For many new parents, sleep is like gold dust - scarce, hard to find, and scattered into lots of little chunks! Every parent wants their baby to sleep well, but what you might not know is that, if you aren't careful, babies can actually become too overtired to fall asleep!
This is because their body activates a stress response, leading to adrenaline and other chemicals being released and making it much harder for them to relax.
By keeping an eye on your baby's sleep cues and using some extra sleep aids, you can have your newborn sleeping through the night without having to deal with their fussy, overtired side:
Newborn sleep cues
Help to sleep
Sound: what does an overtired newborn cry sound like?
Baby crying might have all sounded the same before you became a parent, but once you have a baby of your own you start to notice the different nuances in their cries and what they all mean. For lots of babies, being overtired leads to a nasal cry that builds and gets stronger over time. It may be higher pitched than their usual cry, and your baby might arch their back while crying too.
Prevention: how to keep your baby from getting overtired
When it comes to combatting overtiredness, the best thing you can do is keep your baby from reaching this point in the first place. By being careful with your little one's sleep and ensuring that their schedule aligns with their natural rhythms, you can keep them from becoming overtired in the future.
Here are three key points to keep in mind when trying to prevent overtiredness:
Consistency is the most important element of any sleep schedule, especially for your little one, and you can start planning out a regular sleep schedule when your baby is 2 or 3 months old.
At this age, your baby can still only stay awake for around an hour and a half at a time so make sure to plan for regular naps to avoid overtiredness. For more tips on baby sleep needs, check out our blog on sleep schedules at every age.
When putting your baby to bed, you'll want to make sure you're doing it at the right time - otherwise, you'll find that they're either too awake to fall asleep, or too overtired to fall asleep! Baby sleep expert Dr. Harvey Karp has talked about this conundrum before:
Be punctual. When your baby’s wake window comes to a close, drop what you’re doing and put down your baby to sleep. The key is to prepare her for sleep before she shows signs of overtiredness. - Wonder Baby
'Many tired babies can sleep anywhere, anytime. But those with a challenging temperament or poor state control live on a tightrope. Growing weariness can suddenly tip them off balance and send them crashing down from a happy alertness to exhausted misery in a blink.'
That's why you need to go to sleep at just the right moment; the 'golden moment' where they're drowsy enough to sleep, but not so tired they become cranky.
Newborn sleep cues
The best way to know if your baby is at the perfect moment to be put to bed is by following their sleep cues. These are unique for every baby, but they'll usually be made up of a few of the following behaviors: yawning, blinking more than usual, becoming quieter, softly crying (or 'grizzling'), rubbing their eyes, and stretching.
However, there might be a few not listed here that are totally unique to your little one - just keep an eye on their behaviors at different points in the day to figure them out!
This way, you'll be able to put your baby to bed at the optimal time mentioned earlier - awake, but drowsy.
Recommended amount of sleep
The amount of sleep your baby needs is highly dependent on their age - generally speaking, the older your baby is, the less sleep they'll need in a 24-hour period. For example, while a newborn baby will need 15 to 18 hours of sleep throughout the day, this reduces to between 14 and 16 by the time they're 2 or 3 months old.
However, it's important to bear in mind that your baby is unique, and that it's perfectly fine for them to sleep a little more or a little less than charts and diagrams tell you - you know your baby best!
Help: How to get an overtired newborn to sleep
It's best to prevent newborn babies from becoming overtired in the first place, but mistakes happen and it's certainly not always easy to spot the signs before it's too late!
If you have an overtired baby on your hands, and you've made sure they aren't crying for another reason - remember, your overtired baby's cry will sound high pitched and nasal - there are a wide variety of things that you can do to calm your baby to sleep.
Create a calm atmosphere
If your baby is fussy or stressed at bedtime for any reason, making sure that their sleep environment is calm and soothing without unnecessary stimulation is a great first step to take.
You can achieve this by doing things like installing blackout blinds if you have streetlights nearby outside, or investing in a baby-safe white noise machine if you live in a noisy house or apartment building. For a baby who has only recently made the womb to world transition, these little changes can make a big difference!
Soothe with a routine
Along with having a comforting and quiet atmosphere for your baby to sleep in, you should also make sure that you're going through a calming routine in the lead-up to bedtime.
This can involve whatever you want, from a nighttime bath to a bedtime story, but make sure it's consistent - this way, your baby can make positive sleep associations that help them understand when it's time to sleep.
If your baby hasn't started to show any signs of rolling over yet, it's still safe to swaddle them - and it could be a great way of calming an overtired baby!
Our Zen Neo swaddle pod is a great way to get a perfect swaddle fit every time, and is gently weighted to mimic your soothing touch and help calm your overtired baby to sleep.
Try a sleep sack
When your baby starts to roll over and can't be swaddled anymore (usually at around 3 or 4 months), it can be a great opportunity to transition to something like a sleep sack.
Our Zen Sack classic features a lightly weighted pad that mimics your touch and can help provide gentle pressure similar to swaddling. Not only that, but it can be easily reversed and worn backward for independently rolling tummy sleepers!
Evaluate your schedule
If your baby is consistently becoming overtired every day or most days, you might want to take a look at the sleep schedule you have them on.
Remember, a newborn baby can only be comfortably awake for up to 90 minutes at a time - if you have intervals longer than this between naps or before nighttime sleep, you might end up with a tired baby who's feeling too fussy to sleep.
Overtired newborn: Key takeaways
Having an overtired newborn baby can be a frustrating time - after all, if they're that tired, why don't they just sleep? But don't worry; with a few sleep aids, a calming sleep routine, and a revamped schedule that better suits newborn sleep patterns, you'll be leaving this problem behind and be on the path to healthy sleep habits! Just remember the key takeaways of this blog:
Overtiredness leads to a stress response that keeps your baby awake
An overtired cry will sound higher pitched and more nasally than other cries
Prevention is the key here - make sure your baby is being put to bed awake, but drowsy
Keep an eye on your baby's unique sleep cues to know when they're getting sleepy
Consider changing your current schedule to better match your baby's sleep needs (a newborn can only be awake comfortably for 90 minutes at a time)
Sleep aids can be a lifesaver here, so try blackout blinds and baby-safe white noise machines that reduce overstimulation
Swaddling can soothe fussy babies and reduce the overstimulation that might be making their overtiredness worse
Our Zen Sack classic, with its gently weighted pad to mimic your touch, is perfect for soothing babies who struggle to sleep for a range of reasons
Commonly asked questions about overtired babies
What does an overtired baby's cry sound like?
As a new parent, you'll have gotten used to the subtle differences in your baby's cry meaning that they're wanting different things, and an overtired baby cry is no different. Generally speaking, overtired babies will have a cry that is more high-pitched and nasally than other cries, and it might be accompanied by jerking motions or an arched back.
As you can imagine, this only stresses out your baby further, and isn't ideal when you're wanting them to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night!
What are the signs of an overtired baby?
Along with the distinctive cry, there are a few other signs that your baby might be too tired to sleep. Overtired babies tend to fall asleep for short naps rather than longer stretches of sleep, start falling asleep at random points throughout the day, and (most frustratingly) will fight sleep when you put them down in their crib.
You might even find your baby waking after they've already fallen asleep, despite the fact that they clearly need to catch some Zs!
Why is my overtired baby fighting nighttime sleep?
This is the most difficult part of dealing with an overtired baby for many parents - if they need sleep, then why don't they just fall asleep in their crib?
This is because an overtired baby is experiencing an automatic stress response due to their fatigue, which then leads chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to be released into their bloodstream, making them stay awake even when they'd rather be snoozing.
That's why it's important to try to prevent overtiredness before it happens - it's much easier to prevent than it is to solve after the fact!
How do you help overtired babies sleep?
Though it's harder than preventing overtiredness in the first place, it's definitely possible to soothe an overtired baby with a few tips and tricks. For instance, you can reduce any risk of overstimulation making the problem worse by using blackout blinds and a (baby-safe) white noise machine to keep light and noise out of their sleep space.
You could also try our Zen Sack classic, a sleep sack with a gently weighted pad designed to mimic your soothing touch and help your baby feel snug and secure as they sleep. It can even be worn backward for tummy sleepers to distribute this light pressure across their back instead!
Can sleep training help an overtired baby?
As a new parent, you've likely heard a lot about the importance of sleep training for getting your baby onto a consistent sleep schedule. Though it can be helpful to sleep train your little one, the priority for an exhausted baby should always be getting them the sleep they need, without this added pressure. The important thing is that your baby gets all the rest they need to stay healthy and develop properly - any sleep training can safely wait for now.