Learn how to recognize an overtired baby and how you can still help them fall asleep
When I became a first-time mom, I thought that babies would just sleep whenever they are tired. You know, like, she yawns, I put her down in the crib and watch her as she peacefully falls asleep.
This is the best comedy ever written. Oh girl, I didn't have a clue (about this and probably another million things about parenting).
But I was lucky enough that my little one taught me very loud and clear that it does not work this way.
Babies, especially newborn babies, heavily rely on their parents to help them fall asleep and stay asleep. It is a natural need coming from evolutionary behavior. Being close to their parents makes them feel safe.
So, while some unicorn babies might just fall asleep when they are tired, most babies need help to fall asleep at the right time. If they stay up for too long, they become so tired that they have a really hard time falling asleep. They become very fuzzy and unsettled, some will even cry inconsolably until they finally drift off to sleep while that last tear is still running down their face.
Oh, poor babies!
How do babies become overtired?
See, baby sleep does not work like adult sleep. Like AT ALL. When we are overtired, we would probably be out within 20 seconds. When a baby is overtired, they will not sleep.
Your baby will become overtired when they are up for longer than their body and mind can handle. We refer to the time when a baby is up in between snoozing as a wake window.
Wake windows decrease as your baby gets older. While newborns sleep away most of the day, a 2-month old may be able to stay up between 40-60 minutes.
During those wake windows, your baby's stress levels or cortisol levels will rise. When your baby naps, they will decrease. But if your baby stays up for too long, those cortisol levels will elevate so much that your baby cannot regulate anymore. They are now overtired.
Overtired babies will become fussy and unsettled. They might cry and be hard to soothe. Toddlers can have one tantrum after another. And they don't do it on purpose. They really cannot control it. And they don't know what is going on. The only thing they know is that everything is too much now.
Once the cortisol levels hit a peak, it's hard to bring them down. All those stress hormones in their body will make it difficult for them to fall asleep and stay asleep even when they are so tired.
There is also this fear of parents that their baby will develop sleep debt if they are overtired too often. This only happens in rare cases. Sleeping is an ability that comes naturally, and in the end, your baby will get the sleep they need. Even if your baby has been overtired a few days in a row, they will catch up on lost sleep eventually.
Sometimes babies will get more easily overtired during a sleep regression. During this phase, they sometimes need more sleep than usual.
How does overtiredness affect sleep?
If cortisol levels are too high, your baby will have trouble sleeping. The more stress hormones are released into their body, the more difficult it will be for your baby to fall and stay asleep.
Overtiredness will affect sleep in different ways. At nap time, your baby might only sleep for a short amount of time waking after their first sleep cycle (20-40 minutes). In the evening, they can have increasingly disrupted nighttime sleep. They might wake shortly after falling asleep or wake more frequently during the night.
Typical sleep behavior that points to overtiredness is:
- short nap (mostly about 20 - 40 minutes)
- cannot be resettled after waking up from a nap
- more wakings at night
- wakes shortly after going to bed in the evening
- early wakings in the morning
Signs your baby is overtired
Some typical signs of an overtired baby will seem like typical tired signs, so it is not always so easy to differentiate them. Or the opposite is happening. Your baby suddenly appears to be wide awake and hyperactive.
Signs your baby is overtired:
- yawning several times
- rubbing eyes or face
- becoming clingy
- moving away from other people or stimulation
- lack of focus
- fussiness/ tantrums/ crying & difficult to calm down
- becoming hyperactive
How to get an overtired baby to sleep
Dealing with an overtired baby can be very stressful for parents. But believe me when I say you are not alone. It's normal that babies become overtired sometimes. There is no need to feel guilty. Your primary goal is now to calm your little one and help them fall asleep.
1. Stay calm
Babies have very delicate stress receptors. They will mimic every emotion their parent has. And since you already have an unsettled baby on your hands, you do not want to increase their anxiety.
I know how tough it is to hear your baby cry, but the best thing you can do for them now is to stay calm. Be the source of calmness. This is the best recipe to help them calm down. If you stress, they will pick up your emotions, and the whole situation will just get worse.
2. Reduce stimulation
Noises and lights are strong stimulants for babies. Create a quiet atmosphere and keep it dark. This way, you will prevent your baby from getting more stimulated. When you are out and about, a baby carrier can help shield your baby from outside stimuli.
3. Rock them
The rocking motion is extremely calming for babies. Some babies will prefer to be rocked in a vertical motion (up and down) instead of a horizontal motion (side to side). Horizontal rocking can feel alarming to certain babies.
4. Don't force independent sleep
While we want to promote independent sleep and healthy sleep habits for our babies, this is not the time. Your little one already has big trouble falling asleep now, so don't enforce any independent sleep skills on them. There is always a right time for that. And you certainly don't need to worry that you are creating a new sleep association or a bad sleep habit.
5. Don't mix up too many soothing techniques
We will probably do anything to stop a baby from crying. But mixing too many different methods can actually be very overwhelming. Instead, try to stick to two methods, for example, rocking and shushing. Only because your baby isn't stopping to cry instantly doesn't mean that it's not helping.
How to prevent your baby from getting overtired
The ideal scenario would obviously be to prevent your baby from getting overtired in the first place. What we want instead is a tired baby.
1. Learn about your baby's tired signs
Your baby doesn't go from wide awake to overtired. There is a fair amount of time where they are tired.
Typical tired signs or sleep cues are:
- pulling at ears
- red eyebrows/ redness around the eyes
- turning head away
- losing interest in play
- losing patience
- blank stares
- becomes more attached or irritated
2. Use a flexible sleep schedule or keep an eye on wake windows
A flexible sleep schedule according to your baby's age will make the right time to sleep more predictable. It doesn't have to be a fix schedule. But when you know your baby's approximate sleeping hours, it will make things easier. If you are not a fan of schedules, you can watch out for an appropriate awake time instead.
3. Start with your routine rather early than too late
Another thing that I always recommend is to start with your bedtime routine not too late. Sometimes, as a parent, you are totally caught up in everything that quickly needs to get done, such as cleaning up dinner that we have only little time left for our routine. It can be really stressful to do a bedtime routine with an overtired child. And a bedtime routine should actually be calming. So it's better to plan enough time for your routine, and if your child is not tired yet, you can still engage in some quiet and relaxing activities.
How long is overtiredness a thing?
Newborn babies or young babies up to 6 months will be more affected by overtiredness than older babies. Catnapping is also very typical during this age, and overtiredness can intensify this behavior. So here you want to watch out more carefully.
An older baby (6-12 months) will still be affected by overtiredness. They will find it hard to settle to sleep or wake more frequently at night but usually catch up on sleep during naps. So not much catnapping is happening here anymore. Between the age of 1-2, they might still experience some disruptions during the night due to overtiredness.
Toddler sleep is almost not affected by overtiredness anymore. Instead, they will mostly get grumpy, frustrated, and hard to please or console. Bedtime battles or nap resistance are typical, too.
So it affects more their behavior before going to bed than their sleeping behavior. They will usually still fall asleep fast and sleep at night. But they will most likely still wake in the morning. Children are naturally early birds. Maybe they will sleep 30 minutes longer, but they don't usually sleep in for an additional hour or more (you know FOMO in toddlers is a real thing). This usually lasts until the age of 3-4. Children closer to 4 years can most of the time verbally express that they are tired and want to go to sleep. YAY!
Finding the right time to put your baby to bed can feel like a challenge at first. But as you get to know your little one better and better and they naturally develop a sleep routine, you will learn to read your baby's sleepy cues. My little boy, for example, would always lay down his head somewhere. It was the cutest thing.
And even if your baby is overtired, you don't need to freak out. It will probably happen more than once. Just get them to bed as soon as possible.