As adults, when we get really tired, we say we’re exhausted, burnt out, or worn out. We empathize with others, and if it’s ourselves, we try to do what we can to catch up or get rest when we can. We rationalize our way through it, and the emotions that come with being tired.
For babies, we say they are overtired.
Overtired is used to signify when a baby is past tired, to a point where that “normal” coping techniques no longer work, and may instead instigate more restlessness. Overtiredness can happen from missed naps or inadequate sleep night after night. Regardless if sleep is lost during the day or night, over tiredness occurs when the needed rest in 24 hours isn’t reached.
How does a baby get “overtired?”
Babies can get overtired in many ways. Commonly, it happens when early signs of tiredness are missed, and their ability to process the world around them becomes difficult. It can happen from excessive stimulation or disruption to settling into sleep. The environment, exposure to people, and noise are all a part of excessive stimulation, and the world itself can overstimulate depending on your baby’s age.
Other reasons for overtiredness could be developmental leaps, teething, illness, or excessive sleep disruptions.
What does overtired look like on a baby?
Often overtired looks like a cranky, crying, squirmy, and unconsolable. There may be red-rimmed eyes. There may be tight fists. There may be stiff arms and legs.
If your baby is so tired, why don’t they go to sleep?
When all their needs are met, a tired baby can often settle themselves to sleep with some shhhing, white noise, a little rocking, or some rhythmic back or butt parts. An overtired child has lost their ability to give into that calm state and feel safe to drift off to sleep. As adults, we can rationalize being awake, and readjust positions, pillows, or do something like reading a book to help get back to a restful state. Babies can’t rationalize their emotions and ask for what they need. They don’t know they are overtired. They only feel they are not ok.
How to help an overtired baby:
Sleep begets more sleep with babies, so starting anything new with an overtired baby is not recommended. The first concern is getting them to rest any way it is possible. That could look like taking a walk and letting them sleep in the stroller, babywearing, letting them fall asleep on you while rocking, or holding them as long as they need.
To help an inconsolable child, we don’t recommend adding to any of the stimuli by starting to bounce excessively, or trying to distract them with a favorite toy or noisy learning device. We suggest holding your child in a dim room with calm firm harms, and sitting on an exercise ball, or a rocking chair if they will tolerate it, to offer some smooth movement. While holding and rolling or rocking, talk in a gentle voice, saying, “I am here with you” or using a hmmm noise. From here, try any of the methods above to help get some catch-up sleep.
If it feels like your baby is often challenging to put to sleep, it may be time to rethink your daily and nightly routines.
Sleep recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:
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
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