Babies, just like adults and older children, can become overstimulated. Things like too much noise, new people, or new environments can all lead to an overstimulated baby.
Every baby is different, but some babies tend to get overstimulated more easily than others. Signs of an overstimulated baby might include irritability, crying, or clinginess.
Here’s how to recognize the signs of an overstimulated baby — and some tips for how to handle the situation.
First things first: What exactly is overstimulation in a baby?
“Overstimulation occurs when a baby or child experiences more stimuli than they can handle or are used to,” explains Dr. Kevin Kathrotia, a neonatologist and pediatrician.
According to Kathrotia, overstimulation in babies occurs fairly often. “It’s most common from about 2 weeks to 3 to 4 months old,” he explains.
Older children can also get overstimulated, too. For example, you might find that your toddler or preschooler has a meltdown after a long day out with friends and family.
Overstimulation looks a little different in every child, but there are some common signs you might notice in a baby:
- crying, usually louder than usual
- withdrawing from your touch or turning their head away from you
- wanting to be held
- wanting to nurse more frequently
- being very fussy or irritable
- clenching their fists or waving their arms and legs
- acting scared
- having temper tantrums
- moving in a frantic or jerky way
- acting very tired
- engaging in self-soothing measures, such as sucking on hands or fists
Toddlers and older children might have different signs of overstimulation. For instance, you may notice them:
- crying without being able to explain what’s wrong
- throwing themselves on the ground in anger
- acting out
- refusing to listen
- acting grumpy, aggressive, or hyper
Every baby is different, but some of the things that could overwhelm your little one include:
- Environment. Some babies might get overwhelmed by noisy, crowded, brightly lit, or colorful places.
- Excessive screen use. TVs, phones, and other devices can all be too much for a baby’s brain to process before they’re at least 18 months old. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding screen use before age 2 — then limiting exposure to around 1 hour of educational programming a day until they’re 5.
- Too much activity. There’s a reason toddlers sometimes have a meltdown at the end of their birthday party or a long day outside at a park: Too much activity can overwhelm their senses.
- Missing a nap or going to bed late. Being overly tired can quickly overwhelm your baby.
- Disruption in routine. Babies are creatures of habit, and a schedule change can make them cranky.
- Too many people. Some babies might like meeting a lot of people, while others will get quickly overwhelmed by new faces or crowds.
- Temperature. Getting too cold or warm can play a role in overstimulation.
- Teething. Although temporary, teething can irritate your baby and make them less tolerant to other stimuli.
- Certain medical conditions. For instance, autistic children have a more sensitive sensory system, so it’s easier for sights, sounds, touch, smells, or tastes to overwhelm them. A child who is coming down with an illness may also become overstimulated more easily.
If you’ve got an overstimulated baby on your hands, there are some steps you can take to calm them down.
1. Remove them from the situation
When you notice that your baby is overstimulated, the first step you should take is to change the environment to someplace quieter and darker, says Kathrotia.
This can be the nursery, a dark room in the house, a baby wrap or carrier on your chest, a stroller, or even their car seat. Just make sure the room is quiet and talk to your baby in a calm, soft voice.
If possible, avoid bright colors because they can be stimulating.
2. Swaddle your baby
You might also want to consider swaddling your baby. Swaddling applies steady pressure, mimics the coziness of the womb, and dulls their startle reflex, which some babies find soothing.
However, not all babies like being swaddled — so if yours doesn’t, that’s OK.
3. Soothe them with white noise
You can also play soft music or turn on a sound machine or white noise machine. Just avoid TVs or phones — experts agree these are too stimulating for children under age 2.
4. Hold your baby, but be prepared to give them space
Some babies want to be held or touched, but many don’t.
In fact, says Kathrotia, babies in the “purple crying phase” of their development — which is roughly between the ages of 2 weeks and 4 months — might resist touch and cuddles when they’re overstimulated because that’s precisely what is overstimulating them.
If your little one seems to pull away from your touch, lay them down on their back in a safe place, like their crib, and sit nearby until they calm down.
When overstimulation happens in older kids, it’s important that you control your emotions (which can be challenging, we know). But if you’re calm, you’ll help them learn to be calm too.
If you can, leave the overstimulating environment and find somewhere quiet to go.
If you can’t leave the environment, try to reduce the noise and activity around your little one by:
- switching off music or TV
- asking people to talk in hushed voices
- dimming the lights
- closing window shades and drapes
You can also offer your child calming activities, such as:
- reading a book
- laying down
- playing with non-electronic toys
- sensory play
It’s also helpful to make sure your child is physically comfortable. For instance, help them cool down if they are overheated or offer cozy blankets if they are cold.
Some children are especially sensitive to things like itchy clothing or sensations like being thirsty or hungry, so make sure their physical needs are met.
It is completely normal for your baby to get overstimulated sometimes.
In some cases, frequent overstimulation could be the sign of something else, such as sensory issues or autism.
You might want to bring up your child’s behavior with your doctor if:
- Your child’s behavior interrupts everyday routines.
- Your child is having trouble moving or standing.
- Your child’s reactions are too difficult to manage on your own.
You should also make sure to keep all of your child’s well visits, so your doctor can monitor development and behavior. If your child does not seem to meet the developmental milestones for their age — or if your child is regressing from milestones — talk with a doctor.
When your baby is overstimulated, any stimuli — including sounds, sights, smells, and touch — can easily overwhelm them and cause a meltdown.
This can be difficult for any parent to handle, and it can get worse if it’s not addressed.
“If a baby isn’t taken out of this sort of environment, it can result in reduced or irregular sleep, and even affect feeding,” Kathrotia explains.
That’s why, he says, the best thing you can do is to learn what overstimulates your baby. Then, you can either avoid situations that trigger them, plan ahead, or quickly remove them when they show signs of being overstimulated.
“We all get overstimulated but know and are able to remove ourselves from certain situations,” Kathrotia notes. “Babies cannot and rely on us to know when to say when for them.”
Here are some things you can do to limit or avoid your child getting overstimulated:
- Schedule breaks. Make sure your child gets downtime between different activities or events. For example, if you go to the park, make sure your baby gets time to nap at home after. Or, if you’re introducing your baby to friends and family, take them to a quiet room for small breaks from all those snuggles. The breaks should be in quiet, familiar places that your baby knows well.
- Keep things short. Your baby — especially in those first few months — isn’t ready for marathon days full of errands, meetings, and more. Try to schedule outings in short, predictable increments.
- Create a routine and stick to it. Try to stick to a set feeding/mealtime, naptime, and bedtime schedule, even if you’re away from home.
- Limit screens. Screens should especially be avoided under age 2.
- Respect your child’s personality. If your baby gets overstimulated around big crowds, respect that. You’re not going to change their personality by overwhelming them — it’s only going to try your patience and make things more difficult for you.
- Reach out if you need help. A doctor can help you tell the difference between what’s normal and what’s not — and they can share tips to help you cope.
It can be tough dealing with an overstimulated baby but remember: At that moment, your overwhelmed child doesn’t know how to tell you that they are uncomfortable.
The best way to make things better for you and your little one is to remove the stimuli upsetting them and help them calm down.
You can also plan ahead to try to minimize the likelihood that your child will become overstimulated in the first place. If things are becoming hard to manage, be sure to talk with your child’s pediatrician to get some help.