It is, but it’s also easy to avoid.
Babies, and newborns in particular, are still building their brains and bodies even though they are outside the womb. EVERYTHING is new to them: every sight, touch, smell, taste, sound. Think about that for a second. Can you imagine how easy it would be for a person to be completely overwhelmed to come out of a literal bubble and have all five of their senses bombarded?
Now mix in the fact that a newborn doesn’t understand what they are sensing, so there is a lack of context. They simply haven’t yet developed their nervous system to the point where it can take in and process a large range of new experiences. Plus they are still growing: their bodies, organs, neural connections and everything they will need when get older is still in the process of being created. Growing is a taxing thing but never more so than in those first few months.
In fact, children’s brains are developing at the highest rate of speed they ever will, in the first five years of their lives. It’s no wonder that it’s easy to overstimulate a newborn, or even a toddler! Yes, you want to provide stimulation for your baby, so they can learn, but what you want to avoid is constantly dangling toys in front of them or exposing them to new environments.
What exactly is meant by ‘overstimulation’?
Basically, the term is referring to the sensory overload that a baby can experience when there is simply too much activity and action going on and they can’t cope. In the past, some parents believed that keeping a baby up and awake, busy learning and growing, would help them get better sleep. In fact, the opposite is true.
An overstimulated baby who is missing out on naps is a cranky, overtired baby. They will actually struggle to relax and fall asleep. The result will be that they will actually get LESS sleep than if they were properly rested to begin with.
Ways in which newborns become overstimulated
- Too much interaction with new people. For example, having too many visitors to see the new baby, too soon, can be overwhelming.
- Too long an exposure to a new environment.
- Too long an exposure to a loud, chaotic environment, with new smells.
- Exposure to technology.
- Too much disturbance to the daily routine that you have started to set in place.
Warning signs that your baby is overstimulated
Babies can’t talk but they can let you know that they are being overstimulated. You just have to be watching for the signs:
- Cranky, fussy behavior
- Rubbing eyes or covering their face with their hands
- Crying more than usual, usually at a higher pitch than normal
- Spreading out toes or fingers
- Clenching fists and using jerkier movements than usual
- Baby suddenly seems to zone out, look away or turning their head away
How to help soothe an overstimulated baby
First and foremost, get them into a quiet, calm environment. Preferably something familiar, but if you are away from home, a space where you can dim the lights and eliminate a lot of the visual / auditory stimuli that might be overwhelming baby. One way to do that is to put them in their baby carrier and lightly drape a blanket to block out too much light and visual and some of the sound too. By doing this, you’re giving their overextended nervous system a chance to regulate itself.
Some babies respond well to being swaddled. It gives them the sense of being back in the womb. Another option is to use a sling or baby carrier to bring them in close. That has a tremendous soothing effect, just as the skin-to-skin contact did in those hours postpartum.
A warm bath works for some babies, followed by a soothing baby massage. Rhythmic movements and sounds can also help: some babies will be immediately soothed by sitting in a baby swing.
Most importantly, return to a comforting routine as soon as you can, to bring some calm and familiarity back to baby’s world.
How to avoid overstimulating a newborn
In addition to nap times, babies should have time to play quietly in a calm environment. Whether that’s a little time on a baby blanket on the floor or in a swing, there’s no need to continually entertain them.
When you do interact with them, play with your baby, talk to them, expose them to music and different visual stimuli, to help grow their brains and the neural network that they need, but keep sessions short, with plenty of cuddles, naps and quiet time in between. Also, time these play sessions, within the routine that you’ve set up, at a time when they will be most rested and alert.
- Keep watch for the warning signs of overstimulating, so you can stop it before it turns into a meltdown.
- Plan outings to avoid too much disruption to their schedule and too much stimuli.
- If you know baby will be exposed to a certain amount of stimuli that might prove too much, do what you can to limit it by protecting their hearing, or by covering up the carrier, so that they don’t process as much.
While some babies are, or seem, easygoing, that doesn’t mean that their first months of life is the right time to start out on a cross country car trip! While every baby is different in terms of how they react to stimulation, overstimulation is a universal issue. Spend some time observing your baby’s cues so that you can plan your days and routines to the best advantage of all.