On average, babies over the age of six months require around 14 to 15 hours of sleep during the day, although this can vary from one child to the other (1). And as they grow, their sleep patterns tend to fluctuate and the number of hours they sleep could get compromised. Babies are said to be overtired when they don’t get enough sleep and are awake for longer than their little bodies can tolerate.
Overtiredness is a state of physical fatigue that falls between tiredness and exhaustion, and one that activates the stress-response system. The more the babies are tired, the fussier they tend to be, and the harder it could become to put them to sleep.
In this MomJunction post, we tell you about the probable causes of overtiredness in babies, signs of identifying overtiredness, and a few methods to prevent or minimize it.
Why Do Babies Get Overtired?
Your little one is exposed to learning about several things during the daytime. To process all of them, they need regular naps. This can tire them, which is why babies are awake only for a short period during the day. This duration, however, extends as the child grows. For example (2):
- At 3-6 months, your baby might be tired after being awake for 1½-3 hours.
- At 6-12 months, your baby might be tired after 2-3 hours of awake time.
- At 12-18 months, your baby might be overtired if they miss the morning and afternoon naps.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends a daily sleep duration of 14–17 hours/day from birth to three months, and 12–15 hours/day from four to 11 months (3). Most babies sleep according to their body’s requirements unless their sleep and wake cycle gets disturbed. Lack of sleep can trigger the production of more cortisol and adrenaline hormones making, it difficult for the little one to sleep.
Signs Of Tiredness In Babies
- Looking grumpy, frowning, or grimacing to indicate that they are tired and not happy.
- Rubbing of the eyes, hair, and ears is among the most common signs of tiredness among babies. Sometimes, they are mistaken for signs of teething.
- Yawning is one of the apparent signs of tiredness in babies. So, when your baby yawns frequently, it is time to put them to bed for a nap or to sleep if it is nighttime.
- A tired baby tends to stare blankly into space and may not look directly at you or any other object. This could be because they are too tired to pay attention or focus on anything.
- The baby may stiffen the body and have rigid movements such as a clenched fist or tense hands and legs.
- The baby suddenly loses interest in the activities that they otherwise like to do, suggesting that they may be tired.
- If you ignore the early signals, the tired baby may try to self-soothe by sucking the thumb, cuddling their favorite soft toy, and so on.Some children start crying.
- After a while, your baby may exhibit autonomic signals that happen without conscious control. These include
- Sweaty palms
- Quick breathing
- Blueness around the mouth in infants
If you miss these cues, the chances are that your baby might get overtired and display the signs mentioned below.
- Difficulty in latching: Overtired newborns have difficulty in latching and may cry when you try to feed them. Older babies may refuse to eat and even spit out food in retaliation.
- Fussiness: At this stage, young babies cry hard, whereas older babies may also throw things while crying to get your attention and communicate their discomfort due to lack of sleep.
If you are not able to identify these cues of tiredness or think they are due to a reason other than tiredness, then talk to the pediatrician. But if you think the baby is overtired and needs to rest, you should know about the different ways in which you can calm the baby down.
[Read: Overstimulation In Babies]
How To Calm And Put An Overtired Baby To Sleep?
Most babies are ready to sleep soon as they feel tired. Some of them might also fall sleep on their own if they know how to self-soothe (5). But some have difficulty falling asleep unless they are overtired. If the child is overtired but is having trouble falling asleep, here are a few things you can do to help them (6).
- Playing white noise
- Dimming the lights
- Playing soothing soft music or songs
These may not necessarily help in soothing older babies or toddlers, who should ideally be taught to self-soothe and to fall sleep on their own. But since the baby is overtired, they may not be able to self-soothe or fall asleep easily. In such cases, here is what you can try:
- Rock the little one slowly, until they are drowsy.
- Sing a lullaby or feed if it is feed time.
- Avoid eye contact. Give them some quiet time.
- Take them away from the noisy environment. No TV, no loud conversations, or lights.
- Read a book to help settle the baby settle down. Use a soothing voice to calm them faster.
Note that when babies are tired, it is more likely for them to wake up sooner than usual. So be prepared to help your baby go back to sleep again.
Behavior Of A Constantly Tired Baby
If your baby is getting overtired frequently, you might witness some behavioral changes in them. But not all babies experience the same behavioral changes and may not exhibit the same or any cues at all. Hence, it is essential to figure out the specific behavioral changes in your baby and take necessary measures promptly. Some of the common changes are as follows:
- Sleeps for less than the average time for their age
- Does not sleep, instead gets hyperactive.
- Wakes up to the slightest of noise and has short and fewer daytime naps.
- Refuses feeds
- Sleeps for unusually long hours during nights.
- Does not want to get into the highchair, car seat, or crib. Instead, demands continuous patting or rocking.
- Shows weird or irritating behavior
Should you find any of these signs, address them immediately, and seek pediatrician’s advice if necessary. Neglecting to check these behaviors could hamper the overall development of the baby. You could also try to prevent this situation by ensuring that the baby gets enough rest in time. We give you a few tips for that next.
5 Tips To Help Prevent Tiredness In Babies
Observe the baby for any behavioral changes and address them soon to prevent overtiredness. The sooner you notice these changes, the better the chances are to prevent overtiredness.
- Have a fixed bed/nap time and plan a bedtime routine with a warm bath (4).
- Stay prepared and plan. For example, when you know that your baby goes to sleep at seven in the evening, be ready for her bedtime routine beforehand.
- Keep your baby comfortable in every way possible. For example, pick their clothing according to the weather and time of the day.
- Maintain room temperature and keep the lights dim.
- Settle your baby down at the first sign of tiredness.
- Do not stimulate or stress the little one during sleep time.
Following the above tips will help you to prevent tiredness and reduce the risk of overtiredness in babies. You can also have a customized plan depending upon your baby’s habits in general. In any case, have a plan and stick to it, while making minimal changes to it only if necessary.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why do babies cry when they are tired?
Babies usually don’t understand that they are tired and are unable to express their discomfort to you. They can only sense the stress caused by tiredness, and the only way they can communicate it to you is by crying.
2. Do hormones make a baby tired?
Hormones and neurotransmitters play a role in the entire process. Melatonin and cortisol are the key hormones that govern sleep. The levels of these hormones keep changing throughout the day, making it easy for us to fall asleep at certain times of the day. Cortisol keeps us awake and alert. It peaks at 8am and begins to droop as the day progresses.
Melatonin prepares us to sleep. By stimulating the brain to release more melatonin, you can help your little one fall asleep easily (7).
A calm, sleeping baby is like music to a mother’s ears. Then why not make a little effort to put the little one to sleep before they get overtired? The key lies in reading the signs and addressing them soon. With practice, you can learn to decipher your baby’s unspoken words and help them get the much-needed rest every day.
How do you figure out that your baby is tired? Do you have any tips on helping an overtired baby sleep? Share your tips in the comments section below.
2. Overtired baby; Baby Bonus; Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore
3. Elaine KH Tham et al.; Infant sleep and its relation with cognition and growth: a narrative review; National Center For Biotechnology Information (2017)
4. Sleep and your baby; Better Health Channel; Victoria State Government
5. Beth L. Goodlin-Jones et al.; Night Waking, Sleep-Wake Organization, and Self-Soothing in the First Year of Life; National Center For Biotechnology Information (2001)
6. Good ways to settle babies under six months: a parent’s guide; NSW Multicultural Health Communication Service; Government of Australia
7. Melatonin and Sleep; National Sleep Foundation
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