7 Signs your Baby is Overstimulated & Unhappy

A close up of infant toys lays on a white rug showing a cluttered mess that leads to infant overwhelm and over stimulation.

You've tried everything to settle your baby but they are still fussy and cranky. It is frustrating for both of you. All you want is for them to calm down and be happy. So what is going on? 

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Your baby is likely overstimulated. Let’s talk about the signs your baby is overstimulated, the effects of overstimulation in infants, and how to soothe them once they are overwhelmed. 

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What Is Overstimulation in infants & How does it affect them?

Overstimulation in babies occurs when the environment is too much for them to handle. Babies come from the warm, cozy, dark womb and are thrust into the bright, loud, and chaotic world. 

What Causes Overstimulation in Infants?

Sensory overload occurs when a person's brain cannot cope with stimuli such as noises, activity, and light.  In infants, the threshold is much lower since all the sensations are new and the brain has to develop new pathways for everything. 

Is It Possible to Overstimulate a Newborn?

It's absolutely possible for a newborn to become overstimulated. Most babies get overstimulated at one time or another.  In fact, you could actually be causing it without  even knowing. 

First-time parents especially may be trying too hard to soothe their crying infants and make their overstimulation worse by accident.

Why does my baby get overstimulated so easily?

While adults and even children are used to the world around them, babies are less accustomed to everything around them.

Bright lights, toys that make sounds and light up, smells from food and the environment, adults and children talking, TV in the background, feeling of clothes and their diaper and that is not even all the new sensory information like hunger, being cold or hot, and irritability.  The brain is working to create new connections and pathways, and it's trying to figure out what's important and what's not. 

While the brain learns to do this, all of those experiences that are happening at the same time, the brain gives equal weight to all of them. 

That's why babies get overstimulated more quickly than toddlers, children, or adults. As their brain develops, they will be able to handle more stimulation without becoming cranky. 

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7 Signs of Overstimulation in Infants & Newborns

1. A general look of unease: Red in the face, trembling lips, wide eyes

The first signs of overstimulation can look like general distress. Baby looks red, fusses, and generally seems unsettled. It can easily be confused for the baby being tired, hungry, or needing a diaper change.  

If you miss this sign, your baby will continue to give you more clues to being overwhelmed, but overtime you can learn these cues and stop overwhelm before it becomes difficult to calm them down. 

2. Frantically looking around in alarm

If your baby is looking around like they are alarmed, they are most likely overstimulated.  This can also look like a baby looking away from whatever is overstimulate them, like a toy or even a parent. 

3. Quickening of breath signaling a feeling of unease

If you notice your baby making quick, shallow breaths, they may be overstimulated and overwhelmed. This can be anearly sign of overstimulation.

4. Clenched Fist

If your baby is getting upset and their hands are clenched tightly, overstimulation is the most likely culprit.  Alternatively, if the baby is putting his fist in his mouth, he is likely hungry. 

5. Fast, jerky-like movements that signal alarm

Babies have a reflex to throw their arms and legs out when they are startled. It’s called the Moro reflex. 

But being overstimulated can also trigger this reflex. The reflex looks like jerky movements of the arms and legs. 

6. Agitated Crying or Shrieking

Sometimes you may miss the early indications that a baby is overstimulated, which can lead to angry and agitated crying or shrieking. This is the final stage of being overstimulated, but some babies may reach this stage more quickly than others. 

7. Being Cranky or Tired

If a baby is overstimulated, their body may go into a flight response and become cranky and tired. Their little brain knows that if they can go to sleep then they will eliminate the triggers that are causing them to be overstimulated. 

Also, being overstimulated can be very exhausting for a baby. Even after they get settled down, they may feel sleepy. 

How to soothe and calm an overstimulated baby

  • Remove them from the environment
  • Try going on a walk
  • Opt for Skin-to-Skin Contact in a quiet dark room
  • Offer them some alone time in a quiet, safe space
  • Swaddling the baby can be calming for the baby
  • Try swaying baby from side to side in your arms or a swing
  • Position baby where they can only see a blank wall
  • Use a shushing sound to help calm baby 
  • Try using baby massage to calm the baby

Is it bad for a baby to become overstimulated?

Although it is not always possible to keep a baby from becoming overstimulated, it is best to limit how often and how long a baby gets overstimulated.  

Once a baby is overstimulated, their bodies start producing cortisol, a stress hormone. The reason this is significant is because cortisol takes some time to be released from the body once it is made. A high cortisol level in infancy can lead to long-term developmental difficulties. 

This is why it is important to recognize the signs of overstimulation and learn how to soothe your baby after it occurs.   You should also give babies periods of rest between stimulation, such as playing with the baby, reading to the baby, or simply being in a loud environment. 

What Causes Overstimulation in Infants?

  • Toys
  • TV
  • Loud noises
  • Strong smells
  • Bright Lights 
  • Loud talking or shouting
  • Overwhelming amount of sensations at the same time 
  • Not having their basic needs met quickly.  (Like ignoring hunger cues until the baby is crying)

How to prevent overstimulating an infant?

By balancing active time with quiet time, choosing toys with minimal stimulation, and choosing a sensory-friendly environment, you can prevent your baby from becoming overstimulated. 

Balancing activity time and quiet time

Playing with your baby, such as reading to them, singing to them, or even doing tasks like bathing and changing diapers, can be stimulating activities. 

Make sure you give your baby a quiet, calming time between these activities so that they do not become overstimulated.  Swaddling and swaying are soothing activities that allow time to bond with your baby. 

Being mindful of the toys you purchase

When purchasing toys for your new baby, be mindful of how stimulating or overstimulating they might be.   

Avoid buying toys that light up or make sounds.  Toys made of natural elements such as wood and cotton are better choices than plastic toys.  

If you are looking for a good guide on what to buy a baby that will reduce overstimulation, check out The Ultimate Gift Guide for Babies 

Setting up an environment that promotes calm

Setting up your surroundings to promote calm can help keep your baby from becoming overstimulated. It can also become a great refuge for when your baby becomes overwhelmed. 

Start by painting the room with light colors such as white, cream and pale colors. 

Be mindful of the temperature of the room and be sure baby has warm swaddles to help ward off overstimulation.  

Make sure that the lighting in the room is soft and not harsh. Use nightlights to help darken the room while leaving enough light for you to be able to see. 

Consider a white noise machine or something as simple as a fan for the baby's calming space. While most adults feel that silence is peaceful, babies are coming from the womb where it is actually quite noisy, so complete silence can be unnerving for them. 

The bottom line: Infants get overstimulated easily but you can learn the signs and prepare for it. 

In reality, babies can get overstimulated easily if there is too much sensory input. Sights, sounds, smells, even activity can be too much for their little brains to handle. 

But you can prepare for overstimulation by learning the signs of overstimulation, how to sooth your baby when they are overstimulated and how to prevent overstimulation. 

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