Is my baby chronically overtired?

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about ‘overtiredness’ causing all sorts of sleep disruptions. Many parents are absolutely terrified of the impact of overtiredness on their little one and worry that their child is chronically overtired.

But is overtiredness as big of a deal as it’s made out to be? Let’s delve into the topic and uncover the truth…

The Myth of Overtiredness

Overtiredness is frequently portrayed as the main culprit behind sleep difficulties. The idea is that when children are awake too long, they build up cortisol in their brains. When they go to sleep at night, this cortisol hangs around and disturbs their overnight sleep. Information warning parents about the dangers of overtiredness can be found all over the internet and social media, and it’s sending parents into a tailspin!

Differentiating Overtiredness from Dysregulation

What we need to understand is the difference between overtiredness and dysregulation. Of course, children can become dysregulated from being kept awake too long, and this may impact their mood and ability to settle to sleep at bedtime. But it’s important to clarify that this doesn’t necessarily lead to disrupted nights of sleep. There is some evidence that sleep deprivation causes broken sleep – but sleep deprivation is very different from being kept awake 15 minutes longer than usual!

The Reality of Sleep Needs

The problem is, the fear-driven narrative around overtiredness has led to parents rigidly adhering to short wake windows, trying to lengthen naps, and enforcing early bedtimes. While some infants may thrive on shorter wake periods and longer naps, others are going to really struggle settling with such short wake windows. Parents then get caught in a cycle of their child battling sleep and sleeping poorly overnight because they aren’t tired enough, which they mistakenly attribute to overtiredness – and try shorter windows the next time (which only goes to reinforce the problem!)

Reframing the Narrative

Instead of fixating on overtiredness, it’s important to look deeper into your child’s individual sleep needs:

  • How much are they sleeping in a 24-hour period? All children have unique sleep needs, and they may need less sleep than the average child (and so need longer awake as a result)
  • How long do they seem to need to stay awake before going back to sleep again? If you are battling sleep for long periods of time, when are they eventually falling asleep? Could aiming for this length wake window reduce the battle?
  • Are they spending periods awake overnight or waking up early in the morning? This signals undertiredness – and suggests they need longer periods awake during the day to build more sleep pressure (or, tiredness!)

Instead of striving for unrealistic sleep expectations driven by fears of overtiredness, parents can benefit from really understand their own child’s sleep. By trusting their instincts (and their child’s natural cues, parents can navigate the complexities of infant sleep without constantly panicking they are depriving their child of sleep!

Struggling to get to the root cause of your child’s sleep issues? Book a FREE 15-minute call to talk about our 1:1 Sleep Support Options.