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How to manage an overtired baby

Posted by Karen Faulkner on
How to manage an overtired baby

Knowing how to settle an overtired baby is a skill that can bring life-changing differences in the lives of parents and babies alike.

Self-settling refers to the ability of babies to transition from awake and alert to being in a sound slumber on their own. It involves techniques that help them to fall asleep without being attended to or comforted by parents through cuddling or patting.

In this guide, you will learn tried and tested techniques that should teach you how to settle an overtired baby.

Every parent will have experienced an overtired baby and how awful is it?

You’ve had a long day and your overtired baby has not slept much and might have had a catnap or two. It gets to 5 pm and all hell breaks loose. You're trying to multi-task and make dinner whilst trying to do some semblance of a bedtime routine. Arrrgggghhhh!!!


I’m sure you can visualise this very messy situation and that feeling of complete overwhelm. When this is the problem, all you’d want is to know how to settle an overtired baby.

Under 3 months of age, babies really struggle to switch off to stimuli and absorb their day. As the day goes on, that cheeky stress hormone, cortisol, increases and if your baby hasn’t had good sleep you end up with a difficult witching hour on your hands. Regular long sleep mops up that cortisol so it’s really important to master self-settling early on in your newborn’s life to avoid getting him overtired. It will pay off big time.

My Own Technique to Help Settle an Overtired Baby

The overtired babies I’ve helped learn to self-settle under 3 months are on the whole much calmer, zen almost, behaviour and their parents report that they are much easier to manage in the evenings compared to before helping with their sleep.

And I'm not talking sleep training or controlled crying. I use sleep promotion and a very gentle hands on settling technique that has cuddles. This is my own specific technique, fine-tuned over 26 years and hundreds of overtired babies helped with it. You will not of heard about, read about it or find it anywhere on the internet (#Iamwritingasleepbook). Here’s another blog with a few more ideas if you need them:

I felt it was timely and a public service that I shared my top tips for managing the witching hour and helping on how to settle an overtired baby.

What are the tell-tale signs to watch out for?

Your baby’s stress response is triggered when he/she fails to get enough sleep. The same happens when your baby has to stay awake longer than he/she can handle. Because of that, stress hormones flood your baby’s bloodstream and add up to the difficulty of making your baby calm. 

While this may not be an immediate cause of concern, this can become a routine and falling asleep would get more difficult for your baby overtime.

To avoid this, you must be able to recognise the signs of an overtired baby. Collated below are some of the tell-tale signs that you should watch out for:
    1. Frequent yawns

    2. Hand movements such as rubbing of eyes and pulling of ears

    3. Changes in facial expressions

    4. Blank stares, difficulty in maintaining eye contact

    5. Tense body movements

    6. Latching difficulty

    7. Self-soothing acts

    8. Loss of interest in surroundings

    9. Clingy behaviour

    10. Autonomic signals like sneezes, hiccups and sweaty palms

    11. Increased physical activity

    12. Fussing and crying
For parents, identifying the signs is just the first step to solving the problem with an overtired baby. The next step should be knowing how to settle an overtired baby who have these manifestations.

So what should you do with an overtired baby?

Here are some tips that will teach you how to settle an overtired baby.
    • Make sure your baby has had a recent feed. I’m a big fan of the feed-play-feed-sleep approach in the day. It really helps maximise feeding and a full tummy really aids overtired baby sleep.
    • A warm bath can calm that cortisol down to make settling your overtired baby easier. I also particularly like to place baby on their tummy in the bath and swish them up and down in a gentle soothing motion. It can turn things around so well. Putting an overtired baby on their tummies (prone) lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol and improves oxygen saturation.
    • Darken the room. This promotes and switches on melatonin, that neurotransmitter that helps babies get to sleep and stay asleep. I'm a fan of tinfoil on windows. 
    • Put white noise on. I find the hair dryer, fan and raindrops settings more effective than others. Just be careful of the volume, you don't want to affect your baby's hearing, 65db is quite enough (Pediatrics March 2015).
    • Swaddle/wrap really tightly with hands up by the head and put down on their side in the cot.
    • Place your overtired baby on their side in the cot/bassinet and rock their body gently holding onto the hip and shoulder area as you do this. One of my clients called this my rolling pin method!
    • Continue to rock gently for as long as it takes. The more you swap things around with an overtired baby the more you end up in a big messy heap. As long as you are with your baby, no matter how much they are crying, they know that they are loved.
    • I don't take them out of the cot during this. Remember they are very overtired and the more you do with an overtired baby the more you end up in a big mess.
    • When your overtired baby is off to sleep (this may take 30-40 minutes), keep your hands in place and wait for the startle reflex to occur and their body to relax and then gently turn them onto their back as per SIDS guidelines and tuck in with a sheet and/or blanket.
    • Only use this rolling pin method when you’re very desperate or you’ll end up with an unhelpful sleep association if it’s used constantly! 
    • Teach your baby to self-settle with a gentle hands-on technique as soon as you can. There should be no patting or rocking. These create very unhelpful sleep associations and won’t help if you want to practice how to settle an overtired baby properly.
ALSO READ: 7 Tips to Settle a Crying Baby

The Rolling Pin Method: A Tried and Tested Technique that Will Teach You How to Settle an Overtired Baby

This rolling pin method came about in January 2002. It was a very hot summer day in Melbourne, Australia. I was doing an outreach job in the City of Maribyrnong and I’d taken a frantic phone call from a mum who had a 3 month-old baby and he hadn’t slept all day. It was all of 35-40 degrees Celsius. I’m sure you can just imagine this!

It was 3:30 pm and I had to get back to do my phone calls for clients. No pressure! I tried everything. We put the fan on to cool him down (and us!!). It was plain he was way overtired. I wrapped him up very tightly in a muslin wrap and placed him on his side in the cot. I gently began to roll his body back and forth, holding him by his shoulder and hip. I continued this for 30 minutes and voila, he was fast asleep! I kept my hands still, waited for his body to do the usual startle and then relax and placed him every so carefully onto his back in the bassinet. Mum told me afterward that he’d slept a full 3.5 hours straight and woke a much happier baby.

And so my rolling pin method was born, only for use with very overtired babies. The mum of this very grateful baby gave it its’ name!!

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