Sleep is an essential part of our overall health. Our bodies need sleep to restore themselves. In fact, sleep begets sleep for babies, toddlers, and young children! What does that mean? Adequate sleep makes it easier for your little one to fall asleep and stay asleep. But restorative sleep does not happen in a car seat, swing, stroller, or your arms. The poor quality sleep that occurs in those places sets your baby up for bad sleep later in the day and at night. So let’s go over why it’s not cute when your baby stays awake all day.
Why is it not cute when my baby stays awake all day?
While we all know that babies are notorious for “eating, sleeping, and pooping” during their first few weeks of life, did you know that the sleeping part is what they need to be taught? For the first eight weeks of life, babies bodies do not synthesize melatonin (the hormone responsible for making us feel tired). So their bodies are working on a 24 hour clock (this is why babies do not have distinct “days” and “nights” and eat around the clock). Because of this, it is important that we watch for tired cues and pay attention to their wakeful periods so we can help them get the sleep they need.
As postpartum doulas, we often hear that a baby was awake for several hours or more during the day and that baby was “alert” or “wide awake”. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true. Your baby may have appeared alert, but they were likely overtired for a large chunk of their wakeful time. A lack of sleep changes your body chemistry; adrenaline and cortisol levels rise, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep in both babies and adults.
Remember when you were in college and you pulled an all nighter to finish a paper or go to a frat party? You were tired around your normal “bed time,” but if you pushed through you got a “second wind”. That burst of energy and wakefulness felt exhilarating…until you crashed. When you were finally able to fall asleep, it likely wasn’t restful and I would be willing to bet that, hangover aside, you woke up groggy rather than well rested. THAT is what your baby’s body is going through when you allow them to stay awake longer than they should.
What signs of fatigue should I watch for?
Some of these you probably know, but I’d be willing to bet that there are a few on this list that will surprise you!
- increased fussiness
- staring blankly
- reduced activity
- bursts of energy (think “second wind”)
- rapid breathing
- arching their back in protest of being put down
- difficulty feeding
How can I prevent my baby from becoming overtired?
Teach good sleep early. We have a blog dedicated to establishing good sleep habits, which can be found here, but to summarize:
- Put baby down to sleep either awake or drowsy. This allows baby to figure out how to fall asleep on their own – a lifelong skill.
- From day one have baby sleep on a firm, flat surface without the use of any positioners (such as the Dock-a-Tot, a wedge, etc). Despite what the advertising says, positioners are not considered safe for sleeping by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
- For a full rundown on the AAP safe sleep standards, click here.
- Observe wakeful periods when determining when it’s time for baby to sleep. As a general guideline, babies 0 to 3 months of age need approximately 14-17 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. Babies 4 to 12 months of age require between 12 and 15 hours of sleep daily.
- Click here for our downloadable reference on wakeful periods by age.
How can I calm my overtired baby?
Try not to stress if your baby becomes overtired. It does happen, even if you are vigilant about their wakeful periods. What will help calm your baby at this point will vary, but we are big fans of the Five Ss in a dark or dimly lit room.
- Swaddle – tightly swaddle your baby. What if your baby “doesn’t like to be swaddled”? In our experience, this often comes down to baby not being swaddled tightly enough (while still allowing the lower half of their body freedom to move).
- Shush – a white noise machine or Shusher are awesome for new parents, but an app on your smart phone works just as well!
- Suck – offering baby a pacifier can help them settle down.
- Side – hold your baby on their side, belly-to-belly with you.
- Sway – swaying or rocking your baby gently, with the other 4 Ss in a darkened room can help ease them to sleep.
Resources and References
A huge thank you to Tiffany Shank of Family Bliss for consulting for this article. Your insight and expertise are invaluable to parents of small children. The following articles were also referenced.
- Baby Sleep Debt 101
- Understanding Overtiredness in Babies
- Dealing with an Overtired Baby
- How do I identify and Manage Being Overtired?
- Solving Baby’s Sleep Problems
- The Baby Sleep Myth that Backfires
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This article is for informational purposes, only. It cannot diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. It does not take the place of consultation with your child’s pediatrician.