difficulty with short- and long-term memory
  • slower reaction times
  • fatigue
  • sleepiness during the day
  • restlessness
  • anxiety
  • depression

The symptoms of overtiredness can impact your performance in a wide range of activities, from driving a car to working. Lack of sleep leads to tens of thousands of traffic accidents and injuries annually, says the National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep debt can cause other symptoms and complications, including:

The symptoms of overtiredness in infants, toddlers, and children could be more acute than in adults, as they require more sleep each day. This is because infants, toddlers, and children are developing at rapid speed, both physically and mentally. Missing a nap or going to bed later than usual can result in overtiredness.

Unrestful sleep, or waking up on and off throughout the night, can cause overtiredness as well. This is also sometimes called broken sleep. Possible causes for broken sleep may include:

  • teething
  • nighttime fears, such as the dark, monsters, or loud noises
  • sleep disorders

If you suspect a sleep disorder, talk to your child’s pediatrician. A pediatrician or teacher may also be able to provide suggestions for helping your child manage nighttime fears.

Other symptoms of overtiredness in infants, toddlers, and children include:

  • difficulty with emotional control
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • fatigue
  • daytime tiredness

Your body is actually programmed to get a certain amount of sleep and doesn’t function normally when you’re overtired. The symptoms of overtiredness can lead to many changes in your mental state, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Additionally, sleep deprivation changes your body chemistry.

A lack of sleep can make it harder for your body to identify sleepiness. Results from a study from 2003 found that those who slept for four to six hours nightly for several weeks didn’t get sleepier over time, even though their mental capacity was greatly compromised. Similar results were seen in an earlier study, too.

There are a few internal factors in your body that function best when you get adequate sleep. Your body contains the neurotransmitter adenosine, which develops as you use energy and gathers in your brain over the course of the day. At bedtime, you have the highest level of adenosine in your body. This causes you to feel sleepy. A full night of sleep will drop these adenosine levels to their lowest point. This results in increased energy and brain power when you wake up.

The other internal factor affected by a lack of sleep is your circadian rhythm. This is the indicator in your body that sets your bedtime and promotes a healthy sleep cycle. Overtiredness can result in this function not working properly, making it difficult for your body to fall asleep.

Here are some ways to help fall asleep when you’re overtired:

Tips for getting overtired infants, toddlers, and children to bed

You may find it difficult to settle an overtired child down to bed. It’s important to calm your child before they go to sleep.

Some ways to unwind a child for bedtime include:

  • avoid overstimulating activities prior to bedtime
  • have a nightly routine, such as a bath, a story, and a lullaby prior to bedtime, and stick to it each night
  • keep your child’s room cool, dark, and quiet
  • use a white noise machine to block out any unwanted noises
Managing bedtime fears

Reading your child books about monsters, the dark, and other fears can help them to overcome bedtime anxiety. Here are some books you may want to try:

In adults

Preventing overtiredness starts with developing a healthy sleep schedule that allows for a full night’s rest every day.

  • Try to get the same amount of sleep every night, if possible.
  • Avoid consuming caffeine six hours before bedtime, at a minimum.
  • Avoid exercising three hours before bedtime.
  • Create a bedtime routine that doesn’t include screens.
  • Catch up on any sleep debt by adding extra time to your sleep if needed, but not too much, which could make it hard to fall asleep the next night.

Prevention in babies and older children

Infants, toddlers, and children need a regular sleep schedule just like adults. Here are ways you can prevent overtiredness:

  • Develop a consistent sleep schedule for babies and young children. For infants and toddlers, proper quality naps are part of their daily sleep needs.
  • Make sure your child’s sleeping environment promotes healthy sleep and isn’t overstimulating.
  • Look for signs of tiredness in your child, such as yawning and eye rubbing, to determine their sleep schedule.
  • Put your child down to bed early in the evening. Babies, toddlers, and young children should go to bed around 7 or 8 p.m.
  • Help your child calm down a half hour before bedtime without screens.
  • Make sure an older child who needs less daytime sleep avoids unnecessary naps, which may cause difficulty falling asleep at night.

Sleep needs change through your lifetime. According to the National Sleep Foundation, our age determines how much sleep we need:

AgeSleep requirements
newborn (0 to 3 months)14 to 17 hours
infants (4 to 12 months)12 to 15 hours
toddlers (1 to 2 years)11 to 14 hours
preschool (3 to 5 years)10 to 13 hours
school-age children (6 to 12 years)9 to 11 hours
teenagers (13 to 17 years)8 to 10 hours
adults (18 to 54 years old)7 to 9 hours
older adults (55 and older)7 to 8 hours

Note that each person’s sleep needs can vary and that these are averages.

You should discuss suspected sleep problems with a doctor to determine a proper course of action. If you feel overtired and don’t understand why, you may have a condition such as sleep apnea. If your doctor thinks you have a sleep condition, they may then refer you to a specialist.

Overtiredness can cause many difficulties in cognitive functioning as well as physical problems over time. You can avoid becoming overtired by promoting good sleep habits, no matter your age. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep on a regular basis to avoid chronic overtiredness, or sleep debt.