When I work with parents to help their little one sleep properly, one of the most common issues we have to resolve is an overtired baby. What am I talking about when I say, "Your child may be overtired?" Babies and toddlers very easily enter an overtired state and have what is referred to as a “sleep debt.” Are parents intentionally causing their baby to be overtired and in a state of sleep debt? Of course not! Having an overtired baby simply means that your little one has been awake longer than their little body can tolerate.
How much sleep does my child need?
Newborns and small infants require A LOT of sleep. See image below for reference:
What is sleep debt?
It is also worth noting that sleep debt accumulates over time. This means that if you little ones requires, say, 12 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period and they are getting even 10, they go into sleep debt at the rate of 2 hours per day. Over the course of a year, that is more than 700 hours of lost sleep! No wonder your toddler is having tantrums or your baby is crying so much. This accumulation of sleep debt is called sleep deprivation. Once again, it is important to note that parents are not intentionally depriving their little one of sleep.
What does sleep deprivation look like in infants?
Newborns and infants are undergoing tremendous amounts of growth both physically and mentally. EVERYTHING in their environment is brand new and babies feel sensory overload. Your baby needs a lot of sleep to fuel this growth and development. They also need rest so that their brains can process all of this new information. Infants cannot communicate via words so they cry when they want to tell us something. Sometimes babies cry for no apparent reason; however, they are likely overstimulated and overtired. Newborn wake windows are 45-60 minutes long as they cannot tolerate anything longer than this. You often hear of the “witching hour” or “PURPLE” crying. During this time your infant may be inconsolable and have a pain-like cry. This is very frustrating for both the parents and infant. My number one suggestion would be to prevent your baby from becoming overtired to minimize these instances.
What to do if your baby is overtired?
Babies that are overtired have a very hard time not only falling, but staying, asleep. When a baby is overtired, they release the cortisol, AKA, the stress hormone. They cannot fall asleep because they essentially feel “stressed.” In an ideal world, we would prevent an infant from becoming overtired in the first place. If your baby does become overtired, I recommend some skin-t-skin contact. This has been shown to help babies calm down and feel secure. The next thing you want to do is get that baby to sleep ASAP. This may mean relying on a sleep crutch to get them to sleep. That’s right. . . I said it. Nurse, bottle feed, rock, bounce, sing--whatever you need to do to get your baby to fall asleep. A well-rested baby has a much easier time falling asleep; therefore, you can rely on a crutch to prevent further over tiredness.
What does sleep deprivation look like in toddlers?
I am also a Kindergarten teacher, and I see the spiral effect that poor sleep has on children. I see overtired children ALL. THE. TIME. Often times, parents put their children to bed when they go to bed. Children need much more sleep than adults. Children are very busy these days. They have sports and other activities that go late into the evening and early morning activities as well. Not to mention, their little brains are working SO hard at school all day. Children complain of being tired and are even falling asleep at school.
When children are overtired, their bodies also produce cortisol/the stress hormone. This results in hyperactivity and possibly anxiety in children. Does your toddler often have meltdowns or complain of a sore stomach? This is a classic sign that they are chronically sleep deprived. We are seeing a rise in behavior issues, ADHD, ADD, anxiety, and oppositional defiance disorders, all of which are also symptoms of sleep deprivation. I am not saying that sleep deprivation necessarily causes these things, but it definitely makes these issues worse.
To learn more, read this study about ADHD and sleep deprivation.
How do sleep deprivation and mental heath go together?
Quality sleep is essential for physical and mental health. I know firsthand that my mental health suffers when I am lacking sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation does horrible things to our mental health. I experience anxiety and depression when I am sleep deprived and children are no different. Below, you will find three articles that discuss the importance of sleep on mental health for further reading:
The purpose of this blog is not to scare you but rather inform you on the sleep needs of your child. If you ever want support getting your little one’s sleep on track, know that help is available. Some things you can do on your own at home are:
- Implement a consistent bedtime routine that is calming
- Ensure your child is getting adequate quality sleep
- Limit screen time and other stimulating activities before bedtime
- Talk to your child about things they are worried about. Children worry too
A lot of parents say, “I didn’t know my child needed that much sleep.” I can tell you as a parent, as a teacher, and as a sleep consultant that your child NEEDS sleep. It is not a luxury…it is a necessity. I hope that this blog has educated you on the amount of sleep your infant, toddler, child, or even you need. When my children sleep well, they are the happiest and healthiest versions of themselves. Once your child is sleeping better, I promise you will see a happier child who can better regulate their emotions and behaviors.