Overstimulating babies and what it looks like
Everything is brand new to a baby. They are seeing the world for the first time. Things that you and I may see as normal or underwhelming (or perhaps not even notice!), baby can find stimulating, scary and overwhelming. Bright lights, loud music, television, groups of people, dogs barking, other crying babies, and so on and so forth! Of course stimulation is essential for babies to grow and develop, this is how they learn about the world around them and develop their senses. How do we find a balance between enough stimulation and too much stimulation? We need to learn our babies cues, notice when they have had enough, and provide them with a chance for quiet time throughout the day.
Signs and Cues that Baby Needs a Break
Babies will give us many cues and signals that they are beginning to feel overwhelmed, when we notice these cues and respond appropriately, we can help the baby before their distress becomes so great that they begin to scream or cry.
A lot of the cues baby will give you may also be actions or expressions that they use when feeling happy or content. It is essential that we look at all of babies cues, not just one, in order to gain a better understanding of how baby is feeling. If we observe a cue in isolation, we may be getting the wrong message. Look for a cluster of clues to help you determine how your baby is feeling.
- Self-Soothing. Babies will often begin to self-sooth when they begin to feel overwhelmed. They may suck on their hands or fingers, stroke their face repeatedly, suck on a blanket or teddy, or pull on their ears.
- Body Language. Babies body may begin to tense up and stiffen. They may try and squirm away from adults holding or touching them. They may start to curl up into a fetal position or similar.
- Signs of Tiredness. A baby may start to show what looks like signs of fatigue, but in fact is a response to over stimulation. For example, rubbing their eyes, yawning, closing eyes, tugging their ears, etc.
- Facial Expressions. Watch babies face, is it tight and tense? Are they scowling or scrunching up their eyebrows? Do they look angry or upset? A baby will show us with their facial expressions how they are feeling, long before the need for crying begins.
- Avoiding eye contact. Maintaining eye contact can be challenging for a baby and very stimulating. When a baby is starting to feel overwhelmed they will avoid eye contact and look away from you and others who are trying to engage with them.
- Sounds. Before crying begins a baby may vocalize their feelings through whining, grunting, spitting, or chirping.
It is easy to miss these cues, especially when you are with a group of people chatting and enjoying socializing. It’s when we miss these cues that baby then will feel the need to scream or cry. It is very unusual for a baby to go from happy to screaming, there are almost always signs and cues that lead up to the crying. The sooner we notice their cues and respond appropriately, the less likely baby is to scream or cry.
Responding to Babies Cues
When you notice baby giving you these cues, pause and assess the environment and situation. Is there anything that could be causing baby to feel overwhelmed? Often babies will begin to give you cues while being passed around from relative to relative. Or perhaps their is too much noise (loud music or TV, dog barking, people shouting, etc). You may be at a class where there are lots of things happening and lots of other babies around. Perhaps the lights are too bright or their clothing or blanket too scratchy or uncomfortable. Try and remove baby from the situation causing stress or change the environment to make it more peaceful (e.g. turn off a bright light, turn off music, etc).
Don’t feel bad if you have to ask friends and relatives to stop holding baby. Remember it is your baby who is most important in this situation, friends and family will understand. If you are at a class or group, don’t worry about needing to leave the room. Staying in the room when baby is feeling overstimulated will only lead to crying, which will be more disruptive and cause you stress as well.
Introducing daily quiet time can help baby adjust to changes and stimulating events and environments. Daily quiet time can also lead to a more peaceful evening routine and sleep. Quiet time is separate from nap times. Set aside time each day, when baby is awake, to just enjoy some peaceful moments. Turn down the lights, turn off music and the TV. Put your phone away and find a quiet space away from the hustle and bustle of daily life in your home. Allow baby to play if they choose, or have a nice quiet cuddle with them. Avoid making a lot of noise, talking a lot or singing. Something as simple as looking at a book together in a nice quiet space, can make a big difference to baby’s day.
Providing quiet time for baby allows them to process what they have learned and been exposed to so far that day. It gives them a chance to de-stress and refresh. It also begins to build up their tool box, providing them with the tools they need to calm and comfort themselves as they grow older.
Quiet time also gives you a chance to de-stress and refresh. It allows you to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the day and just enjoy some quiet time with baby. You may even choose to get a few things done around the house while baby is having quiet time. It’s OK to leave baby in a safe place to enjoy quiet time, as you take time to read, put a load of laundry in or make a cup of tea. Just remember that this is quiet time for baby, so avoid making a lot of noise or turning on lots of lights, the TV or music.
The Witching Hour
Many of us have heard the term “the witching hour.” This term is used to describe the time in the evening (often more than an hour!) when baby may cry and cry and cry, no matter what you do to soothe them. This happens when a baby is overstimulated. The witching hour is in the evening because it is then, after a day full of stimulation, that baby cannot take any more. To release their stress they cry, just as adults cry or shout when they feel overwhelmed, upset, stressed and just fed up! Crying at the end of an overstimulating day allows baby to release tension. It can be very hard to listen to and to deal with. So how can we help baby when they get into this state?
- Turn off or dim the lights. Create a calming atmosphere by turning off overhead lights and keep the room dim.
- Turn off or remove noise. Turn of the TV, music, phones and move baby away from other family members who are making noise or being rowdy. Find a quiet space to take baby.
- Comfortable clothes. Make sure baby is wearing comfortable clothes and that they are not too hot or too cold. Check to make sure tags aren’t scratching them or that their socks aren’t too tight, etc.
- Avoid too much movement. Try not to walk with baby or rock them too much. Light movement may be fine, but too much bouncing or rocking will just add to their over stimulation
- Avoid too much shushing. Shushing, singing, etc. is noise (see #1). Often a baby may love being shushed or sung to, but in times like these it is best to keep all noise to a minimum.
- One on one time. Find a room that is empty of other people. Only have one person at a time caring for baby when they are in this state. Try not to pass baby back and forth between yourself and other adults too frequently. If you need a break, ask another adult to step in for you, while you leave the room. If there is no one to relieve you, put baby down in a safe place, like a crib or playpen, and take a break and return to baby when you feel ready and able.
The witching hour isn’t inevitable. You can help decrease these types of situations by respecting your baby’s cues (see signs and cues above), avoiding filling your day with too many activities, limiting the amount of time loud music and the television is on when baby is in the room, and ensuring they receive quiet time each day. A day filled with fun activities may seem like just that to you..fun! However to a baby, these types of days can become overwhelming and over stimulating. Try not to do too many things with baby in one day, if possible.
There will be times that a busy day has to happen! That’s just life. One these days, try and limit the amount of stimulation as best you can. On a busy day, when driving, turn off the radio, allow baby to have a few quiet minutes in the car before the next activity begins. Try finding quiet spaces throughout the day to take baby too, maybe a room in a friend of family members house, maybe a quiet cafe, or maybe just sitting with baby quietly in the car. Try and limit the number of people who hold baby that day, and maybe even limit it to people they already know. Do your best to find little moments throughout the day where baby can have some down time.
What cues does your baby give you when they have had enough? Do you have any tips or ideas on ways to avoid overstimulating baby. What has worked for you?
Please feel free to share ideas, comments and questions below! It takes a village to raise a child and we can all learn from one another ♥