The feeling of being overtired needs little explanation. In the first few months and sometimes years after having a baby, we know the feeling all to well.
For babies and toddlers though, it’s regularly misunderstood and one of the most common causes of sleep problems I encounter.
Overtiredness occurs when the body needs sleep and it just isn’t happening.
Thinking about our adult responses to overtiredness helps us to understand the experience for babies and toddlers.
What’s going on physiologically
It’s our brain that ‘drives’ our body. When we need rest, we feel tired, but if we don’t sleep at this time when the body is ready for sleep, our brain starts to behave differently.
Chemicals move around the brain that cause us to become clumsy, twitchy or jerky in our movements. Our emotional responses become less controlled. These same chemicals make it very difficult to calm down and fall off to sleep.
Have you ever gone off to bed feeling deliriously tired, yet when you lie down you’re completely wired and can’t close your eyes? You’re officially in overdrive and unable to calm down for sleep. It takes time to calm down and allow your brain to move into the slower waves that are necessary for drowsiness and sleep.
So what about babies and toddlers
Overtiredness is different for everyone - some of us become quiet and pale or a little grumpy while others become over-excited or highly emotional.
Think about how you behave when lacking sleep – now remove your adult powers of reason and self control… and what you have is an overtired baby or toddler.
Pick up on early tired signs
Avoiding overtiredness means picking up on the early warning signs - what your baby looks like when they're first starting to become tired.
If you look closely, you’ll see babies show very similar tired signs to adults. They start subtly, but as your baby becomes increasingly tired the signs become more evident.
What to do with toddlers
Overtiredness in toddlers is to be avoided at all costs. And not by the toddler - rather we need to avoid allowing toddlers to become overtired.
Toddlers love life and company and will rarely initiate sleep. As soon as they’re showing tired signs, it’s time to prioritise getting them ready for sleep.
Toddlers are renowned for their inability to self-settle, especially when tired, so they require our help to initiate the wind down before sleep.
Reduce environmental stimulation
- Try quiet activities
- Pack up toys for the day
- Move to a quiet part of the house
Super-tired does not equal super-sleep
If you wait until your toddler is very tired in the hope they’ll settle faster, you’ll be disappointed. In fact, once you finally get an overtired toddler to sleep, it’s not uncommon for them to wake repeatedly.
There’s a window of opportunity for sleep, and if you miss it, settling your toddler will be increasingly difficult, filled with intensity and often chaotic emotional states as their brain surges with the chemicals associated with overtiredness.
Help! I missed the signs!
If, despite all your efforts, your baby or toddler becomes overtired and simply can't settle down, you'll need to offer lots of comfort and support to help them calm for sleep.
It's perfectly ok to cuddle or feed your baby, take them for a ride in the pram or car and do anything else that helps bring sleep. But be sure to avoid overtiredness next time. We live and learn, so next time you might consider starting sleep preparation a little earlier.
The calmer your baby or toddler at sleep time, the more chance they have of moving into sleep with minimal or no distress.
Author: Helen Stevens. RN. RM. MCHN. Manager of Clinical Services, Education and Research.
Parent Infant Consultants. 0411880720.