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Signs of an Overtired Baby and How to Help Them Sleep

At some point in our lives, we’ve all been just too tired to sleep. And the results of being sleep-deprived are disastrous: moodiness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, absolutely no hand-eye coordination. Now, your little ones are already like that on the best of days so when they’re overtired, life can get a whole lot worse. You would think that getting baby down when they’re overtired would be a cinch but, as with most baby-related things, it’s actually not that simple. So, why do babies fight sleep? We got together with Dr. Rebecca Kempton, Pediatric Sleep Specialist and founder of Baby Sleep Pro, to talk “overtired baby” including symptoms, well-meaning mistakes we make when trying to help our exhausted infants, and different routes we can take to get an overtired baby to sleep. 

Q: What does it mean when we say baby is “overtired?” 

Dr. K: A baby is considered overtired when they have been awake for longer than their little bodies can tolerate. This activates a stress response, including the release of hormones like cortisol, that makes it even harder for baby to settle. This is why, counterintuitively, the more overtired a baby becomes, the more difficult it is for them to both fall asleep easily and stay asleep. 

Q: Why would a baby become overtired? 

Dr. K: When periods of wakefulness are too long for them to tolerate, or they are overstimulated for too long, babies can become overtired. This means that they stay awake too long in between naps or go to bed too late based on how well they slept during the day. For example, most newborn babies need to sleep every 45 minutes throughout the day. If that window is missed, then overtiredness can ensue. 

Q: What are some signs that baby is becoming tired? 

Dr. K: Some “tired signs” are subtler so it’s important to pay attention and get baby to bed before they reach the “overtired” part. Signs your baby may be fighting sleep include: 

  • Pulling their ears 
  • Becoming clingier to their caregiver 
  • Rubbing eyes 
  • Zoning out 
  • Less social and less engaged 

Q: What are signs baby has become overtired?  

Dr. K:  When your little one becomes overtired, they may be inconsolable and difficult to settle. It will take more effort to get them to sleep. Signs of a chronically overtired baby include: 

  • Fussiness and crying 
  • Difficult to calm 
  • Yawning 
  • Overactivity – be careful, as this may be interpreted as ready to play, not ready to sleep! 

Q: Are there things parents might do that can make sleep more difficult? 

Dr. K: There are two things I see parents do. First, they wait too long to put baby down to sleep. Another common issue is interfering too much with the process of falling asleep. So that means too much holding, rocking and bouncing. These can create sleep crutches, or negative sleep associations, that can make it harder for baby to learn the vital skill of self-soothing or falling and staying asleep independently. Self-soothing is what leads to the consolidation of sleep both at night and nap times. 

Q: If a parent is out during normal nap times, would you recommend still trying to encourage sleep at that time or wait? 

Dr. K: It’s better to encourage sleep in the store, car, or wherever you may be knowing that if you wait, the baby may become overtired and harder to console. However, naps in motion are not as restorative, so keep in mind that the next sleep period should be sooner or bedtime earlier. 

Q: What can parents do to avoid baby becoming overtired? 

Dr. K: It really comes down to learning baby’s signs and making sure you put them down “sleepy” but still awake. That means they have their eyes open but are showing signs of tiredness. Do not overstimulate before naptime or bedtime. That means that if they are disengaging, don’t try harder to engage and overstimulate them. And don’t sweat it if you miss a window, just aim to put baby down earlier for the next nap or for bedtime to make up for it. 

Also, watch the clock. Generally, here’s a good rule of thumb: 

  • 0-4-month-olds should be awake less than 45-60 minutes 
  • 4-6-month-olds can be awake for 1-2 hours 
  • 6-12-month-olds can be awake for 2-3 hours 
  • 12-18-month-olds can be awake for 3-4 hours 
  • 18 months-2 years can handle 4-6 hours of awake time 

Q: If baby reaches the point of being overtired, what can parents do to help baby sleep? 

Dr. K: An overtired baby can be difficult to settle, so the first thing to do is figure out how you can calm them and help them relax to induce drowsiness. Here are some strategies: 

  • Swaddle your baby (stop swaddling once baby can roll), even if they fight it, which many tired babies will. 
  • Once they’re swaddled, hold them tightly against your chest. 
  • Breastfeed or give your baby a bottle. A bottle like Dr. Brown’s will help prevent gas that could make your baby even fussier. 
  • Gently and slowly rock or bounce your baby and put them down drowsy but still awake. 
  • Use a Dr. Brown’s pacifier to help them self-soothe. 

In general, it’s good to have a sleep routine so baby gets clear cues it’s time to wind down. But – and this is big – if baby is already overtired, it may not help to go through the entire routine. Instead, shorten it to get them to bed faster. Focus on ensuring the environment is conducive to sleep. Make the room very dark, play white noise, and add additional calming techniques like using a humidifier to moisten the air. 

Q: For parents who are stressed out and trying to get an inconsolable baby to sleep, what would you tell them? 

Dr. K: I always like to kind of step back and let them know that everything they are doing to help baby sleep is being done because they love their little one. The effort parents make to help get baby on a consistent sleep schedule and to recognize their tired signs is all part of a learning process for both the baby and the parent. The keys to success are consistency, patience, and time. It’s important to remember that an overtired baby will become well-rested once you focus on helping baby get more sleep, day and night. There is an end in sight – your baby will sleep! 

Also, it’s okay to remove yourself from the situation. Really, anything relaxing will do. Meditation, yoga, any true self-care practices can help your brain stop focusing on the stress of the problem and open your mind to remembering that this isn’t forever. 

There you have it, folks. The key to helping your overtired baby is learning their signals to avoid overtiredness altogether. But sometimes life happens, and there’s a solution for that, too! For help learning baby’s signs and putting together a sleep routine, reach out to Dr. Kempton and the specialists at Baby Sleep Pro. For any questions on Dr. Brown’s products, reach out to our friendly customer service! 

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