How to Get an Overtired Baby to Sleep: 5 Tips Every Mom Needs to Know
It’s been hours since your baby has last slept. You know he’s tired and yet his body seems to be in overdrive. His little limbs are jerking wildly. You have a feeling that cranky whine is about to turn into a full-blown wail.
He needs sleep. You need sleep. And yet, sleep seems like the last thing your baby is about to do.
Getting an overtired baby to sleep is like trying to fit a square peg into a circular hole. It feels impossible and often ends with you both crying.
As a mom of two energetic girls, I feel for you! My second daughter especially is sensitive to interruptions in her sleep schedule. Prone to overtiredness, I’ve spent plenty of afternoons trying to coax her into a restful nap. So, I guess you could say that learning how to get an overtired baby to sleep was a necessity for me.
If you’re struggling too, I am so, so glad you’re here. In this post, we’re going to go over everything you need to know to break the cycle of an overtired baby and help you both get the rest you need.
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What Does It Mean When a Baby is Overtired?
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First things, first. Why is your baby tired?
The why is so important, because it’ll tell you how to help.
Throughout the day, your baby’s hormone levels fluctuate. During the daylight hours, he produces cortisol. Cortisol production is stimulated by light, sound, sunlight, and stressors.
Before a baby falls asleep, his body produces melatonin. In contrast to cortisol, melatonin production increases with sleepy cues like nightfall or a darkened room.
So, how does a baby become overtired?
Your baby’s “ideal sleep window” occurs at the height of melatonin production. If he isn’t put down during that sleep window, his body will produce more cortisol and he’ll become overtired.
Think of cortisol as a shot of espresso. It jolts your baby awake, but at the cost of good sleep later.
As your baby gets older, his ideal sleep window becomes a little wider. However, the younger your baby is, the easier it is for him to pass his ideal sleep window and become overtired.
For example, newborns need to sleep every 45-60 minutes. By contrast, a 9-month-old can go about 2.5-3 hours before taking a nap.
Your goal is to help your baby wind down, produce melatonin, and get rid of that pesky stress hormone.
Signs Your Baby is Overtired
The funny thing is, overtired babies display short bursts of energy (tricking you into believing he’s not tired).
Here are few signs that your baby has passed his sleep window and is drifting into the land of overtiredness:
- Zoning Out
- Red Eyes
- Rubbing Eyes/Tugging Ears
- Jerky Movements and Hyperactivity
- Clinging and crying inconsolably (My daughter tends to start whining and gradually increases to a full-scale “waaaahhh” sound).
If your baby displays these signs, he needed to go to bed, like, five minutes ago. Remove him from the fun and follow the steps I’ve suggested below.
Signs Your Baby is Chronically Overtired
If your baby is always fussy and suffering from short naps and frequent night wakings, there’s a chance he has become chronically overtired.
Do any of these signs look familiar?
- Consistently short naps (about 45 minutes)
- Frequent night wakings
- Overall crankiness that only gets worse throughout the day
- Inconsistent daytime sleep (maybe be up for 4-5 hours without a nap)
Overtiredness is a vicious cycle. Your little one needs sleep. You know that. He knows that. The trouble is, your overtired baby won’t sleep! His body is producing cortisol like crazy, which keeps him in a state of perpetual exhaustion.
The tips below will help you get your baby to sleep now AND help you break the cycle of an overtired baby.
5 Tips to Get Your Overtired Baby to Sleep
Set the Mood
We need to remove all distractions and stressors from your baby’s tired eyes.
Think about the perfect nap. Where would you take it? I don’t know about you, but I’d go upstairs to my cozy, dark, quiet bedroom, and hibernate there for at least two hours.
Your baby needs a similar setup to sleep, especially when he’s overtired. Turn off the lights, pull his curtains closed (blackout curtains are best!), and turn on the white noise machine to filter out any disruptions from pets or siblings.
If you already have a bedtime or naptime routine in place, make sure you do that before you put him down. When your baby is screaming, it’s tempting to skip the routine. Believe me, a routine will be your saving grace.
By doing all these steps, you’re signaling to your baby that it’s naptime and it’s time for his body to produce melatonin. Just keep in mind that many overtired babies will need much longer to unwind, anywhere between 5-20 minutes.
Don’t be discouraged if you meet a little resistance!
Use Magnesium Lotion
I’m 99% sure that magnesium lotion is a magical gift from sleep fairies. I can’t believe how well this stuff works.
My daughter is in the process of dropping her third nap. Come bedtime, she can be very tired and cranky. Before I started using magnesium lotion, she fussed almost every night. Now, by the time I’m finished with her bedtime routine, she’s limp in my arms and usually doesn’t make a peep when I put her down.
This, my friends, is the result of a good magnesium lotion.
Studies show that magnesium serves as a natural sedative and muscle relaxant. When your baby’s body is filled with cortisol and every nerve is set on overdrive, magnesium calms this stress-response, safely and naturally helping him fall asleep.
I prefer magnesium lotion over supplements. When you massage magnesium lotion onto your baby’s skin, you’re bypassing the digestive tract and allowing it to absorb into his bloodstream. No diarrhea or tummy aches!
My favorite magnesium lotion comes from 8 Sheep Organics. I love their Junior Bedtime Lotion because it’s made from natural ingredients, including mango butter and vitamin E oil (both of which are great for my baby’s sensitive skin), and it contains sleep-boosting essential oils.
If you want to grab your own jar of the Junior Bedtime Lotion, just use the code ERIN10 for 10% off.
Give Baby a Massage
Okay, you’ve smothered your baby’s feet in magnesium lotion.
If he still needs time to unwind, now is the perfect time to give him a little massage. An infant massage relieves muscular tension, distracts from negative physical sensations, and reduces cortisol production. A massage can be as quick as 5 minutes and should focus on what feels good for your baby.
Here are a few techniques for massaging your baby:
- Feet: Hold your baby’s foot with both hands and gently smooth your thumbs over the top and sole in slow, sweeping arcs.
- Arms and Legs: The technique depends widely on your baby’s preferences. Some babies like to have their arms and legs smoothed over with a firm but gentle grip. Others enjoy rolling (like you would roll dough) or twisting (imagine gently twisting a wet towel).
- Tummy: Smooth your hands over your baby’s stomach in a figure 8 or write out “I <3 U”
Swaddling is a powerful tool for infant sleep. Studies have found that swaddling can calm babies faster and help them sleep for longer periods. I don’t know about you, but this is enough reason for me to give it a try!
When you’re trying to calm an overtired baby, your goal is to reduce stress and increase melatonin. A swaddle wraps up those flailing limbs and creates a cocoon-like environment that helps many babies feel secure.
One thing you should know first though: many babies, especially overtired ones, cry when they are overtired. So don’t be discouraged and give swaddling a chance. Make sure your baby is wrapped in a secure swaddle (the velcro or zip-up kind works best) that keeps him nice and snug but restricts movement.
Note: If your baby is rolling, please do not attempt to swaddle!
Once again, the goal is to create a womb-like environment that soothes your baby.
The secret sauce to this tip is to rock your baby to drowsiness, not sleep. If you rock your baby to sleep, he may wake up early and wonder where in the world he is.
Rocking techniques vary from baby to baby, but I loved using sleep expert Dr. Harvey Karp’s technique. Basically, you hold your baby on her side and rock with quick, short motions. Next, you whisper “sshhhhhh” next to her ear (if your baby is older, this might be distracting).
How to Prevent Overtiredness
Step one, learn how to get your overtired baby to sleep. Employ the tips above or try a few of your own that work. Nursing, pacifiers, the swing (under supervision). Whatever you need to do to break the cycle of an overtired baby.
Then, once your baby is well-rested, you can formulate a plan to keep this from happening again (or at least reducing the occurrences).
- Keep an eye on your baby’s sleepy cues: Know your baby’s sleep cues like the back of your hand. And once your baby is displaying them, get him to sleep immediately.
- Maintain a flexible routine: I’m not saying you need to whip out a clock, but giving your baby a dependable schedule removes the pressure to interpret sleep cues and facilitates a sleep environment that your baby can depend on.
- Create a strong bedtime routine: My routine is always the same and takes no more than ten minutes. A quick bath, rub the Junior Bedtime Lotion on her feet, nurse, pray, and then it’s nighty-night. Find whatever bedtime routine works for you and practice it religiously. Eventually, your baby will associate this routine with sleep. Her body will subconsciously produce melatonin when you practice it. So, if your baby is overtired in the future, you can begin your bedtime routine to help him wind down easier.
Getting Your Overtired Baby to Sleep Does Get Easier
I promise. A lot of this is figuring out what works for your baby, which is half the battle. The other half is science. Your goal is to minimize cortisol production and increase melatonin.
So, give a few of the tips above a try. Maybe buy blackout shades or try swaddling. Smooth magnesium lotion over his feet and give him a foot massage. Some of these tips will work, some won’t. Experiment and learn what helps calm your overtired baby best.
Above all, focus on developing a solid routine that encourages consistent sleep.
I hope this post saves you a lot of trouble and gets you both the sleep you deserve. If you have any great tips or questions, let me know below!
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