overtiredness for baby

Overtiredness in Babies

Overtiredness is a baby’s worst enemy. And their parents’ worst enemy too. 

I know this is kind of a big claim to make. But I bet any parent who is dealing with an overtired or worse, a chronically overtired baby knows what I’m talking about. 

What is Overtiredness?

Overtiredness is when our body gets beyond the point of tired and ready to sleep. Since we stayed awake through this window of tiredness, our bodies assume we need to stay awake and flood our systems with stimulating hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol to give us a second wind. Basically, your body’s stress response kicks in because you are so exhausted. 

It may seem like this second wind may be a good thing. Or at least now baby doesn’t seem to feel as tired anymore but it’s actually the opposite. 

Now, these fight or flight hormones have flooded baby’s body. This makes it harder for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. This then perpetuates the cycle causing more sleep struggles and more overtiredness. It sets our systems into overdrive and becomes a cycle that is hard to break. 

How do I tell if my baby is overtired?

Often parents say it’s like their baby hates going to sleep. They assume baby hates it or doesn’t need to sleep because baby seems to be fighting going to sleep so dang hard. 

Understandable that when you see someone fighting so hard against something you would assume they don’t want to do that something. However, with sleep and overtired babies, they aren’t fighting sleep because they don’t want to go to sleep. It is because it can feel like their body isn’t allowing them to do what they want to do, which is to fall asleep and shut off the stimulation from the outside world for a bit. Almost as if their body is working against them.

In a sense, their body and the stimulating hormones pumping through their system are working against them, making it much harder to go to sleep. And then harder to stay asleep once they are asleep. Hence, when parents report it took hours to get their fussy, fighting-sleep baby down for a nap just for baby to wake up 27 minutes later screaming again. 

signs of sleepiness and overtiredness

What does Overtiredness in babies look like?

Ideally, you want to watch for baby’s tired signs and get them to sleep before that window of tiredness turns into overtired. But this isn’t going to happen every time because, well, life happens. Also, younger babies in the newborn phase don’t typically show reliable or distinguishable tired signs and with their very short awake windows, it can be easy to miss. The line between tired and overtired can be a very fine one. 

Super fussy or inconsolable crying

You’ve got a fussy baby on your hands and you can tell they are very tired. The normal tricks and strategies you use to calm and comfort your baby just don’t seem to be working. It seems like nothing will help baby calm down and it feels like you are working extra hard to get baby to sleep because their little bodies seem to be fighting it so hard. This can often go on for a considerable amount of time as babies struggle to have their drive to sleep overcome that stress response from overtiredness.

Fussy eating

When my newborn hasn’t had a good nap day, towards the end of the day we struggle through feedings. I like to say that she’s “mad at the boob”, which is what it seems like. It looks like she wants to nurse, but it is hard to nurse and cry at the same time so she keeps latching and unlatching. Each time she seems to get more and more upset.

Your baby may experience feeding struggles like this when they are overtired. Especially when these struggles occur towards the end of the day or after a day of poor naps.

Baby seems uncomfortable

Sometimes you look down and it appears that your baby seems super uncomfortable like they are trying to escape from something, it may be that they are overtired. Their body parts may seem to be flailing around, keeping them awake even more. They may be arching their back so it looks like they are in pain. Or sometimes you see babies start pulling on their ears, their clothes or even scratching at their faces.

You can’t immediately see something making them uncomfortable or in pain, so you wonder if it is gas or an ear infection or something worse. It could be that baby is so exhausted they just want to turn off and escape the stimulation of the outside world but it feels like their body isn’t letting them. Understandably a frustrating and uncomfortable situation for them.

They seem to fall asleep but then jerk awake quickly

This can be so frustrating for both you and your baby. You think they have finally given up the fight and are going to get some sleep (and you will get some peace). Then just as quickly as they fell asleep they jerk awake again.

It looks very similar to a hypnic jerk or a sleep start, which is feeling like your falling and then you jerk awake that we sometimes have as adults. While the jury is out on whether or not babies really have these, no one knows for sure what causes them but it has been observed by scientists that sleep deprivation can be a trigger for them. This shows another possible example of how overtiredness can make it seem like their bodies are working against them.

overtired inconsolable baby

What to do when you see these signs of Overtiredness

Act fast! That whole “baby will sleep when baby needs to sleep” saying is utter nonsense. It doesn’t work like that or overtiredness wouldn’t even be a discussion we would be having. When you see the telltale signs of overtiredness you want to act fast in order to keep the cycle from churning and making it even harder to recover from.

Use early bedtimes or shorter awake windows

Allow baby to make up for missed sleep by going back to sleep earlier than normal. This also helps prevent baby from getting another “second wind”. The line between tired and overtired is narrow so even 15 to 20 minutes can make a big difference.

Help baby reset

Overtiredness ultimately results in lost sleep which creates a sleep debt. Our bodies basically have us repay that sleep debt in order to reset our systems. It can take some planning and effort to make sure you are very, very closely watching tired signs and awake windows while also monitoring stimulation. Your goal is to make sure you are getting baby back to sleep before another second wind kicks in. 

So, if some calm days at home and canceling activities is what needs to happen in order to focus on sleep for a few days, it is likely worth it so you don’t dig yourself and baby deeper in the hole of overtiredness and a bigger sleep debt. 

take steps to avoid getting into the cycle of overtiredness again. 

Make sure your baby is on an appropriately timed routine for day and night sleep. Because the thought that keeping baby up all day will help them sleep better at night is a complete fallacy.

Here is a helpful chart based on age (adjusted) to know about how long your baby can handle of awake time before needing to go back to sleep.

awake times by age

Track baby’s sleep

Whether it is with an app or a little notepad, track your baby’s sleep for a couple of days. In the whirlwind of life and motherhood and trying to keep track of and do all the things, you don’t want to let something as important as your baby’s sleep get overlooked.

Tracking your baby’s sleep will allow you to see their total sleep and patterns in their naps and night sleep. This allows you to be better able to see when baby is possibly getting ready to dig into a sleep debt. Then you can act proactively to avoid the struggle and fight overtiredness can bring. 

Consolidated sleep can help beat overtiredness for babies

Helping baby learn the skills to sleep independently allows them to more easily consolidate sleep cycles, especially at night. Consolidated sleep is when baby can connect their sleep cycles without a full wake up and sleep for a longer continuous stretch. Consolidated sleep is the best quality of sleep to help their bodies reset and feel refreshed each morning. This will help them be able to beat the cycle of overtiredness. Plus, well-rested babies are better able to handle those times when exceptions for a late bedtime and nap come up so that you don’t get sucked into the cycle again. 

Sometimes when baby has a good catch up day or two, it can seem like your sleep challenges have ended. Or whatever new technique or product you’ve been using is finally the magic solution you have been looking for. (You can learn more about these so-called magic solutions here.) However, if baby’s sleep habits aren’t helping them get good sleep on a long term basis, you will likely see a relapse once baby’s sleep debt builds again. 

Creating Healthy Sleep Habits

There are lots of methods, strategies, and schools of philosophy on how to help your baby sleep well. Sometimes the wealth of information can cause information overload and make it difficult to navigate in order to decide what is best for your family and your baby. When information overload becomes the reason you and your baby aren’t sleeping well, that is where I come in!

If you aren’t sure how to get baby sleeping well and out of the cycle of overtiredness, reach out to me today! Helping tired parents like you put the pieces of your child’s sleep together so you can feel confident baby is getting the sleep they need and avoiding their worst enemy for the days and nights to come is what I do every day! Schedule your free sleep evaluation call here to learn more about how we can make quality sleep a reality at your house!

Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!


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