No one is immune to an overstimulated baby, unfortunately it will happen to all of us at some point. We are all trying our best to navigate what can be the most challenging of parenting moments when it comes to our babies…soothing, calming them or getting them to sleep! But you may be wondering what is okay and what’s not okay when they’re in this heightened and overloaded state, when that nervous system has hit overdrive and they are in this fight or flight stress response mode. This blog is all about overstimulation, I hope it will answer all of your burning questions about this response and help you to navigate your baby the next time it will inevitably happen to your bub.
What is it?
Overstimulation happens in your baby, much like it does to some of us adults, when their system and senses become overloaded with more triggers than they can handle. Our babies are full of immature bodily systems that need time to mature, including their nervous system that has not yet developed an adequate filtering system. This means that it can be very easy for everything that is going on around them to become too much to process and handle.
What are some common signs??
Common signs that could indicate overstimulation is at play with your bub include:
- Loud or scared sounding crying
- Refusing to nurse, or ever nursing more for comfort
- Acting very tired, or just generally fussy or irritable
- Sucking on their hands/fists
- Reacting to being held by pushing, lashing out or arching back
- Clenched fists
- Jerky movements
- Turning their head away from you or withdrawing from your touch
What can cause it?
These triggers can come from internal or external sources, they can be simple experiences, sensations, noises or general activity. For a newborn or more sensitive baby, just one or two stimuli could tip them over the edge, but for other older or better adapted babies it could be a progressive build up of many stimulations throughout the day. Here are a few examples of internal and external triggers that could lead to overstimulation in your bub:
- Temperature – they could be feeling too hot or too cold
- Tiredness – either from a short or missed nap, or they are due for a sleep
- Uncomfortable clothing – there could be a tag scratching them or their clothes are a little too tight
- Pain – could be from anything, perhaps they are teething or have a headache
- Hunger – maybe they’re due for a feed, or only finished half of their lunch
- Environmental – too windy, or the sun is in their eyes
- Lighting – the lights could be too bright, or are flashing in their eyes
- Noise levels – constant and loud noises can be unsettling
- Touch – bub could be feeling touched out after being passed around for cuddles
- Screen exposure – screen time, even when in the background, can be stimulating
What can you do to help??
In those moments where your bub is showing those classic overstimulated signs, I suggest you try these quick fix options in the first instance:
- Turn down the lights
- Turn off the TV
- Add or remove clothing
- Move to a quieter, calmer and darker space
- Use quiet, calm voices
- Add white noise or calm music
In these moments when your bub is just so overwhelmed by the world around them, my biggest piece of advice is to be supportively boring! It’s so important that you be your baby’s calmness in the storm they’re experiencing. Give yourself the time to allow for your soothing efforts to make an impact.
There will be times though when trying these quick fix tips and being supportively boring just won’t work to calm your bub! Please be assured that this is normal and there are a multitude of options available when it comes to settling, soothing and supporting your baby. In these times when your best efforts just aren’t working and seem to be adding more stimulation to the mix, it is 100% okay to recognise this and pop your baby down in a safe spot to give them some space. You could try laying them down on your bed or the floor and lay down nearby them, or maybe try the car seat, pram or carrier. I know that at times when bub just won’t settle, we resort to doing more and more to try to help them, but there will be times when your overstimulated bub needs less stimulation (even from you) in order to calm down. Taking this approach can also be a good way to give yourself a short break to regather and compose yourself before giving bub your attention again.
How can I avoid this happening?
Each and every baby is different, however you know your baby best and are the best placed person to know what seems to stimulate your baby the most, so that you can limit their exposure where possible. Tired or hungry babies’ systems become overwhelmed more easily too. It’s important that you and bub’s other carers try to stay on top of their sleep and feeding needs in order to avoid things having a greater impact than usual on your bub’s nervous system.
I feel it’s all about having a balance, alongside being your baby’s advocate. Some days you may need to be willing to sacrifice and switch courses if your bub is in struggle town! Having a good routine in place with your bub is key to ensuring some degree of consistency in their life. Utilising tools like awake times, knowing your baby’s early tired signals and avoiding things that you know trigger your baby on unsettled days are great ways to avoid potential overstimulation in bub.
In the end, I want to remind you that it is practically impossible to shelter your bub from overstimulation at some point in their lives and your parenting journey. Parenting really is full of moments and opportunities to learn about ourselves and our little ones, so that you can grow bigger and better together!
If you’re finding yourself stuck in a rut with an overstimulated bub more often than you’re able to handle, please reach out for a chat!