Knowing what to do when your baby becomes overtired can seem overwhelming to new parents, but there are ways to help you and your baby cope when this challenging situation arises.

Newborn babies need a lot of sleep at around 15-17 hours in a 24 hour period but some are able to sleep more easily than others.  There is a wide range of normal sleeping patterns - some infants will sleep for three or four hours at time, and need to be woken to feed. Others will sleep for only an hour at a time. However they can usually only handle short periods of awake time before needing to sleep.

Almost all babies will become overtired at some point. When they do they will find it very difficult to sleep and be extremely fussy.  For new parents, it can be difficult to know what to do with an overtired baby. With this in mind, we answer three major questions for all new parents out there: why babies get overtired, what the signs of overtiredness are, and how best to cope with an overtired baby.

The Why: Causes of a Baby becoming Overtired

Overtiredness is a kind of fatigue that engages the stress-response system in infants. As the name implies, overtiredness goes beyond mere tiredness. When a baby is overtired, it is difficult to get them to go to sleep. Instead, overtired babies are very fussy and can seem ‘wired’.

Because newborns are constantly learning from the stimulation all around them, they need regular periods of sleep so that their brain has time to process everything (it's useful to know the normal napping habits of a baby during the day). The average newborn can only handle about forty-five minutes to 1.5 hours of awake time before needing sleep. Once this period passes, babies may produce more adrenaline to stay awake, which creates a cycle of overtiredness.  

The What: Signs of an Overtired Baby

As a new parent, it will take you a while to learn the signs your baby shows when they are tired. These can include:

  • Looking away from stimulation
  • Yawning
  • Pulling at their ears
  • Rubbing eyes, ears or head
  • Jerky arm and leg movements
  • Frowning
  • Closing their fists

If a baby isn’t given the opportunity to sleep when they become tired or if they are not able to go to sleep then they can become  over tired. So what are the signs to look for?

  • Fussy
  • Arching their back and appearing in pain
  • Unable to settle easily
  • Crying a lot
  • Very clingy
  • Difficulty feeding
  • Appearing ‘wired’, wound up and extremely alert

The How: what to do when your Baby is Overtired

Now that you know what overtiredness looks like, as well as what causes overtiredness in the first place, the next step is to understand the best approach to managing an overtired baby. It can be a very tough situation for both parent and baby but there are things you can do to help you both through it.

Of course, the best thing that you can try to do for your baby is to prevent him or her from becoming overtired. Once you can recognise your baby’s tired signs this will become easier. Also understanging how long your baby should be awake between naps will be helpfil. However, sometimes despite everyone’s best efforts your baby won’t be able to sleep at the ideal time and will become overtired.  

Here are several things that you can do to help them calm down, become drowsy, and eventually get to sleep:

  • Take your baby to a quiet, darkened room
  • Swaddle your baby
  • Feed them (breast or bottle)
  • Hum or sing quietly
  • Play white noise
  • Rock your baby or walk them back and forth
  • Give them a dummy or pacifier
  • Wear your baby in a sling or carrier
  • Take your baby for a walk in their pram or a drive in the car