Stimulation, interaction, connections and engagement are essential for any human being to grow, develop and thrive.
Overdoing it, however, may interfere with the awake-sleep natural patterns and actually hinder learning abilities, as sleep is an essential component to homeostatic regulation, memory building, growth and learning.
What Is Overstimulation?
When an adult is sleep deprived, the strain this puts on them and those around them is generally well recognised.
If this happens to a child, it is also generally understood by family members. When this happens to a baby, less so.
In the first two weeks after birth, babies are (as long as stimulation goes) ‘protected from their immature systems.’
They can’t see more then 20cm away, they can’t pint-point individual sounds,
they can’t coordinate eye to object movement etc.
But between the birth and the first 4, 6, 8 weeks of life, their senses develop and ‘all of a sudden’ they can perceive their surroundings in much more detail.
Mainly due to brain development, for the first time in his/ her life, your baby has a series of new skills.
Now, think about a moment in your life when you had a new skill. Most probably you can connect it with being a little tentative but also getting tired quite quickly when using this new skill compared to your resistance levels when you are adept at it.
Baby’s immature nervous system
A newborn, specially around 4/ 6 weeks, may feel overwhelmed or overstimulated faster than you could possibly imagine.
Their nervous system is immature and the world around them is literally changing every day with each new
mental and motor skill they acquire.
What does overstimulation mean?
Overstimulation means that we are going well beyond our physiological arousal capabilities in order to maintain a connection or in order to keep an experience going. In short, there is an overload of experiences.
As seen and explained in ‘The Social baby’, the human brain is hard-wired for social interaction and we naturally crave connections.
So much so that if a baby’s first subtle cues of being tired are missed, and ‘we ask’ for more of his/her attention by playing or interacting, the baby will try its hardest time and again, to focus on the connection again.
However, what this mean at a physiological level is that the baby’s physiological response switches from para-sympathetic to sympathetic nervous system. The flight-or-fight system responds with an adrenalin rush to keep energy levels up for a bit longer.
Effects of overstimulation
Once the flight or fight response is activated, the excitement is up very quickly and the energy levels are prolonged. However this is a ‘false positive state’, and will soon translate into a very disorganised and cranky baby.
All this results in fussiness, crying, difficulty falling asleep and can possibly lead to colics as well as other ailments.
Cues your baby is getting tired
Any sign of disengaging from the stimulus such as:
- Glimpsing away
- Pulling away, turning away, arching their back
- Closing their eyes for a bit longer then a blink, especially if repeated
All these cues can be subtle. A short glimpse away followed by another one in a short
time. Likewise, turning their head, or body, away and not wanting to turn again towards the stimulus.
At this point adults often try to re-engage a baby. Having the immediate feed-back that
the baby listens and responds, understanding what is going on, is very reassuring for any parent. Understandably
But consider that most probably the baby is understanding exactly what is going on and
chooses not to re-engage as she/ he is starting to get tired.
Yawning is connected with homeostatic regulation (breathing and oxygen level regulation,
heart rate, temperature). Yawning indicates that the state of alertness is changing.
- Stroking their hands on their face or eyes
- Time gap with previous nap
|Age||No. of Naps||Tot. hrs. Naps Sleep||Endurable Hrs. Between Sleeps||Tot. hrs. Night Sleep||Tot. hrs Sleep in 24 hr.|
|Newborn||6 to 8 in 24 hrs.||The Awake time can be anything 15 minutes to 50 minutes but not at every cycle.
At this stage your baby may be connecting sleep cycles right after the feed. Without awake time.
|15 to 18 hrs.|
|4 – 8 week Weeks||3-4||5-7||1-2.5||8-10||15-16|
|11 – 20 Weeks||3-4||4-5||2-3.5||10-11||13-15|
The time that has passed from the previous nap is a major indicator of how tired a baby is despite his/ her behavioural state. A baby may still show signs of engagement but is actually very tired. Perhaps that baby just needs a hint to wind down and move from an exciting environment (e.g like in a room where the older sibling is playing) to a calmer and quieter one. This allow the baby to transition from potentially being on a flight-or-fight response to a calm, oxytocin state that haids sleep.
- The last cue your baby gives you to signal he/ she is tired is crying
Crying is often the last of the cues in every dynamic. If a baby is hungry, they will
signal it by rooting before crying. If they are tired, they will signal it by giving some sort of disengagement
Strategy to Avoiding overstimulation
Timing awake/nap cycles well.
This doesn’t necessarily mean being on a clock schedule. It simply means considering your baby’s age related, maximum awake time span. When this is coming to and end, allow for rest to aid sleep.
Keep sensorial experiences simple to begin with.
Avoid too many stimuli in one sensorial experience. For example, if you put your baby down on the play mat, consider that, for your baby, each stimulus is a new world to take in. Perhaps colours, shapes and natural movements are enough to take in the first few times without the sounds (and mechanical movements) as well. Observe your baby’s movement and visual expression. Does she open her eyes wider and more intensely than usual? Do her limbs move more rhythmically, or is she shaking? Shaking most often means overexcitement that will soon be followed by a bit of a cry, as the experience is too much to contain.
Be in tune with your baby’s behavioural state throughout the day. Noticing the ‘I am getting tired cues’.
Cues your baby is overstimulated
- Wider then usual eyes, with a dilated pupils
- Shaking of their arms. Tremors, or when their limbs are moving jerkily and quickly for a more prolonged time
- Passes from excitement to ‘lower lip wobble’ very quickly and possibly repeatedly.
- The ‘red face phase’ or change in breathing patterns.
Can it be something else?
If a baby is not sleeping and you are instinctively worried, as you have eliminated all the possible reasons, such as: hunger, wet/ dirty nappy, temperature, overstimulation etc… do seek professional advice.
The theory of colic being due to overstimulation seems to be supported by the fact that the colicky episodes are mainly in the evening after the stimulus of the day, rather than in the morning.
Having said that, some babies
colics in the early morning. Hence colic having more than one cause. It’s up to the parents to pin-point possible causes and find the links. This will in turn allow them to find a solution. Click here to read a practical article on colics
Soothing an overstimulated baby: solutions and strategies
- Sucking is a baby’s instinctual need. Sucking releases oxytocin, the calming and loving hormone that
regulates the nervous system and its response to stress.
- Holding your baby skin-to-skin is one of the most effective treatments. The more hours held, even when
they are not fussy, the less fussy they will be. (Despite common concerns, this will not result in a spoiled,
clingy child. In fact, it will guard against it)
- Using a sling can be particularly calming for babies and even prevent the outbreak of colic episodes. (Why
babywearing matters by Rosie Knowels).
- Keeping your baby warm. (But not overheated).
- With adequate information, consider prone (tummy) sleeping. “Dr. Nils Bergman believes that prone
sleeping is the biological normative standard in healhty infants. Prone sleep supports autonomic regulation,
heart rate, temperature and breathing. Bergman raises many questions about the potential stress or effect of
placing babies to sleep on their backs, and the inhibited homeostatic capabilities that may occur as a result.
… Bergman claims that the current generalised advice of back sleeping may be detrimental to most babies who
are not predisposed to a greater risks of SIDS when sleeping in prone position.” (Why your baby’s sleep matter
by Sarah Oackwell-Smith).
- White noise can help calm your baby.
In the womb your baby heard sounds, mainly the heart-beat, blood running through your
blood vessels and the movement of your stomach and intestines, actually reaching a level of about 90 decibels. This
is about the level of noise in a flat next to a train line with trains passing by.
For your baby a hairdryer, a hoover or the sound of water etc. can be particularly
familiar and reassuring.
- Rocking or swinging. Similarly, during pregnancy your baby was continually rocked by your body. Even when
you were still, your breathing was swinging her in and out.
Not only are babies not familiar with stillness, they also need human contact for
homeostatic regulation: heart rate, breathing and temperature. In your arms there is a natural movement, warmth and
contact that makes your baby feel very safe and secure.
- Use baby massage techniques or instinctual touch to massage your baby daily. This should be done when
your baby is quiet and content. Not when the baby is crying. Baby massage helps relaxation and bonding through
oxytocin release. It can also greatly help to reduce tummy pain.