Overtiredness in Babies & Toddlers

By Sarah Ong

Crying Asian baby

An overtired adult might simply fall into bed without stirring to make up for lost sleep – not the case for babies and toddlers. When a baby gets overtired, she may become overstimulated to the point where she cannot easily calm down and sleep. This is usually the point where parents would recognize it as their child fighting naps or sleep, when she is clearly tired. If your baby is overtired and having difficulty settling, you probably need to give her extra soothing to get her to be calm enough to fall asleep.

When a child has been awake longer than her maximum awake time, she goes into a state of overtiredness. For newborns, the awake window is very short between 30 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes, varying from one baby to another. The clock is a good guide, but watching your baby’s cue is usually the most accurate sign of tiredness.

As baby grows older, they can stay awake a little longer but whenever they look tired or sleepy, it would be helpful to put them to nap as soon as their cues are showing. It seems strange, but the better the baby naps during the day, the better night sleep can be. The less likely your child is overtired come bedtime, the better she can settle down and sleep better all night. Many people think they should limit naps, so they will be more tired at night. This often backfires. They might crash to sleep due to exhaustion, but most likely will either not sleep restfully, waking often, or will wake too early in the morning.

What are the signs of tiredness?

  • Yawning (very obvious in newborns)
  • Rubbing eyes
  • Tugging on ears
  • Scratching head
  • Spacing out, unable to focus
  • Whimpering
  • Whining
  • Stumbling into things around her 

What are the signs of overtiredness?

  • Crying
  • Cranky
  • Upset
  • Inconsolable
  • Arching of back
  • Meltdown
  • Hyperactivity 

Fussy Baby

When your child is overtired and showing the signs above, the best thing to do is to remove sources of external stimulation to help calm your baby. Eliminate stimulating background noise such as TV or conversation. If you are out and about, immediately put him in his stroller or baby carrier, he will usually have a bit of a cry as he has been over stimulated and is now overtired.  But with some persistent rocking, covering the stroller with a blanket, he will calm down and fall asleep. This works for young babies but for older children it may take a lot more effort and time in soothing him to sleep. Do not try to use toys as distraction from his overtiredness, as this would further stimulate the child.

Rather than dealing with a baby who is already upset and overtired, be watchful of their sleepy cues and anticipate their nap times. Put them to nap and bedtime at around the same time everyday. The beauty of having a routine is it goes according to your baby’s natural sleep cycles (circadian rhythm) and the longer you stick to the routine, the more contented your baby will be and you will feel more in tune with baby.

Sarah Ong, Certified Maternity & Child Sleep Consultant, works with sleep deprived expecting mothers and young parents with children aged 0-5 years. She can be reached at sarah@sleepchampbaby.com or you can visit www.SleepChampBaby.com to learn more.


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