Your heart starts to beat faster. Your palms are sweaty. You are pursing your lips when you gently put your baby down in his crib (like pursing your lips actually makes anything different!).
Every time you put your baby down for a nap, you pray that he doesn’t wake up by the smallest noise from the other side of the neighborhood, or every 20 minutes for no particular reason.
But your prayers haven’t been answered.
You feel like literally your baby wakes up for every move that the people on earth are making. And you need to spend all day to put him to sleep.
Your baby is cranky, crying and fussy all day. He is clearly tired, even overtired and desperately needs you to help him sleep.
But you are clueless on how to help your overtired baby sleep.
You try your best, but you just don’t see a way out of that endless loop. Every day is a battle that you want to (but can’t) throw in the towel.
You are at the right place.
My son was a terrible sleeper. He was overtired all the time and I got nothing done around the house, because I spent all day around him to put him to sleep.
Until I found a truly silver bullet.
Stay with me to figure out the one and only silver bullet that breaks the overtiredness cycle and help your overtired baby catch up on sleep.
The silver bullet to break the overtiredness cycle and help your overtired baby catch up on sleep
The real silver bullet to break the overtiredness cycle is to move bedtime earlier by approximately 30 to 60 minutes. Moving bedtime earlier doesn’t make your overtired baby sleep badly at night or get up too early in the morning, but it will give your overtired baby some time to rest more and slowly clear his sleep debt.
There are other things you can do all day to create a routine and prepare a good sleeping environment. But to break the overtiredness cycle, your baby needs to sleep longer at some point during the day. And a routine or good sleeping environment do not really help with it.
Why does your overtired baby need to catch up on sleep?
You might be a little surprised if you hear that your baby is carrying sleep debt.
But once your baby is overtired, his body starts to release cortisol into his bloodstream. This hormone is the one that keeps him awake and alert after every sleep cycle even though he is tired.
Read more: Why do overtired babies keep waking up
The longer your baby is overtired, the more cortisol is built up in his body. And his body needs to sleep to reduce the cortisol level.
So if your baby is under rested for a while, there is a lot of excessive cortisol to work with, and that equals to sleep debt.
Until your baby is cleared from sleep debt, your baby is likely to stay a lousy sleeper.
How long you should move the bedtime earlier
With that in mind, you might be tempted to push his bedtime even earlier.
“If my baby is short on sleep 2 hours everyday, for a straight week, why can’t I push the bedtime to 2 hours, or even 3 hours earlier? So that he clears his sleep debt faster?”
It really doesn’t work like that, though.
From my own experience and many moms’ experience, you can only move bedtime roughly 1 sleep cycle earlier.
Remember your baby often has the last nap right before his bedtime that only lasts 20 to 30 minutes?
I’ve realized that if my son skipped that last nap even though he was overtired, I could push his bedtime 60 minutes earlier. But if he didn’t skip that nap, I could push his bedtime 30 minutes earlier.
Depending on your baby’s day, how long he has been napping a day, and when his last nap is, you can push his bedtime up by 30 minutes or 60 minutes.
How to help an overtired baby sleep
Overtired babies are harder to settle to sleep, and our job as parents is to help them settle.
It is good to have a predictable and consistent routine so that your baby will know what you are trying to do, to limit the surprise and unexpected, so that he won’t get overstimulated.
If you have not yet established a routine, it might be a little harder for your baby to self-soothe himself, and he will need to depend on you more to fall asleep. But it is possible.
Here are some things you can do to help your overtired baby sleep.
Swaddle or hold and rock your baby
Swaddling provides a similar environment as in the womb and can make your baby feel safe. However, if your baby has never been introduced to a swaddle, now is not the right time.
Read more: Should you swaddle your baby for naps?
Instead, holding and rocking your baby the traditional way works wonders.
Hold your baby on the side or stomach
Many babies love to snooze on their parents' chests. Holding your baby on his stomach against your chest or holding him on the side against your torso can calm him down.
White noise or lullabies
Some parents and babies really do prefer white noise. But some love lullabies.
White noise is known to help soothe an overtired baby because it can mimic the same noisy feeling in the womb.
If you hold and rock your baby, however, I recommend singing lullabies. They are gentle, soft and come from you, so that your baby will get to hear your voice.
My son and I love our hammock. When it’s too hot, I just put him down in the hammock and gently swing.
If a hammock is too spacious for your house, consider a swing, or even a smart bassinet with swing mode.
Use a pacifier
If your baby can only relax once having something in his mouth to suckle, try offering a pacifier instead of your own nipples or bottles.
However, if he refuses the pacifier, once again, this is not the right time to introduce it. Now is the time to help him sleep and catch up on sleep.
Read more: Sleep training with a pacifier
Offer breast or bottle
Some babies are extremely relaxed once being fed. My son was the same.
When we tried everything but nothing really worked to settle him, we would offer him breasts or bottles.
However, try not to always run to breasts or bottles as the first rescuer, as you also want your baby to eat effectively.
There you have it.
The only silver bullet to break the overtiredness cycle and help your overtired baby to sleep and catch up on sleep.
No more lips-pursing every time you put him down for a nap, no more tiptoeing around the house. Your baby wakes up when he is well-rested and he once again is a happy baby.
All you need now is patience.
Give it a try for at least several days, remember to adjust the time you need to move up his bedtime. As he gets less tired and less sleep debt, he might only need 30 minutes extra to sleep.
Learn his sleeping cues and trust yourself.