Overtired Baby Code: Why Your Baby Can't Sleep

Updated Jun 1st 2022 | timer 6  min read

Overtired Baby Code: Why Your Baby Can't Sleep

Sleepless nights with your baby may feel like they will never end. The journey to sleeping through the night seems filled with steps forward, followed by steps back. If your baby who previously slept well is suddenly fussy at bedtime, has a hard time falling asleep, and wakes frequently, they could be experiencing a sleep regression stage or may be overtired. The great news is, it doesn’t have to be that way, apps like the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ combine expert sleep coaching with tools to help you get your baby’s sleep back on track, fast – especially helpful when sleep setbacks happen.

We asked the expert sleep team over at the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ to share their best tips on how to help you tell the difference between typical developmental sleep challenges and an overtired baby?

Signs of an Overtired Baby

  • Low tolerance for frustration or discomfort
  • Frequent meltdowns (for older babies)
  • Short naps as opposed to full naps
  • Falling asleep outside of naptime: in the stroller, in a high chair, etc.
  • Difficulty settling down to sleep
  • Increased crying or fussiness at bedtime
  • Wakes frequently during the night, wakes up early
  • Wakes up screaming

An Overtired Baby is a Common Problem

Studies indicate that more than 25% of children will experience problems with sleeping in the first six months of life. Infants typically develop a solid, hormonally-driven circadian rhythm by the time they are 12 weeks old. However, some babies take longer to develop their circadian rhythm and struggle to get good sleep. (Their parents struggle, too!)
If your baby wakes up screaming during the night, he or she may be overtired. When your baby is physically fatigued from lack of sleep, their body’s stress-response system is activated and releases stress hormones into their bloodstream. This influx of cortisol and adrenaline makes it even more difficult for your baby to relax and settle down to sleep. He or she may fuss and cry. When your overtired baby finally does fall asleep, he or she may wake frequently, wake up screaming, and/or wake up early. A vicious cycle is created: as an overtired baby gets less quality sleep, they become more tired, exacerbating the problem.

How To Get An Overtired Baby To sleep Better

If your baby seems stuck in the overtired cycle, there are some things you can do to help break the pattern. Lowering their cortisol level, the hormone responsible for keeping people awake and alert to danger is key to helping overtired babies sleep more. There is a reason that people have rocked and sung lullabies to babies for centuries: these techniques work to soothe the senses! In addition to singing and rocking your baby, try:

  • Gentle swaying
  • Light massage
  • Dimming the lights
  • Playing soft music
  • Using a white noise machine or app on your phone
  • Feeding*

Babies develop quickly, and your infant will not need these supports forever! In fact, continuing them too long can actually get in the way of developing good sleep habits (the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ has a whole section dedicated to this). Putting your child down for a nap or bedtime while they are sleepy, but still awake helps them learn to fall asleep on their own.

*Whether you are nursing your baby or feeding with formula, your baby should obviously be fed well throughout the day. However, approach the use of feeding as the primary tactic to encourage drowsiness with caution. Sucking is relaxing for a baby, as is being held securely against their caregiver. However, your baby may learn to associate feeding with falling asleep and form a dependence upon that to do so. The longer you continue this practice, the more you reinforce this association. When your child is old enough, giving them a pacifier can help break that association.

Wake Windows

A “wake window” is a term that has risen in popularity in recent years. In a nutshell, a wake window is simply your baby’s awake time in between their naps and their nighttime sleeping. Being aware of the typical wake window for your baby's age can help you support the development of your child’s circadian rhythm.

Wake window stages

  • Birth to 3 months: 30 to 90 minutes
  • 3 to 6 months: 75 to 120 minutes
  • 6 to 8 months: 2 to 2.5 hours
  • 8 to 10 months: 2 to 3 hours
  • 10 to 16 months: 2/3/4 hour schedule

Typical indicators that your baby’s wake window is coming to a close can include things such as your baby rubbing their eyes, pulling at their ears, or yawning However, your baby may signal fatigue in other ways, like simply becoming quieter, staring off into space, or looking bored. You want to recognize their cues and put them down for a nap at that point. Well-rested babies sleep better at night than overtired ones!

Early Bedtime for Overtired Babies

Babies thrive on routine and learn to recognize cues from their environment that it is time to sleep. Our brains understand that darkness is associated with sleep and light with being awake. Going to bed at sundown every evening helps set your baby’s internal clock and encourages the development of their circadian rhythm. Since the onset of night can vary depending on the time of year, you can close the blinds, pull the shades, or close the curtains to dim the light in the room and maintain a regular bedtime. If you need help getting on a set bedtime routine, the Smart Sleep Coaching by Pampers™ app can help you set timely reminders to help keep you on track.

Bringing the noise level down helps minimize stimulation and encourages your baby to note the darker environment and other calming cues in the routine, such as a warm bath or lullaby. Consistently doing the same activities in the same order every night helps your baby learn what to expect and respond accordingly.

Although it can be tempting to try, skipping naps or keeping your baby up later in an effort to make them sleep longer at night almost always backfires. When your little one becomes overtired, the release of stress hormones will simply cause them to resist sleep more and become fussier. When they finally do go to sleep, they will likely sleep lightly and wake frequently, leading to the overtired baby cycle.

The Importance of Sleep for Your Overtired Baby

Adults simply feel sluggish or lethargic when needing sleep. However, your overtired baby will most often be irritable and overactive. Because your baby is developing quickly, both physically and mentally, lack of sleep can have a significant effect. Long-term sleep problems can negatively affect your child later in life, so it is important to address sleeping issues quickly. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine , good sleep has been linked to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health.

If you have made every effort to help your infant sleep better, but they're still having problems, they may be experiencing a sleep regression stage or going through a developmental leap. These rough patches are usually short-lived. Staying consistent can help your baby transition back to better sleep as quickly as they can.

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