How to get an overtired baby to sleep – this is the question that every parent wants an answer for. In this article, Meg Faure shares proven strategies for settling your baby when overtired and avoiding overtiredness in general.
There are very few moments more frustrating as a parent than trying to get an overtired baby to sleep. Tired cries build in intensity for what seems like forever, causing anxiety and a growing sense of urgency. The frustrating part is that the more urgent sleep becomes, the more the baby seems to fight it – leaving most parents at a loss as to how to calm their overtired baby to sleep. In addition, in the frantic attempt to soothe their little one to sleep, parents are also more likely to develop habits, like rock-to-sleep or feed-to-sleep.
How to help an overtired baby? Know their sleep & awake cycles
An understanding of how neurochemicals impact sleep will help you to get your little one to sleep and to prevent poor sleep habits developing. The key hormones that govern sleep are melatonin and cortisol – their levels change through the day according to typical sleep and awake times.
Cortisol, for instance, is the hormone that keeps us awake and alert. It’s at its highest when we wake in the morning and drops off throughout the day. Melatonin, on the other hand, increases with the absence of light and prepares us to fall asleep. Why is this important to know? Because by working with your baby’s neurochemicals, half your sleep battles will be won.
In other words, you will work to ensure your baby’s cortisol levels are lower when you want to settle your baby to sleep and encourage their brain to release melatonin ready for night time sleep.
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol is a primary reason why an overtired baby won’t sleep. If your baby is overstimulated, their brain responds by releasing cortisol to keep them alert and awake. Since this is cortisol’s function, it makes sense that overtired little ones become cranky and unsettled when they need to sleep but their neurochemicals won’t allow them to.
The message is to try not to let your little one get overtired as it’s stressful for you and your little one will battle to fall asleep when uncomfortable, highly stimulated (and agitated) and won’t fall asleep with ease.
Why do little ones become overtired so easily?
By now, we know why an overtired baby won’t go to sleep but how long do you have before your little one starts becoming overtired? Remember that little babies need regular sleep to process everything they learn throughout the day. This is why babies have short ‘Awake times’ that increase in length with age. For instance, a newborn can only comfortably cope with 45 minutes of stimulation or ‘awake time’ before becoming fatigued. Whereas a six-month-old can cope with close to 2 hours of awake time and a toddler with between 4 and 5 hours of awake time.
When the awake time draws to a close, the baby or toddler begins to become drowsy and ready to sleep. If you settle your little one at this time, they will fall asleep with ease. But if you keep your baby awake past their age-appropriate awake time, their brains will respond by releasing hormones to promote alertness, like adrenaline and cortisol as we’ve already discussed. These ‘stress’ hormones are why overtired babies and toddlers fight sleep. So what are the signs of overtiredness in your little one?
What are the stages of fatigue and overtiredness?
Stage 1 of fatigue
When your baby becomes overtired, they will initially try simple self-regulation strategies to stay alert, like rubbing their eyes or ears or turning their head away from stimulation. A toddler may start to become a little resistant and say “no” to all choices.
Stage 2 of fatigue
If your little one’s initial signals are ignored, they may start to use more overt self-soothing signals like sucking their thumb or looking for a dummy/pacifier. Don’t ignore these signals thinking that you have some time before uncontrollable crying starts – try to settle your baby now before stage 3 of fatigue sets in.
Stage 3 of fatigue
When your baby reaches stage 3 of fatigue – they are now overtired and may start to exhibit autonomic or involuntary signals such as hiccups, sneezing, blueness around the mouth in small babies, sweaty palms, or quick breaths.
Final stage of overtiredness
By now you are most likely dealing with a very overtired baby and these are the probable outcomes:
- Newborn – colic, unexplained persistent crying, back arching, pulling legs up – seemingly in pain
- Older baby – grizzly miserable behaviour, crying, not wanting to feed, fighting sleep
- Toddler – busy hyperactive behaviour, fighting with friends, running away, clumsiness, fighting sleep, resistant behaviour
All these final steps are signs of Flight, Fright and Fight – the classic response to stress hormones. The simple answer to avoiding overtiredness is to ensure your baby is settled to sleep according to age-appropriate awake times. But if you are reading this, you are probably currently dealing with an overtired little one and feeling a bit panicked. Take a deep breath and keep reading for strategies to settle your overtired baby.
How to settle an overtired newborn
An overtired newborn will need lots of soothing sensory strategies to settle, particularly if they are already crying. Try to remain calm and patient, overtiredness can be scary for new moms and dads but by thinking about the calming world of the womb your baby has come from, you can help your newborn to settle and calm. Here are some ways to soothe your overtired newborn:
- Swaddle your baby – the sensation of deep pressure can be comforting and calming to your overtired little one
- Rocking & movement – your baby’s vestibular system is the sensory system that helps them to know where they are in space. Since your baby experienced movement and was lulled by it whilst in utero, it stands to reason that this powerful sense will be the one to sooth them and settle them to drowsy. Rock your newborn to calm them and then settle to sleep in their crib. If that does not work, then use a carrier to settle your newborn to sleep.
- Holding – touch, especially the comforting familiar touch of mom and dad, can go a long way in settling your overtired newborn. Try not to move them from arm to arm or shoulder to shoulder too much – get comfortable and be consistent with rocking, patting their back or bum. A baby carrier is a wonderful way to hold your baby with consistent still touch.
- Make the room dark – you can imagine that a bright room with lots of things to look at can be distressing to a young baby who has already reached their sensory threshold. Making the room dark, together with these other strategies, is very soothing and signals to your baby’s brain that it’s time to sleep.
- Play white noise – soft white noise is like gentle music to your overtired baby’s sense of sound. Use an app or ad free music platform to generate sleep-inducing white noise while you rock, feed or hold your baby.
How to settle an overtired older baby
As challenging as it is, we now know that an overtired baby won’t go to sleep just because they are tired. It’s incredibly important to watch awake times carefully with an older baby. It’s easy to make the mistake of letting them stay awake when they’re happy and engaged, forgetting that they go from stimulated to overstimulated very quickly.
Use these tips as your go-to strategy for how to settle an overtired baby:
- Take at least 15 minutes to calm them in their room before putting them down to sleep.
- If it’s time for the evening bedtime, use an hour long bedtime routine to shift your little one into a drowsy state.
- Reading a book in dim lighting can help to settle them into a drowsy state.
- Use rocking to settle them – you can use a rocking chair or a baby swing if your baby enjoys it. Be sure to have your older baby do the last part of falling asleep in their cot or bed to avoid the rock-to-sleep habit.
- While a feed before sleep can be comforting if its age appropriate, be sure to never let your older baby fall asleep on the breast or bottle as this is sure to form habits
- Sing or hum a lullaby or play white noise to soothe your baby to lull them into a drowsy state
How to settle an overtired toddler
Toddlers who are overtired tend to become very active. Even typically busy toddlers take it up a notch and if you watch them closely, you will see that they aren’t processing anything they come into contact with – they are simply on fast forward. It is still as challenging to settle a toddler as it is a baby because even though a toddler has more language and communication skills, they are also more wilful and resistant. Here are some ways to get your overtired toddler to sleep:
- Remove your toddler from all stimulation, even knowing that a visitor is still in the house is enough to keep your little one’s brain wired and prevent sleep.
- Spend time quietly in their room to help them settle – it can be hard to connect with a busy little one but be calm and patient and they will start to calm down.
- Read a story and give them a feed on your lap (before the midday or evening sleep).
- Rock them until they are drowsy and then gently place them down in their cot or bed.
- Sit with them until they have fallen asleep if they are very fractious.
To recap – whether you have a newborn, an older baby or a toddler, overtiredness can be avoided by learning to read your baby’s signals and sticking to a regular sleep schedule. You can use the Parent Sense app to assist you to know your baby’s ideal sleep routine. If you frequently miss the signs that your baby is tired, watch the clock while you learn the signs!
Remember the age-appropriate ‘Awake times’ that your little one can comfortably manage before needing to sleep. Once you’ve made sure your baby has appropriate day sleep, you can also look forward to better night sleep and a more restful family in general.