You have probably heard that sleep follows sleep and a well rested baby is a baby that will rest well. But what happens if your baby is overtired and then you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of grumpiness and sleepiness? Remain calm. Because being calm can create calm. Your baby will read your stress levels and frustrations and they too will become frustrated.
How Do You Know If Your Baby is Overtired?
Overtired babies can refuse naps or delay their bedtime, which makes it difficult for parents to navigate. Are they overtired or did they hit a milestone and are dropping a nap? It definitely can turn into a trial and error situation that feels more like just error. Knowing the signs of an overtired baby can help you trial with less error!
- Daydreaming When your baby is turning away and avoiding eye contact or refusing to look at all of the action around them, it could be that they’re bored with that sensory activity or that they’re feeling tired and want to sleep. Try adjusting their scenery by offering another toy, go outside or into a different room. If they continue to turn away or look like they’re day dreaming, then they’re definitely ready for sleep.
- Rubbing their Eyes If your baby is rubbing their eyes or tugging at their ears or hair, they’re trying to tell you that they’re tired. Their eyelids are heavy and they need your help getting to sleep.
- Clingy or Fussy A baby that is refusing to be anywhere but with their caregiver and in their arms, is a baby that is looking for help falling asleep. They’re fussy and can’t seem to get comfortable in any position. Fussiness may turn into uncontrollable crying and being inconsolable.
- Short Naps or Refusing Naps When your baby’s body becomes overtired, their cortisone levels rise in a fight or flight response. It’s their body’s way of trying to support the extra movement and brain activity needed to stay awake. This is why even when your baby is completely exhausted, they will still utterly refuse a nap or bedtime. A short nap can also be a sign. If your baby was taking an hour long nap but they have started to not nap longer than 30 minutes, they’re likely overtired.
- Frequent Night Wakings or Early Wake Times If your baby is suddenly waking up much more during the night than normal and not taking full feedings, chances are they’re overtired. They might even be waking early in the morning, any time before 6 AM, and refusing to go back to sleep. They may even be refusing bedtime or waking after only a couple of hours and finding it difficult to go back to sleep.
- Not Feeding Well When a baby feels overtired they may struggle to take good feedings or they may start taking shorter meals. They’re just too tired to take in a full feeding and may require more frequent feedings.
What to Do When Your Baby is Overtired
Sleep pressure builds up throughout the day until it reaches its maximum level where sleep is needed. But your baby’s sleep pressure builds quicker than an adults, which requires them to relieve the pressure throughout the day so they can make it to bedtime.
Just like how a tea kettle builds pressure with heat and then whistles when it reaches its boiling point. But a baby tea kettle can’t wait to reach its boiling point until bedtime, so we use naps to open the kettle just enough to relieve the pressure so we can make it until the designated bedtime.
An overtired baby is a tea kettle that has been on the heat and whistling for so long that it has almost no water left. This is a tea kettle that needs more help than usual to get back on track, it needs us to remove it from the heat and add more water.
Your overtired baby needs more help than usual to fall asleep, no matter what age they are they need some extra help then once they’re back on track, we can start to step away and help them gain their sleep independence back. Knowing how to help them when they are overtired is key to getting them back on track!
- Get Them Comfy No matter what age your baby is, you may have found what clothes, pajamas, wearable blankets or swaddles work best. If your baby is younger than 8 weeks and shows no signs of rolling, try swaddling them for comfort. If they’re too big, try a wearable blanket. Or if your baby is like mine and loved being pants free at nap time, roll with it! Make sure their diaper is dry and get them comfy.
- Steal the Snuggles Your baby will likely need your touch or need to be held to fall asleep. Hold them on their side or stomach or whatever favorite position you have discovered works best for them so they can feel your calm body reassure them that it’s ok to nap. An overtired baby might be able to catch up on their sleep debt best with a contact nap, if you can do it. Don’t worry too much about building a negative sleep association. When they’re overtired they need that extra help, you can get them back on track to self soothing once they’re well rested.
- Rock-a-bye Baby Rock that little one to sleep! Using movement is an amazing tool to help your overtired baby drift off to sleep. You can rock them in a chair, use a swing (until they fall asleep and then move them to a safe sleep surface), pat their bum giving a little bounce sensation, or my personal secret to survival, bounce with them on an exercise ball. I spent countless hours bouncing my twins, one in each arm, on an exercise ball. It saved my shoulders from doing the carseat swing move. A walk in a stroller or ride in a car can also be the perfect movement to help them finally close their eyes.
- Let them Pacify Sucking motions can be a huge comfort for babies. Whether you offer a feeding or use a pacifier, allowing them to suck can help turn on their calming reflux. A calm baby is a baby that will more easily fall asleep.
- Move Bedtime or Nap time Earlier Having an overtired baby means that your sleep schedule is likely off track, so offering naps or bedtime 15-30 minutes could potentially catch them before their cortisone levels peak again, allowing you to get them to sleep much easier. Don’t worry about an early bedtime causing an early wake time. If your baby is overtired, an early bedtime likely means they will sleep in longer as they catch up on their sleep debt.
- Avoid Crying it Out If your baby is truly overtired, then using a cry it out or modified cry it out method may perpetuate exhaustion. They may finally fall asleep, but chances are they will only take a short nap and then continue the cycle for the rest of the day. It’s always ok to assist your overtired baby with falling asleep. Once they’re well rested, you can get back on track with your sleep goals. It can be scary to offer what would be considered a negative sleep association to help your baby fall asleep, but they’re not likely to get there on their own. Try adding one or two of these tips to see if you can get them to fall asleep, but remember that being calm and understanding that one emergency response for an overtired baby won’t completely disrupt your healthy sleep habits. You will get back on track in no time.
How to Avoid Having an Overtired Baby
Sometimes life throws all sorts of obstacles in your way and you just fall off track and that’s ok. It’s life and it will happen at some point. Remember that one bad day in your sleep routine won’t destroy your good sleep habits in the same way that one good day won’t create a good sleep routine. Just jump back on track and your baby will follow your lead.
- Knowing How Much Sleep is Enough Knowing what sleep amount of sleep your baby needs at their developmental stage can go a long way to helping your baby stay well rested. Most babies need at least 11-12 hours of night time sleep and 2.5-3.5 hours of daytime sleep.
- Tracking Those Naps Keeping track of when your baby naps and for how long can help you recognize changes in their habits. Sometimes shifts in your sleep schedule just sneaks up on you over a few days or week before you realize that you’re off track! Your baby might go down a little bit later every day for bed or a nap, that doesn’t seem like much day to day but over a week can cause them to become overtired. Keeping track can help avoid sleep debt and keep everyone on track.
- Having a Sleep Routine Having a bedtime routine and a shorter nap time routine will help your baby recognize that we are transitioning to sleep. Your routine could be tummy time, bath time, story time, bedtime feeding, rocking, then to bed. Nap time should be some similar activities but much shorter, story time, feeding, rocking, then to bed.
- Creating an Inviting Sleep Environment Wherever your baby sleeps should be set up for sleeping success. The room should be dark (daylight for naps until 2-3 months), cooler temperature, sound machine (day time noises for naps until 2-3 months), and distraction free. Your baby will come to recognize that bed means sleep, and their body will help them fall asleep quicker.
Why Having an Overtired Baby is Okay
By this point, you may be completely committed to avoiding having an overtired baby at all costs! You may be stressing about sleep regressions, milestones, teething and just life bumping you off track. It’s completely normal to feel that way, but it’s so important to remember that sometimes a sleepy baby just happens. You didn’t do anything wrong, it just happens.
You don’t need to avoid social activities or family parties because it’s during sleep times. New activities are an amazing sensory experience for your baby and can help fuel their sensory nutrition.
Allow yourself to enjoy this time with your little one even if you fall off track, it won’t take long for you to get right back on schedule. It’s perfectly healthy and normal for a baby to experience being overtired throughout their first year and entire life. Life is a balance, sleep nutrition is important but so is sensory nutrition but most important is enjoying the newborn and infant stage. If you and your baby are happy with your routine, then you're right on track.