As an overtired parent, you can’t wait to let your head hit the pillow at night. But for your baby, becoming overtired can have disastrous results. Okay, so disastrous might seem a bit dramatic, but getting your baby down just a few minutes late can lead to them fighting the sleep they desperately need.
So, how do you get an overtired baby to sleep? Once your baby is overtired, it can be difficult to get them calmed down enough to sleep. But knowing what signs to look for, utilizing soothing techniques, and following a predictable routine will help you to get an overly sleepy baby down.
Here we’ll cover how to cope with an overtired baby, and discuss how you can prevent it from happening in the future. If you often have a baby who refuses to go to sleep, overtiredness just might be the culprit.
Signs Your Baby is Overtired
Babies fight sleep and cry for lots of reasons, so sometimes the reason can be hard to pinpoint. How do you know that you’re dealing with overtiredness and not something else?
These are the most common signs that let you know your baby is overtired and needs to get put down stat:
- Lots of eye rubbing
- Difficult to calm down
- Extra clingy
- Crying that moves from fussy to inconsolable
Beyond these one-off signs you might see, you could also see an overtired pattern emerge. This can be more difficult to deal with, but we’ll discuss how to break this routine. Not sure if that’s what’s going on with your baby?
Here are some of the telltale signs:
- Overall cranky and crabby disposition
- Becomes more irritable as the day goes on
- Lots of early morning wakings (we discuss this more in “Solutions for Baby Waking Early in the Morning”)
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Frequent night wakings
- Short naps
- Easily agitated
- Being awake for many hours at a time
If you’ve seen a combination of several of these with your little one, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with an overtired baby. All they need is a few restful nights to get back on track, but that can be hard to achieve when you have a screaming baby who only sleeps in short bursts.
It’s the crying that won’t stop that can bring you to your knees. Having some understanding of why a baby cries when they get overtired can ultimately help you give them what they need to get back on track.
Why do babies cry when they get overtired?
It can be frustrating when you can tell your little one is extremely tired, but they just keep fighting sleep. It seems like it should be as simple as them closing those heavy eyelids and heading off to dreamland. So why isn’t it?
Unfortunately, you missed your small window of opportunity to get your little one down.
When initial sleepy signs are ignored (we know you don’t do this on purpose by the way), your baby becomes uncomfortable. And since your baby has no other way to communicate their discomfort, they begin to cry.
So if it seems like your baby cries harder the more tired they are, there’s a good reason. Their discomfort is only growing and they don’t know how to fix that themselves. The crying then winds them up and according to Healthline, “their stress response system goes into high gear, triggering cortisol and adrenaline to flood into their little bodies.”
So if your baby hits this point, what are you to do? We’ll give you the routine we follow to calm that sweet cherub of yours so they can finally relax and sleep.
How to Get an Overtired Baby to Sleep
Once you realize your baby is crying due to being overtired, you need to focus on calming them down so they can rest.
Here are our best tips for getting your overtired baby to sleep:
Step 1.) As you make your way to your baby’s room, hold her close to you. Hold her on her side or against your shoulder while shushing her and patting her back. This is in line with Dr. Harvey Karp’s 5 S’s, a proven method that calms babies who are in distress.
Step 2.) Then get your little one to their room ASAP. Dim the lights, draw the blackout curtains and turn on white noise immediately.
Step 3.) Change your baby’s diaper as quickly and calmly, as you can. I know this can be hard to do when your baby is already in fits, but it’s important to make your baby as comfortable as possible.
Step 4.) Swaddle your baby snugly. This is another big part of Harvey Karps’ 5 S’s. We recommend the Dreamland Baby weighted swaddle for its additional calming effects. Its gentle weight decreases cortisol (which has been increased from your baby’s overtiredness) and increases melatonin (the sleep hormone). If your baby is already rolling over, then swaddling is no longer an option as we discuss here. Instead, use the Dreamland weighted sack to induce calm.
Step 5.) Continue shushing, swaying, and patting your little one. Using all of these in conjunction will help relax your baby as quickly as possible. Continue to do this until your baby seems content. (See below about our recommendations on feeding before sleep.)
Step 6.) Lay your baby down drowsy, but awake. Use a swaying motion as you gently lay your baby down on their back in their crib. You can rest your hand on their chest for a few minutes to continue to calm them, but avoid keeping it there until they fall asleep. This is important for teaching your baby to be an independent sleeper.
We can't promise a tear-free event. However, at this point, your baby should be calmed enough that they’ll only fuss a bit before they fall asleep. If they’re still having trouble sleeping you can use the "camp out" method as we discuss in this article.
We also get a lot of questions about whether nursing or using pacifiers have a place in calming a baby to help them sleep. Here are our thoughts:
What about nursing to sleep?
If it’s rare you have an overtired baby and nothing else will calm them but a nursing session or a bottle, then there is nothing wrong with helping them get the sleep they need by doing so. (And if it’s their nightly bedtime, you’ll need to feed them anyway). We recommend not letting them fall asleep during feeding, but if they do this one time, don’t fret. However, you don’t want to get in a habit of doing this, which we discuss in depth here.
What about a pacifier?
Yes, definitely utilize a pacifier if your overtired baby will take one. As we discussed in our article, “5 Myths and a Truth About Baby Sleep,” there is nothing wrong with giving your baby a pacifier and it bring about a lot more peace!
Rule out colic if the crying continues: If you’ve tried these tips and nothing seems to be working you may be one of the few who has a colicky baby. Read our article “Helping a Baby With Colic: Identifying Symptoms and 10 Soothing Tips,” if you think something else might be going on.
Having a little one who gets overtired from time to time is normal. But if it's not corrected early on, it may lead to a cycle of overtiredness. If that’s where you’re at, you’ll want to follow our tips below to break that cycle.
Revamping Routines to Eliminate Constant Overtiredness
Perhaps you’re realizing that your baby isn’t just experiencing one or two instances of being overtired, but is actually wrapped up in a vicious cycle of overtiredness.
If your baby is constantly going to bed too late, waking up too early, and napping terribly, you’re going to end up with an overtired baby 24/7 who’s rarely happy. And that’s not good.’
So if this is where you’re at, it’s important to start working toward a system that will allow your baby to get the good sleep they need.
Three Ways to Break the Overtiredness Cycle
Make sure you’re following a developmentally appropriate sleep schedule.
When determining a sleep schedule, you’ll want to use your baby’s age as a guide. We’ve written an article for each stage to help you get started on a schedule that will work well for your little one:
- 9 - 12-Month-Old Schedule
You’ll be amazed at how quickly your baby catches on and thrives when they’re mind and body know what’s coming and when. This will also help you to better identify sleepiness cues because you’ll have a pretty good idea of when they’re coming based on when your baby usually naps and goes down for the night.
Create a sleep routine.
Consistency is key when it comes to a sleep routine. We have a tried and true sleep routine we like to follow here at Dreamland Baby. Each step, though seemingly small, sets your baby up for successful sleep. Feel free to tweak this routine to best fit your baby’s needs:
- Calming bath 45 minutes – 1 hour before bedtime (lavender is a great scent before bedtime)
Clothe with diaper and jammies
Place your baby in a
Turn off the lights and turn on calming music or nature sounds
Nurse or bottle-feed if it’s nighttime, but keep awake
Rock your baby, while snuggling her and singing a lullaby.
Lay baby down on her back – still awake, but drowsy
Be sure you’re starting your sleep routine soon enough, and not once your baby has already hit the overtired stage. Leave plenty of time to complete every step of your sleep routine.
Shorten wake windows.Chances are that your baby is having sleep challenges is due to the fact that you’re keeping them up too long. What seems like a very short amount of time to be awake for you is actually way too long for your baby. Did you know that a 12-week-old really shouldn’t be awake for more than 75 - 90 minutes? And if you’re having issues with your baby being overtired, we would err on the side of shorter wake windows.
Taking Cara Babies gives the following recommendations for wake windows:
Birth to 12 weeks: 60 to 90 minutes
3 to 4 Months: 75 to 120 minutes
5 to 6 Months: 2 to 3 hours
7 to 12 Months: 3 to 4 hours
There are ranges because every baby is different! Really pay attention to your sleepiness cues so that you don’t get your little one down to late. We also recommend writing down how long your baby stays awake during each wake period of the day and this will help you have a good idea of what your unique baby can handle.
The ultimate goal is to avoid your baby getting to the point where they’re overtired. But it takes practice getting them down in that small window of time where they’re the perfect amount of sleepy.
The best way to prevent overtiredness in your little one is to utilize a developmentally appropriate schedule with a consistent sleep routine as discussed above. But babies also grow and change quickly, so you have to be ready to be flexible. Being aware of your baby’s sleepiness cues in case your schedule doesn’t go as planned will help. Watch for:
Redness around eyes
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about baby sleep, it’s that it can be wildly unpredictable. But taking the time to focus on what your baby needs and paying attention to the signs they’re giving you is your best line of defense against issues like overtiredness from creeping in.