Learn the signs of an overstimulated baby as well as tips on how to soothe your baby if they become overstimulated and how to prevent it for next time!
I’m someone who can appreciate a good schedule. I loved scheduling my days and tracking to-do lists even before I was a mom.
I read a lot of parenting advice about “getting baby on a schedule” and I figured it would be no problem. I’d been training for that my whole adult life!
For the most part, I found that my newborn daughter really thrived on our eat-play-sleep routine. Unfortunately, there were just some naps and bedtimes that seemed doomed from the start.
Do you know what the trickiest part of keeping a schedule is? It’s when everything looks right on paper, but in reality, one person (ahem, baby!) is just not able to keep up their end of the bargain.
By now you’ve probably heard a million times that babies need a lot of sleep. But did you know that your baby’s brain can be too active—too overstimulated—to allow them to rest?
How Do Babies Get Overstimulated?
The fact is, your baby needs physical and neurological stimulation to learn new things. But when your baby is a newborn, it doesn’t take much for them to get overstimulated. Their brains are working overtime to take in all the newness around them!
It’s no wonder that all the new sounds, movements, sensations, and people start to become overwhelming for your baby after a period of time.
Here are some fairly common causes of an overstimulated baby:
Chaotic environments with sudden and unexpected loud noises
This could include public places like crowded restaurants and outdoor spaces near busy streets or construction. Even at home, things like a loud television or excited older siblings might be enough to overstimulate your newest family member.
If you notice your newborn starting to fuss, take a minute to look around the room. Do things look or sound a bit chaotic? If so, it might be time to retreat to a more calming space.
Any activity that is a new sensation (touch, sight, or sound) that lasts for a long time with no breaks
We also call this baby sensory overload! Maybe you’ve introduced a new toy that plays a song or makes a crinkling sound when touched. Or maybe your baby is watching something on a screen.
Keep in mind that these new sensations are going to make a big impression on that growing brain, and they might leave your little one wired.
Even if your baby seems to be enjoying their new toy or activity, don’t forget to take breaks. Switch things up with some quieter or more soothing activities.
And most of all, remember that a new experience may keep your baby so stimulated that their sleep cues are easy to miss.
A sudden disturbance in your baby’s typical routine
For example, maybe it’s nap time but you lost track of time at a friend’s house. When babies are kept up past their optimal wake window, they can get a second wind and have an extra burst of energy, leading your baby taking a short nap.
A solid routine is so important for baby’s sleep, especially for your newborn. Of course things will come up and your schedule will have to flex!
Just keep in mind that when you switch up the schedule, your baby’s sleep may be temporarily impacted.
Frequent exposure to new people
This is an especially tricky one to avoid, because of course you want everyone to meet your sweet little bundle! And chances are pretty good that everyone in your social circle is trying to meet your newborn, too.
Seeing new faces, hearing unfamiliar voices, and being held by people who don’t smell or look like momma is a lot for your baby to handle. Specifically, unfamiliar visitors can easily overstimulate newborns.
Consider spacing out visitors and try not to have more than a couple new faces around at a time.
I know you hear it a lot, but let’s also remember that every baby is different. Something that might completely overstimulate your best friend’s baby (like an excited dog sniffing around their toes) might be no big deal to your little one.
The best way to know for certain if your baby is overstimulated is to pay attention to their cues.
How Do You Know if Your Baby is Overstimulated?
In general, an overstimulated baby is not a happy baby. Even worse, an overstimulated or overtired baby is going to have a really hard time getting to sleep!
Our aim here is to be able to identify when your baby is starting to feel too stimulated. If we catch on, we can help ease them back into a setting that’s more conducive for rest before they reach a point of overstimulation.
Just like you, your baby will have different levels of tolerance for stimulating situations. Sometimes you can predict whether a sensation will be too much for your little one to handle. Other times, you might not even realize that your baby is overwhelmed until they start to show you they’re upset.
Signs of an overstimulated baby can include:
- Crying more than usual
- High-pitched crying
- Eye-rubbing or covering their face with their hands
- Squirming or frantic movements (more than usual)
- Frequent yawning, sneezing, or hiccuping
One of the biggest learning curves in new parenthood is figuring out your baby’s cues. If you learn to notice these signs of overstimulation, you can step in before it goes on for too long.
Is Overstimulation Bad for Baby?
While overstimulation isn’t necessarily dangerous for your baby, it can be highly disruptive to their sleep schedule and overall comfort.
Just like other situations when your baby is cranky or stressed (like during your baby’s witching hour), overstimulation makes it much harder for your baby to sleep.
When your baby has too much stimulation, their cortisol levels—also known as the “fight-or-flight” hormone—begin to increase. This increase in cortisol makes it very difficult for your baby to settle down for naps or for the night.
How to Soothe an Overstimulated Baby
If you’ve read the cues and you suspect your baby is overstimulated, try these steps to calm and settle them.
Dim the Lights and Cut the Noise
When your baby is cranky, anything other than white noise will likely contribute to overstimulation. Even when using a white noise machine, you’ll want to make sure it isn’t too loud.
Making things darker with blackout curtains and less noisy is automatically going to remind your baby of the comforts of the womb.
When Moving your Baby, Do it Slowly and Gently
Is your baby rocked and patted and bounced into an overwhelmed frenzy? The more gentle your movements are, the easier it will be for your baby to match your level of calm.
Use a Quiet Voice and Talk Soothingly
I know it’s tempting to raise your voice so your baby can hear you over their own wailing, but adding to the noise isn’t what your baby needs right now. Speak calmly and in reassuring tones, bringing your baby closer to you so they can hear you.
Provide a Lovey, Comfort Item, or Help Baby get their Hands to their Mouth
The best way to help an overstimulated baby is by making them feel secure and comfortable again. Familiar soothing items can help calm their busy brains. Also, sucking is one of the main sensations your baby remembers from the womb. Sucking on a pacifier or their own hand can trigger your baby’s innate calming reflex.
Bring Baby’s Arms and Legs Closer to their Body and Help them Maintain a Tucked Position
Again, reminding your baby of the womb is going to help them calm down. It’s comforting for them to have their limbs close to their body, and it can also prevent the startle reflex or further physical stimulation. That’s why babies often find a swaddle so comforting for sleep.
I know how frustrating it is when your baby is fighting sleep and you know they’re tired. I also know that it’s easy for our protective momma brains to worry that there’s something really wrong—is it colic, or illness, or is their sleep schedule way off?
The reality is, your little one might just need help calming down their overstimulated brain! I hope this has helped you learn to identify those signs and will get you both back on schedule in no time.