Why babies become OVER-TIRED
Babies are born with an immature nervous system. It can take many months for some babies to be able to regulate the amount of stimulation flooding their nervous system. Many young babies, under the age of 3 months, can become over-stimulated as a result. Once distressed from over-stimulation, these same babies may find it very difficult to calm, even with parents help.
How WELL a baby handles stimulation ALSO depends on her temperament. Babies with 'easy-going' temperaments are not fazed by much at all. 'Sensitive' babies are limited in their ability to tolerate stimulation and can easily become over-stimulated when there is a lot of activity, bright lights or lots of noise. 'Intense' babies can quickly become distressed from over-stimulation which can occur as a result of the day to day activities we take for granted. (Stimulation for a newborn also includes the simple acts like feeding, handling, talking to her and engaging her with eye contact).
As an adult you can avoid situations you find disturbing, such as noise, music, too many people, your baby cannot. She can't tell you when she's had enough, so she depends on you to pick up her behavioral cues. If you miss (or misread) the subtle behavior she displays initially, her behavior may continue to escalate until reaching the point of not-so-subtle screaming and/or other distressed behaviors that are often mistaken for pain.
Over-stimulation increases the risk your baby will also become over-tired, which may further add to her distressed state.
It is a commonly held belief that if a baby was tired she would simply fall asleep. A baby with and 'easy-going' temperament is likely to sleep anywhere, anytime. But many babies, particularly those who are sensitive to stimulation, need a low stimulating environment (low light, low noise, minimal activity) that will encourage sleep, at the time they are ready to sleep. (As opposed to an environment that encourages wakefulness.)
Some babies will simply fall asleep when they are ready, others will not. Many babies rely on parents to recognize when they are tired. If parents do NOT accurately interpret their baby's signs of tiredness there is every possibility that the baby will be kept awake for longer than she should. This increases BOTH the risk of over-stimulation and over-tiredness.
As a parent you are teaching your baby from the moment she's born (and before). By regularly providing certain cues which your baby starts to relate to sleep, you are teaching her "this is the way you go to sleep". In most situations, this is occurring WITHOUT parents realizing it. If the same cues are provided often enough, within a few days (sometimes less) your baby may start to associate these cues with sleeping. This then becomes a sleep association for your baby.
If the sleep cues you provide includes your involvement, your baby will begin to DEPEND on your help to fall asleep. A sleep association is generally not a problem for babies with an 'easy-going' temperament, because once asleep they often stay asleep. However, for many babies and children with 'sensitive' or 'irritable' temperaments, a sleep association which relies on parent's involvement can lead to over-tiredness in a number of different ways...
A) Once dependent on a parent's help to fall asleep, a baby may experience difficulty falling asleep in any other way OR for different people.
B) If a baby finds it difficult to fall asleep in another way, this means she has to WAIT for parents to provide help. It also means she now depends on parents to RECOGNIZE her tired signs and provide this help at the right time. If parents overlook or misinterpret her signs of tiredness, which commonly occurs, OR if they are busy, she may be kept waiting too long and this can result in her becoming over-tired.
C) A dependence on parental help to fall asleep may also result in a dependence on the same help to STAY asleep. If this help is not provided at the EXACT time the baby stirs between sleep cycles she is far more likely to wake fully, often before she has had enough sleep, and in doing so she becomes over-tired.
D) This problem does not end there! It can also lead to sleep deprivation for parents. Because of their baby's dependence on their help to fall asleep and stay asleep this may mean parent's may be woken multiple times though the night to help their baby to return to sleep. Few parents have the available time and/or energy to physically assist their baby to fall asleep and stay asleep as often as their baby needs... day and night, over a 24 hour period... day after day... for weeks.... months or years. This may result in a sleep deprived baby AND sleep deprived parents.
In a nutshell... parents unknowingly teach their child to depend on them to sleep but cannot physically provide this help each time it is needed, so the child becomes over-tired.
F) If a child associates sleep with feeding (breast or bottle) there is an increased risk that she will want to feed more often, not necessarily because of hunger but because "that's the way I go to sleep". This may lead to over-feeding (see hungry baby), which may further complicate the situation, as over-feeding may result in gastric symptoms such as; tummy ache, gas, watery bowel movements and spitting up in an otherwise healthy, thriving child.
Babies frequently wake between sleep cycles but this does NOT necessarily mean they have had ENOUGH sleep. Parents hearing or seeing their baby stir (or even cry) mistakenly believe their baby has had enough sleep and pick her up only to find within a few minutes she is once again crying (because she's still tired).
HOW WE CAN HELP you to encourage your baby's sleep and avoid distress related to over-tiredness.
Added Feb 2004. Revised 2008; Sept 2013.