Understanding overtiredness.

One of the main causes of sleep disturbances amongst babies and children is overtiredness. This is something I had never heard of before having children. And, when I was first told about it, something I really questioned – how can a baby be too tired to sleep?! Surely if they’re very tired, they’ll just conk out and catch up on the sleep they’ve been missing?! However, unfortunately, it is a very real sleep issue. Keeping your little one awake during the day to help them sleep better at night is a total myth and will have the opposite effect. Remember, sleep breeds sleep. 

What is overtiredness and why does it matter?

It might seem a bit backwards that a little one can be too tired to sleep – but this is a very real and common problem. This is where the child is so sleep deprived that their body becomes flooded with cortisol (the natural stress hormone) and their instinct is to fight sleep. This makes it difficult for them to settle down at nap or bed time, causes multiple wake ups, and/or early risings.  Additionally, it means little one isn’t getting the deep quality, nourishing, sleep that they really need, and that is absolutely vital for their brain development and health.

How can I tell if my little one is overtired? 

Overtiredness isn’t necessarily obvious. It’s likely that little one will look wired, alert and awake. However, the reality is, they’ve gone past the point of tired. 

There are some obvious and more subtle signs that I look for when it comes to understanding whether a little one is overtired:

  • Do they have a hard time settling down for sleep?
  • Are they only having short catnaps instead of long, restorative, naps?
  • Do they fall asleep at random times during the day (e.g. in the high chair when eating)?
  • Do they fall asleep very quickly at nap or bed time (i.e. within 5 minutes after being put down)?
  • Do they wake up multiple times during the night? 
  • Do they wake up very early in the morning (i.e. before 6am)?
  • Are they very fussy, clingy, groggy, perhaps a bit unsociable?
  • Are they prone to meltdowns (for older babies)?

How do I prevent my little one from getting overtired? 

Firstly, I would recommend familiarising yourself with your little one’s sleep needs. These vary by age, and change quickly during the first few months. This includes how much sleep they need during a 24 hour period, and what their ideal wake windows are (i.e. how long they should be awake at a time – between naps, and between the last nap of the day and bedtime).

Other tips include:

  • Watching for sleep cues: they include eye rubbing, ear or hair pulling, looking spaced out/disengaging, yawning etc. Respond promptly by getting little one down for a nap or bedtime at the first sign that they’re tired. 
  • Don’t overstimulate your baby before sleep times: this means stopping playtime and screen time in the run up to bedtime.

Will sleep training help a little one who is overtired? 

Absolutely! It is one of the main areas I focus on with the families I work with. Along with topping up little one’s sleep tank with the right amount of sleep per day for their age, we would work on their self-settling skills – which means if they do wake up during a nap or the night, they are able to quickly and easily put themselves back to sleep again. We would also implement a consistent and calming nap and bedtime routine, helping little one to fall asleep more easily. 

Please get in touch and book a free Discovery Call if you would like to talk more about overtiredness (or any other sleep challenge!).