What is overtiredness?
Overtiredness, simply, is when you have gone from not only tired, but you are beyond tired. And this isn't something that just happens only for children and babies. This happens to all human beings at some point or another.
And honestly, as adults, I feel like we struggle most with overtiredness because as mothers especially, we think far more about our child's sleep than we do about our own. So we are facing overtiredness at least occasionally.
So, little secret -
this stuff can apply to mamas too!
Typically, a lot of children, especially, end up going into overdrive when overtired. Their body thinks, “Oh, we're not going to sleep… we must need to pump some more cortisol in here to get you going.” And that is the last thing that we need when it's time for sleep because cortisol is the hormone that our body releases to help us to stay awake. We want some melatonin when it's time for bedtime.
First, let's talk about…
The Signs and Symptoms of Overtiredness in Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
Here is a non-exhaustive (ha, exhaustive) list of overtiredness signs.
Red eyebrows, out of the normal irritability, irrational, overly clingy, weepy, cranky, especially around 4 pm - that kind of witching hour in little ones.
One interesting symptom is falling asleep super fast for naps and bedtime. So within five minutes, you lay them down and like boom, they're asleep. And a lot of times, we think that that's what's supposed to happen, we kind of get a little... If you're anything like I was… you get a little bit of a panic attack when you lay your child down and they're not falling asleep right away. We actually do want this little bit of like buffer time between the time you lay your child down to the time that they fall asleep for them to get themselves drowsy and they are the ones fully falling asleep so that can take anywhere in 10-15 minutes.
Another sign is that they're taking forever to fall asleep. So we're on the other end of the continuum and it’s taking your child so so so long to fall asleep. This is a common sign for adults. We are beyond tired and we are like, “Oh, I cannot wait to get in that bed!” Only to in that bed and we just lay there and wonder what in the world is happening. What's happening is we've missed that sweet spot of getting into bed and falling asleep easily.
Falling asleep easily at bedtime but then waking in the middle of the night.
Having a glazed-over look. They're just kind of zoning out and/or being disengaged.
They're waking really early in the morning.
Frequent nightmares and night terrors
Sleepwalking or sleep talking
Hyperactivity/catching that second wind
Your toddler or preschooler is telling you that they're tired - they're beyond tired.
Those are just a few of the signs.
And, obviously, not every child is going to show every single one of these signs. There are going to be a couple that might pertain to your children in particular, but just keep in mind that they may show a sign other than these. It’s one of those things where you have to study your child a little bit to see what's what for them.
What do you do when your child is overtired?
My number one favorite way to overcome overtiredness is a super early bedtime.
The reason that this is my favorite way/it is the best way to overcome overtiredness is that when it comes to nighttime sleep, our bodies are more inclined to sleep.
We have what's called sleep pressure and our circadian rhythm working in our favor when it comes to nighttime sleep.
Sleep pressure is the desire the drive to sleep - the longer we're awake, we have a greater desire to sleep. And the reason that's thing is that the longer we're awake, our body produces this chemical called adenosine that attaches to our neurons in our brain, which inhibits brain function.
So that brain fog is real, my friend, and your child feels it too.
So the only way to have the body rid itself of that adenosine, or at least lower it, is through sleep.
The other thing that's really helping us out is our circadian rhythm.
As we've mentioned in previous episodes about melatonin, melatonin helps us fall asleep and is released when it’s dark out and our circadian rhythm is very much triggered by light and dark.
In the morning light, our body is triggered to release cortisol which is known as a stress hormone, but it is not necessarily a bad thing because we do need to be woken up we need to have some energy and cortisol is good for that. So our body releases that first thing in the morning to help us wake up. As the day wears on, it's supposed to decrease, and then when it gets dark, our body is triggered then to release melatonin, and for us, that is known as the sleepy hormone.
So at bedtime, not only are we getting the perk of that increased sleep pressure, but we are also getting the perk of melatonin.
Now, don’t get me wrong, children that need to nap, they're getting that sleep pressure built up enough that they're having to nap throughout the day, hence the need for naps. But they're not getting that melatonin throughout the day to help encourage them to sleep even more. So we're getting that added little bonus when we do an early bedtime.
And when I say early, I mean you could go as early as 5:30 pm. Though, only use that super early bedtime when your child really needs it and, obviously, this depends on when their normal bedtime is. If you have a slightly older child who is typically going to bed around eight, 5:30 is only used when it is direly needed. But if your child is typically going to bed at 6:30, let's say, then 5:30 isn't too far off. So that is something to think about. Also, the earlier bedtime is something you can use a couple of days in a row if overtiredness is a big struggle; even just 15 minutes earlier is really going to help deter that second wind because I'm sure as you've noticed, it’s like a switch is flipped and if we can catch them before that switch is flipped to get in bed… We are golden.
What to do when you see overtiredness approaching?
Something that often happens in our own home, is if you're going through your normal bedtime routine and your child is starting to, as we say in our house, vibrate, you know it's time to wrap it up a bit. So pick a shorter book or skip the book altogether. Speed up the routine enough to still be doing it, but not getting your child into bed any later than necessary.
What if I can’t do an early bedtime?
Let's say that you don't have that flexibility to be able to put your child to bed as early as 5:30 pm or even that 15 minutes - like it's just not there. I get it. Sometimes that happens and it's okay.
If that happens, what we're going to do is get them in bed as soon as possible, as soon as you can, and have a shortened, but even more calming bedtime routine. Potentially skip the bath, do a wipe down if you have to, dim the lights, add some essential oils to the diffuser, read a short book, but as I said, sometimes you just got to get them in bed but we don't want to fully skip the routine because it is a major help in getting your child to fall asleep comfortably and stay asleep. So we're just going to be trying to set the mood a bit for sleep without adding too many unnecessary extras in there.
How to prevent overtiredness
Remember when I was talking about sleep pressure and how we have more of an inclination to sleep at night because we have that wonderful help of melatonin? During the day, children who need to nap have sleep pressure building up quicker than we do as adults. That’s why they need those naps - to help relieve that adenosine in their body to get refreshed and renewed.
So the best way to prevent overtiredness, the major buildup of sleep pressure, is to stick to their age-appropriate wake windows.
Granted, there is some flexibility from child to child because every child is unique in their own way. But they do tend to follow these parameters. So, again, find what works for your family, your specific child. There's going to be a little bit of studying involved with your child but the wake windows that you find are going to be a good starting place so find that for your child and stick with them.
Another way to prevent overtiredness happens when you are expecting there to be overtiredness.
When there is a lot of activity going on during the day, you are traveling, or there’s sickness, or you just feel like it's an off day, expect it and allow for it. Do an earlier bedtime of just 15 to 30 minutes. That is just enough to calm their system and help them get to sleep and stay asleep.
For children that are no longer napping, having a quiet time in the middle of the day is very important because we all have a little dip in our system in the middle of the day. We all need a little siesta. This particular quiet time involves something other than screens. We want them to be able to rest their minds and not just their bodies. Shows and screens can be overly stimulating and that isn't going to be helpful with trying to get them to sleep. So, having a quiet time where they're looking at books, doing crafts, is going to be very helpful with preventing overtiredness.
Then lastly, spending time outside is so helpful for our sleep. Like I mentioned before, the circadian rhythm is very much set by light. So spending as much time as possible outside in the sunlight is going to help solidify the circadian rhythm. That fresh air is going to help both their sleep and their well-being.
Depending on where you live, getting outside isn’t always possible. So even if you're spending time in the sunniest room of your house or spending time in the middle of the day outside when it's warmest or earlier in the day when it’s the coolest, depending on the time of year. I have found a lot of help with a lightbox when getting outside isn’t doable.
Overtiredness can be our enemy when it comes to sleep, but it can be defeated!
If you’re not sure when nap time should be or those wake windows seem a bit confusing, ( I 100% get that) I have created a free nap scheduler for you to take the guesswork out. You will fill out a short quiz and you will then have your optimal wake windows or set schedule, depending on the age of your child.
And of course, I'm always here for you if you need a little bit more one-on-one support. I'm happy to help!