General pediatricians might think they have a leg up on dealing with a newborn, but bringing a baby on a plane is enough of a challenge to thwart even a trained doctor.
“We just traveled with my son, and trying to get an infant to fall asleep on the plane can be impossible,” says Scott Grant, general pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. “They’re making overhead announcements, the lights are on, he can’t fall asleep – plus, the flight was delayed for an extra two hours!”
Grant says this is one extreme example of how a baby can become overstimulated.
“Little infants, you might think they’re not interacting when they’re just in your arms at an airport, the mall, a sporting event or a busy family dinner,” he says, “but that could lead to irritable behavior or sleep difficulties.”
What is ‘overstimulation’?
Grant says babies might become overwhelmed and get fussy from too much stimuli, but another factor could be that whatever is stimulating them is preventing them from sleeping. If babies miss their normal two naps a day, he says, they could have an even harder time sleeping later on.
“At the end of a long day, I’m ready to crash,” he says. “But babies get in a routine, so if they don’t get (those naps), it could even be harder to get them to stay asleep.”
Grant says even mildly stimulating things, like library reading time, could be overwhelming for babies if it interrupts their routine.
“The term ‘overstimulated’ isn’t a technical medical definition,” Grant says, “but kids can be said to be ‘overstimulated’ or ‘overtired’ if they’re ready for bedtime but they want to do something else.
“It can be media related, like they want to watch a screen, or it can be little things like playing with their toys,” he continues, “or they are in an environment that’s making them stay awake from lights, noises, screens or talking.”
Signs your baby might be overstimulated
Grant says babies, just like adults, have different tolerances for exposure to stimulation.
“Some of us are more adaptable,” he says. “The same amount of stimulation will affect every baby differently. But everyone, babies and adults, can all get to a point of overstimulation.”
What being overstimulated looks like will be different for very young babies compared to those closer to 18 months, he says.
“Younger babies, if they’re overstimulated, those babies will be more fussy, harder to put down, and might require more attention,” he says. “Older kids might be less obedient and more emotional – they might flop themselves on the floor and have an outburst.”
These kinds of behaviors could be especially pronounced if the overstimulation has disrupted a normal sleep schedule, he says.
Bigger issues to watch out for
Although Grant says every baby has the capacity to become overstimulated, if a child is having an emotional response to something that seems overblown, pay attention.
“If they’re having emotion processing or information processing difficulties, you can start to think about attention deficit disorder type things,” Grant says. “The other challenge could be the connection to the caregiver: Babies having difficulty in developing a secure attachment would be more likely to have an exaggerated response to a stimulus.”
Ways to prevent overstimulation
“Most parents have fairly busy lives, and we can’t shelter our babies completely from that,” Grant says.
However, there are some ways to prevent your baby from becoming very overstimulated. Grant says the first step is to know your child and to have a sense of how adaptable they are. Take steps to reduce stimulation if you know your baby is very sensitive.
“Consider their needs, as well,” he says. “Sometimes we have family obligations or child care falls through and we have to bring them to all our errands. So try to build their normal nap or a little quiet time into the day.”
If a young child has been overstimulated, easing him or her into bedtime is also important, Grant says. Spend extra time before bed reducing noise, slowly dimming the lights and removing screens.
“Be mindful of what you’re asking your child to tolerate,” he says.
This post was originally published in 2019 and is updated regularly.