The Effects of Over-tiredness in Babies: Causes and PreventionMar 22, 2022
Did you know that your baby’s sleep plays a particularly important role in their cognitive development? Most of their brain development (learning, attention, language, memory) happens during sleep, which allows their brain to absorb and store everything that they’ve learned throughout the day! 
(Read this blog if you want to learn more about how sleep affects the brain and physical development for babies!)
So what do you do when your baby reaches a point of being so exhausted that they will barely sleep at all? Logically, it may seem like the more tired your baby gets, the easier and better they would sleep, but this is not usually the case. In fact, when your baby becomes sleep deprived, any additional lack of sleep adds on to their “sleep debt,” and just like with a bank account, debt continues to accrue.
Overtiredness in babies can be a vicious cycle. But, the good news? It can be prevented most of the time! Of course, implementing long-term healthy sleep habits daily is a great way to consistently ensure your baby is getting the rest they need; BUT sometimes it’s not in the cards and some of us just aren’t there yet energetically! So, here are some things you can do to help ensure your baby doesn’t become overly tired as a starting point, even if you haven’t been focusing on practicing sleep tools up to this point (or, just not consistently).
What Causes Overtiredness in Babies and What It Looks Like
Exhaustion causes the release of increased adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. These hormones, in combination and over a long period of time, can cause a baby to stay in a sleep-deprived state  (and unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for them to become sleep-deprived!)
If your baby is showing signs that they may be in a sleep-deprived state, the most common factors that may be contributing to the exhaustion are consistently:
- Being overstimulation (too much and for too long)
- Being awake for too long (i.e. always up past their age-appropriate wake window)
- Experiencing broken sleep (night wakings)
- Short naps
- Early wakings
And as this cycle continues, overtiredness causes all of the above! ⠀⠀⠀
How to Prevent Overtiredness in Babies
Babies are always giving us cues that they are ready for sleep, but figuring them out and interpreting them correctly isn’t always easy or intuitive!
The easiest way to prevent your baby from becoming overly tired and making it easier on yourself to get them to go down for sleep is to do your best in watching for EARLY tired cues and following your baby’s developmentally age-appropriate wake window.
(Check out my FREE Sleep Tips download for children 0-3 years old for my recommended wake windows and nap transitions listed out by age!)
Babies show different cues, so when it comes to watching for their tired cues, it will take time and some trial and error to learn your baby’s unique cues. When the end of your baby’s wake window is nearing, here are some of the most common early tired cues to watch closely for (your baby may show just one or a variety of these cues!):
- Zoning out
- Avoiding stimulation
- Red brows and eyes
- Rubbing eyes and nose
- Pulling their ears
Once you start to see one or more of these early tired cues, it’s time to start a brief nap routine and put them down for sleep. This is the perfect time to practice putting your baby down awake, as success will come with the right timing (i.e. before they’re already overtired) and lots of consistent practice!
If your baby starts exhibiting the following signs, it’s a red flag that they are nearing an overtired state (if not already there) and are ready to be put down ASAP:⠀⠀⠀⠀
- Difficult to calm
- Turning away
Knowing and understanding these tired cues is important for two main reasons:
- First, putting an overtired baby down for a nap is not easy. Try not to wait until the signs are so obvious. It’s ideal to pay attention to the subtle, early cues to make sure that your baby will go down more easily and be an ideal time to practice putting them down awake (which is the key to your baby learning how to fall asleep independently!).
- Secondly, tired cues CAN look similar (sometimes identical) to hunger cues! A great way to differentiate between the two is to follow an eat/play/sleep schedule.
Some other ways you can help your baby to get longer, more restful sleep to prevent overtiredness:
- Early, consistent bedtime - Babies become naturally drowsy between 7-8 pm (for babies 3+ months), which makes it the perfect window to get them into bed! If you wait until later, it is likely they will become overtired, have caught a second wind, and bedtime can become a struggle. Late and inconsistent bedtimes are also a big culprit for increased night wakings. Aim for getting baby down around the same time each night, plus or minus 30 minutes.
- Create a calming, predictable, and consistent bedtime routine. This is proven to help babies fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer as compared to not implementing a consistent bedtime routine each night.
- Make sure your baby is getting full feeds throughout the day and in the bedtime routine so they aren’t waking more in the night to get their caloric needs met!
- Regular naps - Daytime naps and night sleep are connected ! Be sure to give your baby plenty of opportunity for rest throughout the day and if they're having a hard time sleeping independently, it’s more important to help them get the rest they need than allow them to become overtired.
What to Do If Your Baby Has Become Overtired
If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I often give advice on how to avoid allowing your baby to get overtired. BUT, it’s no secret that sometimes things don’t go as planned. A trip to the grocery store took longer than expected, you lost track of time, they never seemed tired, or a million other possibilities!
When your baby is past the point of tiredness and has moved on to being overtired, the next step is to work on soothing your baby before attempting to put them down for sleep. This can look like motion (going for a walk, a car ride, walking and bouncing, etc.), having a contact nap, or giving a pacifier if they’ll take one. For more detail on how to calm a fussy baby, check out this blog post.
Once your baby is calm, then you can work on helping them get to sleep (though they may have already fallen asleep during one of these calming techniques!).
Remember, the key to your baby being able to fall asleep independently is being able to put them down for sleep completely awake. This is why doing your best to prevent your baby from becoming overly tired is so important. If they are often overtired, they won’t be able to be put down for sleep easily and as a result, won’t have the opportunity to learn the necessary skill of independent sleep.
If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or schedule a call with me for some personalized support.
Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!
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