Many people have heard that the cause of a cranky baby is that they must be “overtired” or “overstimulated”. Personally, I don’t find either of these phrases helpful, as they don’t give parents any other solution to a cranky baby except sleep. For many babies and toddlers, sleep will not be the answer for crankiness, but even if it is, they will not be able to go to sleep while they are so “dialled up”. In fact, NO ONE can go to sleep while they are distressed. Their sympathetic nervous system is cranking, which will not allow sleep to take place.
So let’s reframe these ideas of overtired and overstimulated and give parents some ideas as to how to help their cranky babies.
The fear of overstimulating our babies has probably done more harm than good, and may be responsible for a lot of unsettled babies. For so many babies, “tired signs” such as yawning, rubbing eyes or getting cranky are actually signs of boredom. Parents are not explained this, and instead told to put babies down at the first sign of “tired signs”. If this works for a baby, great! You have read your baby’s cues correctly. But if baby does not quickly fall asleep, and instead gets crankier when you try and get them to sleep, then there is a very good chance they are not actually tired, but are in fact, bored. There is no harm in experimenting! Your options include stepping outside, going for a walk, going for a drive, or simply changing the environment and activity and see if they calm down.
When we consider the thought of overtiredness being a cause for an unsettled baby, although this may be true at times, it doesn’t empower parents. Sleep is not in our control; not for ourselves, and certainly not for our babies. We can’t just MAKE our baby go to sleep. It is under the influence of biological sleep regulators. Our babies are born knowing how to sleep; it is not a skill we can teach. BUT, we can make sure that our baby’s needs are met, and by doing this, will hopefully calm them down, and if sleep is what is needed, then sleep will come.
The two main needs for babies are milk (or food), and a rich and changing sensory environment. Once these two core needs are met, and the baby is tired enough, then sleep will be easy. If the baby is cranky, and you are sure it is because they must be tired, then make sure their two needs are met (offer a feed, or change the activity/environment), and see what happens. They should dial down and become settled. They may or may not sleep; but if that is what they needed, then sleep will come.
So essentially, I think as parents we can get rid of the fear of overstimulating our babies and instead embrace the idea that they are sponges just yearning to absorb everything about the world around them. And if we have a cranky baby, just remind ourselves that no one can sleep when they are cranky. Instead, our job as parents is not to make our baby sleep, but to take away the barriers to sleep by ensuring their two core needs are met – milk and a changing sensory experience.
By Dr Briony Andrew