Avoiding the perils of an overtired baby

sleepy babyWhen you are a new parent, there are so many things that are new and different then your life was before becoming a parent.  One thing that is very shocking to new parents is how much sleep your child actually needs.  It is also surprising how frequently they need to go to sleep.  When babies become overtired, their brains begin to produce cortisol, which acts as a stimulant in their bodies and actually inhibits sleep.  If you have a newborn, you are probably have already experienced the dreaded “witching hour.” This is often a product of being extra hungry as the day wears on (hopefully storing up on feedings for a longer stretch of sleep at night) and overtiredness creating the perfect storm of crying and hysterics (among both parents and children alike).

Children typically become overtired when they are awake for too long.  Sometimes it can be hard to know what too long really is.  Here is a chart that can be helpful at determining how long your child can be awake before becoming overtired:

0-5 mos 6-8 mos 9-12 mos 12-28 mos 2-4 yrs
Wakefulness window 1-2hrs 1.5-3hrs 2-4hrs 4-6 hrs 5/6-12hrs
Number of naps 4-5/day 3/day 2/day 1-2/day 1 nap/QT
Total daytime sleep Varies 3-3.5hrs 2.5-3hrs 2.25-2.5 hrs 0-2hrs

The other way to know when your child is becoming overtired is by watching their sleepy cues.  Sometimes these are things that are very obvious like eye rubbing, yawning or even ear rubbing (commonly mistaken as a sign of teething or an ear infection).  Other times, sleepy cues can be more subtle like slowing down of play, vocalizing less or when your child is making less eye contact.  Fussiness, crabbiness, irritability or your ability to do anything to make your child happy (as is the case with toddlers) is often a sign that you have missed that window and your child is now overtired.

So you may be wondering why that wakeful window is important or “won’t my child eventually go to sleep even if she is overtired?”  Yes, children will eventually fall asleep, even when overtired, but it often takes longer for them to settle and there is much more crying involved.  In general, it is much harder for children to fall asleep when overtired and they will actually “fight” sleep at this point.  Being overtired for naps leads to shorter naps because when your child is overtired at the beginning of the nap, it makes it harder for her to get through the sleep cycles and stay asleep for her naps.

Trying to figure out when to put your child down for naps and bedtime can often feel like a moving target in the beginning.  As your baby moves towards 4-6 months of age, it can become easier to decipher what he or she is telling you about when it is time to go to sleep.   In the meantime, take heart.  Figuring this out isn’t as easy as it may have once sounded!

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