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Have you ever felt like your baby is fighting sleep? You’re certain they’re exhausted, and yet, no matter what you do they just won’t give in to sleep. You rock and shush and pat and silently plead that sleep comes soon while your little one inconsolably cries. They alternate between rubbing their little, red face into your chest and angrily arching away from you as they get even more tired. They may even scratch and claw at themselves (or you).
Eventually, you sit down to offer them a boob or bottle for the hundredth time just to have them push it away. You know your baby isn’t hungry. In fact, you know with certainty your baby just needs sleep. Frustrated, you let out an audible sigh and return to shushing and rocking, despite the dull ache in your weary muscles. Finally, after an hours-long battle of wills–or was it days?–your little one finally crashes into sleep. You put them down, certain they will sleep for hours after all of that effort, but within minutes, they’re up again crying for your help.
This taxing scenario is a textbook example of an overtired baby. If you have never heard this term before, you’re in the right place. Keep reading to learn my top tips for avoiding and surviving that overtired state, including more information about the almighty reset and a personal story.
It was sometime between “too early” and “too late,” and my son was screaming. I had thrown each and every one of the 5 S’s at him, but there was nothing happy about this baby. Even the breast–my tried and true fix-all–was failing to help him overcome the adrenaline and cortisol coursing through his little body. I was frustrated, flustered, and failing—at least that’s how it felt. We both needed a reset. So, I took my overtired baby and stepped out onto our balcony into the brisk winter night.
The crisp air jolted him out of his meltdown, demanding his attention the way a sharp snap disrupts a mindless trance. In that brief moment of calm, the bright glow of a large, full moon hanging above our heads caught his attention. He was captivated, staring up at the giant light in the sky with pure wonderment.
His little hand reached up to grab it as if he could pull it right out of the sky. I watched him with a similar look in my own eyes, and my own mom’s words came quietly back to me: “I know it may be hard to believe right now, but those 4 am feedings with you are some of my favorite memories. It felt like we were the only two people awake in the world, just you and me stealing a moment together while the rest of the world was sleeping.”
That moment ended up being one of my favorite memories from my son’s first year—though I could have done without the fiasco that preceded that treasured moment.
Newborns spend the vast majority of each day asleep. As our babies get older, they’re able to tolerate being awake for longer and longer periods of time. When a baby is awake for too long, they experience a surge of adrenaline and cortisol. This is the same thing that happens in our adult bodies whenever we experience, a “second wind” late at night when we know we should go to bed, get distracted by Netflix, work, or scrolling our phones, and then we get a burst of energy that keeps us up later far later than we intended.
Oftentimes, however, our babies (especially newborns) don’t tolerate that second wind the way we do. Their exhausted little bodies are craving sleep, but now, it’s much harder for them to go to sleep because of the previously mentioned hormone surge. Cortisol occurs naturally in our sleep-wake cycle. As we get closer to waking our cortisol levels rise until we wake up, at which point they peak. Adrenaline triggers our body’s fight-or-flight response. In other words, it feels like your baby is fighting sleep because biologically, they are…just not necessarily on purpose.
Soothing an overtired baby can be HARD. In the painfully exhausting throes of new parenthood, it can feel even harder.
Wake windows are calculated from the second your baby wakes up to the second they’re asleep again. During your baby’s first 12 weeks, these windows tend to last just 40 – 90 minutes. For many babies, those longer stretches will occur later in the day and maybe not until they’re closer to 12 weeks old. This means sometimes your newborn will only be awake just long enough for a diaper change and a feeding before they’re ready for more sleep!
If your baby’s sleep-wake needs seem to exist outside of the recommended ages, trust your intuition as a parent. There’s a reason wake windows are always suggested as a range. Some people just need more (or less) sleep than others, and that goes for babies, too!
Adults don’t typically go from being active and energetic to being fast asleep. We usually take some time at the end of the day to wind down, and then lay in bed for a little bit adjusting a few times before we finally drift off to sleep.
Babies also benefit from having a similar opportunity to wind down and transition from wakefulness to sleep, especially as their wake windows get longer. Learning to read your baby’s cues can really help you narrow in on just how long they need their wake windows to be and when they’re ready for sleep. Help your little transition to sleep before they’re overtired by starting any bedtime routines when you see the early signs they’re getting sleepy rather than the more overt signs like yawning.
The table below includes some of the more common signs of a sleepy baby. However, this is nowhere near a complete list of cues. For example, once my youngest started babbling, he would actually get MORE chatty when he was tired. As he has gotten older, he now lovingly bites me (oh, parenthood) when it’s time for sleep. Once again, trust your intuition on this one!
As you get better at reading their cues and identifying their preferred wake windows, you will likely also figure out their tolerance for being tired and find that sweet spot for when to put your baby down. That being said, finding that sweet spot can be so much easier said than done! Many new parents struggle to read their baby’s cues in the days, weeks, and months of early parenthood. Keep paying attention and experimenting. You’ll get there!
If you find yourself with an overtired baby on your hands, start by taking a deep breath. It happens to every parent (even me, a certified sleep coach). Since your infant depends on you for co-regulation, it really helps them when we are able to stay calm during their moments of stress and distress. That can be hard to do sometimes. If you’re ever struggling to regulate, start by setting your child down in a safe space or handing them off to another caregiver, so you can take a moment for yourself to come back and better support your baby.
Once you’ve regulated your own emotions, it’s time to help your baby reset their system! The 5 S’s for Soothing (swaddle, side, shush, swing, and suck) by Dr. Harvey Karp are always a great place to start. The idea behind the 5 S’s is to trigger the “calming reflex,” which Dr. Karp describes as “a neurological response that develops deep in a baby’s brain months before they’re born that’s basically nature’s ‘off switch’ for fussing and ‘on switch’ for sleep.”
If the above two tips don’t work, you may need to try something more drastic. Interrupt your baby’s current state just long enough to help them de-escalate or drift off to sleep. You can try:
If at any point in time, you find that you are struggling to regulate your own emotions, take a break. Give your baby to your partner or set them in a safe place (such as their crib or bassinet) while you step away for some self-soothing and a pep talk. You and your baby will both benefit!
If you want help establishing healthy sleep habits and maximizing sleep, we’re here to help! Click here to set up a free info call or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to share more about how you can help your newborn get their best sleep and experience more enjoyment during the fourth trimester and beyond.
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Richelle’s passion is supporting growing families through the unpredictable and transformative journey of pregnancy and the first years of parenthood. In 2019, she set out with a vision to create a modern-day parenting village: From Pregnant to Parent. In addition to being our founder, she is a certified doula, childbirth and lactation educator, sleep coach, and RETAIN parental leave coach. When she isn’t working, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two kiddos around their home in Marin County (San Francisco Bay Area).
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