How to get an overtired baby to sleep

Baby expert and author Megan Faure explains how to avoid overtiredness, spot it's coming and get your baby to sleep when it happens.

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There are few more frustrating moments as a parent than trying to get an overtired baby to sleep. The more urgent the sleep becomes, the more your baby seems to fight it and you can feel at a loss as to what to do.

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What are the signs of overtiredness?

Step 1 of fatigue

When your baby becomes overtired, she will initially try simple little strategies to stay alert, like rubbing her eyes or ears or turning away from stimulation.

Step 2 of fatigue

If these signals are ignored, your baby may start to use more blatant self-soothing signals, such as sucking her thumb or looking for a dummy.

Step 3 of fatigue

If you miss these signals, your baby may begin to show autonomic signals [actions that happen without her conscious control], such as:

  • Hiccups
  • Sneezing
  • Blueness around the mouth (small babies)
  • Sweaty palms
  • Quick breaths

Now the signs are clear – your baby is overtired.

Final step of overtiredness

If you miss all these signals and are landed with a very overtired baby, the probable outcomes include:

  • For your newborn: unexplained crying, back arching, pulling legs up – seemingly in pain
  • For your older baby: grizzly miserable behaviour, crying, not wanting to feed, fighting sleep

These are signs of Flight, Fright and Fight – the classic response to stress hormones.

Avoiding overtiredness

The simple way to avoid overtiredness is to ensure your baby is settled to sleep according to the awake times for her age.

Getting your overtired newborn to sleep

An overtired newborn will need lots of sensory soothing strategies to settle to sleep, particularly if she is already crying. These include:

  • Swaddling
  • Rocking her
  • Holding her
  • Feeding her, but not all the way to sleep
  • Making the room dark
  • Playing white noise

Getting your overtired older baby to sleep

Watch your ‘awake times’ carefully with your older baby, and if she becomes overtired try these tips:

  • Take 15 minutes to calm her in her room before putting her down to sleep
  • To settle her to a drowsy state, read a book in the dim room
  • Rock her to drowsiness
  • Feed if it is feed time
  • Sing a lullaby or play white noise

Your baby’s hormones and sleep/wake cycles

Understanding how hormones and neurotransmitters impact on sleep will help you when it comes to getting your baby to sleep.

The key hormones that govern sleep are melatonin and cortisol. Their levels change through the day, which is why is easier to fall asleep at certain times of day. Cortisol is the hormone that keeps us awake and alert. It’s at its highest at 8am, dropping off through the day. Melatonin, on the other hand, increases in the absence of light and prepares us to fall asleep.

Why is this important to know for your baby? Well, by working with the hormones, half your sleep battle will be won. 

To get your baby to sleep with ease, you should assist the brain to release melatonin and try to avoid having to put your baby to sleep once her cortisol levels are high.

When your baby is overtired or has been stimulated for too long, she has to try to remain alert and focused. To do this, her brain releases cortisol. Since cortisol keeps your baby awake, it’s unwise to stimulate or stress her when a sleep is due or to allow her to become overtired at all.

Why does your baby become overtired so easily?

Your baby needs very regular sleeps to process all she learns during the day. For this reason, your baby has short ‘awake times’. For example:

  • A newborn can comfortably cope with only 45 minutes of stimulation or ‘awake time’ before becoming tired.
  • A 6 month old can cope with almost two hours of ‘awake time’.
  • A toddler can cope with between four and five hours of ‘awake time’.

When this ‘awake time’ draws to a close, your baby begins to become drowsy and ready to sleep. If you settle your little one at this time, she will fall asleep with ease – the melatonin will override the cortisol. 

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However, if you keep your baby awake past her age-appropriate ‘awake time’, she needs to access hormones to promote alertness, so adrenaline and cortisol are released.  These ‘stress’ hormones aren’t of any help when it comes to getting your baby to sleep and this is why your overtired baby fights sleep.

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