You don’t know what else to do to stop your baby’s waking up and crying.
I mean, you’ve done your homework. You’ve read all the books you bought about taking care of a baby. You printed out baby sleep schedules and hung it on the wall so you can track your baby’s naps.
But that ideal schedule is like sand that keeps slipping through your fingers.
No matter what you do, your baby is a terrible napper.
He keeps waking up every 30 to 45 minutes crying. He refuses the bottle. He gets cranky and arches his back trying to get away from you while crying his lungs out.
You don’t know what else to do to console him. He doesn’t want you to pick him up, he doesn’t want you to feed him. And it’s impossible to just stand there watching him and do nothing.
If this pattern applies to you at some point during your motherhood journey, maybe you’ve found yourself a new experience.
Dealing with overtired babies.
Yes, you read that right.
It is highly possible that your baby is overtired.
“But if my baby is overtired, shouldn’t he sleep longer than usual?” - You wondered.
Indeed, it is the opposite way around.
Why do overtired babies keep waking up?
When you have an exhausting day at work, all you want to do when you get home is to go straight to your bedroom and collapse on your bed straight to the next morning.
But sometimes when your day is beyond exhausting, and you stretch yourself over your exhaustion and collapse point, you drag your overtired body home and find it impossible to relax and fall asleep.
Same thing applies to babies.
In fact, little babies even take it up a notch.
As they are more sensitive to overtiredness than adults, their bodies automatically assume there must be some sort of danger, and they enter a fight-or-die state.
There is nothing we can do about it when it happens. This is the way we are wired to be back in the “caveman days”.
When babies are overtired, their bodies start releasing stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) into their bloodstream. Those hormones keep their little bodies alert and awake.
And the more overtired your baby is, the more cortisol and adrenaline being bottled up in his system, the longer it takes to fall asleep and stay asleep.
The cortisol rhythm and sleep
According to The Sleep Doctor, “cortisol has a daily, 24-hour rhythm. For most bio types, cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning, usually around 9 a.m. Cortisol begins to rise gradually in the second half of a night’s sleep.”
After that peak time, it gradually declines throughout the day and reaches its lowest level around midnight.
This helps stimulate wake-up time in the morning, and call for sleepiness at night.
So when overtiredness messes up with the cortisol level in your babies’ little bodies, it messes up with their sleep as well.
Overtired babies keep waking up because cortisol affects sleep cycles.
We all have sleep cycles. Babies and adults. Period.
However, you always feel like you sleep straight through the night because you don’t remember waking up at night. Because you have learned through the years how to string your sleep cycles together. So you finish 1 sleep cycle and jump straight to the next one!
But things are different with our little babies.
They finish 1 sleep cycle and then wonder, “What’s next?”. They don’t know how to string those sleep cycles together.
And things are even worse for overtired babies.
Their bloodstream is full with cortisol and adrenaline, they finish 1 sleep cycle and tell themselves, “Beware! Something dangerous is coming!”. They are alert, completely awake, anxious and start to cry.
Overtired babies keep waking up early because cortisol is being built up in the morning
When everyone is happy and no one is tired, we sleep through the night and wake up in the morning because cortisol is built up in our bloodstream in the morning to wake us up.
For overtired babies, they have not worn off their extra cortisol and more cortisol is being built. When cortisol reaches a certain level, they also reach their wake-up time.
If your baby often wakes up at 6:00 AM, when he is overtired, you will notice he starts his morning at 4:00 AM to 4:30 AM.
What to do to break the overtiredness cycle
Quick fixes to put him back to sleep
You will notice sometimes your baby wakes up and clearly wants to go back to sleep, that’s when you need to do some instant fixes to help him get back to his sleep.
That includes holding and rocking him, singing lullabies, feeding him, giving him light massages, etc.
When you are trying to put your overtired baby back to sleep, it is not the time to apply “best practices” or “good habits”. The most important thing is to put him down for sleep, and clear his sleep debt.
To break the overtiredness cycle: moving bedtime
Take this. Your baby needs to clear his sleep debt until he can move on into a good sleeping habits and sleeping schedule.
So if your baby is not yet cleared with his accumulated sleep debt, you will always find him fussy, tired and hard to fall asleep on some level.
And following a strict sleep schedule or wearing him out doesn’t help to clear his sleep debt.
Instead, try moving his bedtime earlier.
If your little one often gets drowsy at 6:00 PM, try to push his bedtime to 5:00 PM or 5:30 PM. By pushing his bedtime a little bit earlier, every day he gets a little bit extra time to clear his sleep debt, not too much to affect his sleep in the following day, but enough to give him a little bit more rest.
Remember that you might have to repeat this for a few days until he is cleared with his sleep deficit and his cortisol level gets back to normal.
Preventing your baby from overtiredness is not impossible. In fact, both you and your baby will thrive from it.
You will learn to realize when to put him to sleep, and he will learn to trust you and adapt the routine.
Here are some general tips to prevent overtiredness.
Learn his sleeping cues
Put your baby to sleep when you see sleeping cues. Sleeping cues can be yawning, jerky movements, becoming quiet, not wanting to play, 'grizzling' or fussing, rubbing his eyes, etc.
Make sure you also learn the “early sleeping cues” and “late sleeping cues” so that you know how to respond accordingly.
The ideal situation is to start the wind-down routine once you see his early sleeping cues.
Have wind-down routine in place
Make a repeatable routine for winding down. You don’t want your baby to be excited and waiting for a surprise before nap/ sleep.
A wind-down routine varies. Depending on your baby and your own preferences. But it can be something like singing to your baby, rocking your baby, giving a light massage, reading a book, etc.
Just make sure it is repeatable and expected.
Reduce chaos and stimulation before sleep
If you have more than one baby, it is next to impossible to have a calm and quiet environment around the house. However, while all the noise is great for your little baby when he is awake, you need to reduce the chaos and stimulation when he is getting close to his nap/ sleep time.
It means going to a separate room when his noisy siblings do not come in and scream.
It means closing the curtains to make the room darker.
It means turning on white noise or lullabies to block the outside noise.
Overtired babies keep waking up because the cortisol is bottled up in their bodies, giving them a harder time to fall asleep and stay asleep.
When your baby is overtired and wakes up from his sleep, try some instant fixes to put him back to sleep as fast as possible. Then you move his bedtime up to clear his sleep debt. And make sure to avoid overtiredness at all costs.