Finding Balance: Understanding and Addressing Newborn Overstimulation

overstimulated baby

Understanding your overstimulated newborn and what to do

We’ve all been there before. You’ve been out with the baby all day; a well baby check at the pediatrician, had to zip by the post office, and your quick stop at the grocery store on the way home resulted in needing to feed the baby on the go. The line at the pharmacy was ridiculous, tis the season, and it was at that point the baby let everyone know she’d had enough. She became inconsolable — clenching her tiny baby fists, squirming and tossing her head back in an attempt to backflip out of your arms, all while testing out the full range of her little baby lungs.

“She’ll pass out in the car,” you tell yourself as you abandon your spot in line, and make a mad dash for the parking lot, texting your partner along the way that he’ll have to pick up the prescription on his way home. But much to your chagrin, the baby does NOT pass out in the car. Instead she screams her little head off the whole way home, and continues into the house.

So what is the problem? She’s overstimulated now, and calming her down is going to take some time and effort.

An overstimulated baby can be really tricky to settle. Once they reach that point of overwhelm, it becomes difficult to help them back. You cannot always prevent overstimulation in your baby, but there are many ways to create an environment that avoids overstimulation where possible, as well as effective strategies for bringing your baby back to a calm and content baseline when it does happen.

Why do newborns get overstimulated?

Overstimulation occurs when a person is met with more sensory stimulation and activity than they have the ability to adequately cope with. While overstimulation can happen to people of all ages, there are a lot of different reasons newborns are especially prone to overstimulation, including both developmental and environmental factors.

Your infant is changing rapidly from the moment they begin developing in utero, learning the sound of your voice and the rhythm of your movements before they are even born. Continuing on from the moment they are born, your baby grows accustomed to the feeling of your touch, and the sights, smells and sounds of your home. As they continue to interact with more stimuli around them, their experiences become familiar from being exposed to the same stimulus repeatedly. Accordingly, your baby learns to find comfort in the sound of your voice, the environment of your home, and the spaces they frequently spend time in. This is part of the reason babies thrive with routines, eating and sleeping on a regular schedule gives your baby comfort from the familiar.

But what happens when your baby comes into contact with an unfamiliar sight, sound, or smell? It might seem at times that your baby only wants you to hold them, while other times they go easily to others. The reason behind those differences is often the other stimulation involved. For example, your baby might be fine with being held by grandma when they’re in their own home, they’ve recently been fed and changed, and Mom or Dad is nearby. But when grandma tries to hold them in a noisy, crowded restaurant when it’s almost feeding time or they have a wet diaper is different. They may cry and arch their back and clench their fists.

In the first scenario, the baby’s basic needs were all met, the environment was familiar with minimal extra stimulus, so accepting unfamiliar touch was not too overwhelming for your baby to handle. In the second scenario, however, the environment was unfamiliar and noisy. And while that alone might be okay, adding unfamiliar touch pushed the baby into overstimulation as there were too many competing factors overwhelming them.

How can I tell if my baby is overstimulated?

crying baby

Most people can spot an overstimulated toddler a mile away. They get loud and emotional, and may become resistant to attempts to calm them down or distract them, and instead melt down. These kinds of episodes are often seen in public spaces with lots of stimulus such as an amusement park or busy store or restaurant.  The clues that your baby is getting overstimulated, however, can be more subtle until they have become very overstimulated. Paying attention to your baby’s environment and behavior, however, should help you spot overstimulation.

Behavioral signs your baby is getting overstimulated:

  • Seem upset or avoidant, turning their head away from you;
  • Tight, clenched fists or tense body movements;
  • Persistent crying even though basic needs have all been met;
  • Staring off into space or trying to cover their eyes from stimulus;
  • Squirming or frantic movements;
  • Wanting to be held, nursed, or otherwise comforted more frequently than usual.

If you observe one or more of these signs in your newborn, it’s likely they are becoming overstimulated. This is especially true when there are environmental factors contributing to overstimulation as well.

Environmental factors that impact overstimulation:

  • Being too hot or too cold;
  • Having a diaper rash or skin irritant such as eczema;
  • Being in a noisy environment;
  • Being handled or held by multiple people, especially people unfamiliar to your baby;
  • Being in a location unfamiliar to your baby, especially when coupled with unfamiliar or particularly potent sounds or smells;
  • Being in an environment with a lot of active competing stimuli, even if not particularly noisy, (e.g. doctor’s office or grocery store).

What do I do if my newborn baby gets overstimulated?

It’s important to be able to identify overstimulation in babies, and avoid it whenever possible. Planning ahead by keeping your baby’s routines to include regular feeding times and nap times when possible. Avoiding too many stimulating activities in the same day will go a long way in avoiding overstimulation as well. However, life happens and sometimes the best laid plans go south. Preventing newborn overstimulation isn’t always possible. There are some great strategies, however, for soothing your baby when dealing with overstimulation.

  • Leave the environment that is contributing to the overstimulation, if possible. If you are in a noisy restaurant and the baby starts showing signs they’re overstimulated, it might be best to grab the check and head outside, or take turns being with the baby in a quieter environment until they are settling down.
  • Go to an environment with low stimulus. Pick a place that is quiet and dimly lit. If possible, make it somewhere that’s familiar to your baby such as their nursery if you’re at home, or your vehicle if you’re out.
  • If you cannot change your environment, reduce any stimulus in the environment that you can change. For example, turn off the TV or music, and turn down the lights.
  • Make sure all basic needs have been met. Check the baby’s diaper, offer a feeding if they are due, add a layer if they are cold or remove some clothing if they’re hot.
  • Hold the baby closely towards you, blocking out stimulus if possible by covering their eyes or wearing the baby in a carrier. If being held is part of the overstimulation, change positions to let the baby face away from you, and find a comfortable, familiar place that baby can safely be, such as their car seat or stroller and block extra stimulus from them by bringing up the sun shade or draping a blanket over the top.
  • Trust what you know about your baby and offer whatever typically comforts them when upset. For some babies this might be rocking or swaying, while other babies might want space.
  • Speak in a low, quiet tone. You can also use white noise.
  • Remind yourself that you’re doing all that you can and take a deep breath yourself. Your baby can feel your nervous or anxious energy, and that can build onto the overwhelm instead of reducing it.

Taking care of yourself IS taking care of the baby!

Asking for help is often one of the hardest things to do, but it is usually the one thing that will make the biggest difference. Perhaps one of the best ways to make sure your baby can both avoid overstimulation wherever possible and adequately deal with it when it arises is making sure you as a caregiver have the support that you need, too. Babies can be really overwhelming! Our team of doulas can help you find a rhythm with your baby, learn how to create an ideal schedule, equip you with soothing techniques for when your baby gets cranky or overstimulated, and give you the break you deserve — all so you can rebuild your own emotional reserves. Because the truth is — parents can get overstimulated, too!

Learn more about our daytime postpartum doula care, and contact us to discuss your specific needs.