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How to Deal with an Overtired Baby

An exhausted baby rubbing his eyes.
Yupa Watchanakit/Shutterstock

Getting your baby on a regular nap schedule can be frustrating, to say the least. But if he doesn’t get enough sleep, you’ll be dealing with the last thing any parent wants: an overtired baby.

When babies are awake for too long, their little bodies can’t handle it. They go into a stress response that releases hormones, like cortisol. This makes it nearly impossible for them to settle down.

Once a baby is officially overtired, it’s also very difficult to get them to fall asleep, even if they’re clearly exhausted. Once they finally do go down, they also won’t sleep as well or as long. If they wake up, it’s tough to get them to fall back to sleep.

Basically, you can kiss that sleep routine you’ve been working on goodbye. If you suspect your child might be overtired, there are a few ways to tell if you’re right. There are also some suggestions for what to do about it, and how to prevent it from happening again.

It’s a little extra work, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Signs Your Baby Is Overtired

A mother holding a crying baby.

It’s really important to know your baby’s sleepy cues so you can determine when she needs to go to sleep. For most babies, these cues include yawning, rubbing their eyes, putting their head down, and acting less energetic.

Below are some signs your child might be overtired:

  • She was really tired, and now she’s not: This is the best sign that your child is overtired. You might assume she just got a second wind and doesn’t need a nap anymore. However, if she went from normal sleepy cues to hyper, that’s likely not the case.
  • He’s extremely fussy: Think about how you feel when you’re exhausted. You might feel annoyed, moody, or irritated. That’s how your baby feels, and he’ll express it by whining, crying, and pushing you away, among other things.
  • She takes shorter naps: Was your baby once a great sleeper, but now suddenly struggles with daytime naps? If she regularly takes short (20-30 minutes) naps and is being extremely difficult when you try to put her down, she’s probably in an overtired cycle.
  • He fights sleep hard: Whether it’s a nap or at bedtime, an overtired baby will refuse sleep, even when he needs it most. He’ll cry a lot, try to get out of his crib, and cling to you. His back might become rigid and he’ll flail around.
  • She wakes up about 30-40 minutes after falling asleep: Babies who consistently wake up after about half an hour of sleep, whether at nap time or bedtime, are likely in an overtired cycle.
  • He doesn’t sleep through the night: An overtired baby won’t just wake up after half an hour—he’ll also wake up a few more times throughout the night. He might not always fully wake up so that you have to go get him, though. He might just cry and move around for a few minutes. Sometimes, he’ll fall back to sleep on his own, but others, you might need to go in and soothe or rock him.
  • She falls asleep at random times during the day: A well-rested baby probably isn’t going to fall asleep during a short car ride if it’s not her typical nap time, but an overtired baby will. If your child nods off whenever she gets a chance (like in the stroller during a walk), she might be overtired.
  • He cries when he wakes up from his nap: This means he didn’t get enough rest because he’s overtired. Most children will wake up from a nap happy, and even play for a bit on their own before you come get them.

What to Do When Your Child Is Overtired

Once you’ve realized your baby is overtired, you need to try to reverse it quickly. This can take time, so be patient. You basically need to help her fall asleep, instead of leaving her to her own devices.

Here are some approaches you can try:

  • Make your newborn feel safe: If your baby is only a few months old, swaddle him to soothe him. Rock him in a dark, quiet room until he’s calm enough to be put down.
  • Comfort her: Read a book or gently sing while rocking her in a quiet room with dimmed lights. You can also try giving her a bath to calm her.
  • Sit with your toddler: Toddlers can be more difficult than infants. You might need to sit with him until he falls asleep—just try not to make it a habit. You just want to calm him as much as possible so he can relax and fall asleep.

How to Prevent It From Happening

A mother holding a sleeping baby.

Sometimes, babies get into an overtired cycle and all of their sleep is bad. This might be short-lived, though. For example, if your child misses a nap or takes a shorter one, she’ll likely show signs of being overtired. A good night’s sleep usually corrects this, though.

Here are a few ways you can prevent long- or short-term over-exhaustion:

  • Pay attention to wake times and sleepy cues: Do some research and find out how long your baby should be awake between sleeps based on his age. Try to follow this as much as possible. Whenever he starts his sleepy cues, it’s time to calm him down and get him ready for bed.
  • Keep her on a sleep schedule: Yes, sleep schedules are annoying. Yes, it would be so much easier to just let your baby sleep when she felt like it. A sleep schedule is really your best option, though. Your child will get used to it and, actually, grow to love it because it makes her feel safe. An example of a sleep schedule for a 12-month-old might be: wake up at 8 a.m., nap 10:45-11 a.m., second nap at 3 p.m., and then bedtime at 7 p.m. Whatever you decide, stick to the same times every day, and you’ll probably find it works like a charm.
  • Have a bedtime routine: Doing the same thing before bed and naps lets your child know it’s time to relax and get ready to sleep. For example, before a nap, you might take him in his room and dim the lights. Let him play for a bit, read and/or sing to him, and then put him down. At night, you might give him a bath, do a diaper and pj’s change, give him a bottle, and then read or sing again before putting him down.
  • Avoid overstimulating her before bed: This means no screen time up to an hour before bed. The blue light can mess with the release of melatonin, which is the sleep hormone that indicates to our bodies it’s time to settle down. Try to keep things calm around her for a while before bedtime.

Dealing with a tired baby when you’re exhausted yourself can be beyond frustrating. However, with a little proactive planning and a solid routine, you can get your kiddo down for a nap before the meltdown.

Jessica Booth Jessica Booth
Jessica Booth is a freelance writer for LifeSavvy. She has been working in the editorial world as a freelance writer for over two years and previously worked as an editor for over eight years.  Jessica writes about travel, beauty, wellness, health, food, home decor, and parenting, and has reviewed and tested out products for all of those verticals over the course of her career. Read Full Bio »
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