It’s rare I deal with a case where overtiredness isn’t a factor in the sleep challenges a family is experiencing. Babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers need a lot of sleep. Many, maybe even the majority, do not get enough which means that there are oodles of overtired children out there…
When I talk about a baby or child being overtired I’m referring to a little one who is essentially too tired to sleep well. Children have short “wakeful windows” (the amount of time they can typically remain comfortably awake between periods of sleep) – the younger the child the shorter the window. At four months a baby will typically have a wakeful window between one and half and two hours. By eighteen months this will have doubled to around five hours, maybe a little more.
When a little one reaches the end of their wakeful window, if sleep is not forthcoming, their brains and bodies respond accordingly, releasing a series of hormones to keep the child “going”. The response to this chemical process differs depending on the child and the situation – some little ones are giddy, charging around the house late in the evening, belying the tiring day they’ve had at nursery, others are clingy, short-tempered and quick to cry.
Being tired at bedtime is great for sleep. Being overtired is a disaster! The hormones that are released to sustain the child’s ability to respond to the world around them linger in the body and inhibit the ability to sleep well. In an overtired child we typically see their sleep affected in one or more of the following ways:
In one of the most counterintuitive aspects of child sleep, essentially the child has become too tired to sleep. And even when they eventually crash out, an overtired child rarely sleeps well.
Once overtiredness is in the mix it often becomes a perpetuating cycle – the child is typically taking less sleep than they should as it has just become too difficult and all the while that little one is becoming even more tired. What’s more, we often do whatever we can to get the child to sleep thereby ingraining crutches such as rocking or feeding to sleep.
The only way to get an overtired child back on track is to top up their sleep tank. This may mean additional naps and/or early bedtimes until your little one is back on an even keel. Sometimes this advice leaves parents apprehensive as the logical response to your child fighting sleep at bedtime or seeming ready to start their day at 5am is to assume a later bedtime and less daytime sleep will help. I’d go so far as to say that is the most common misconception I encounter in my practice! The fact is sleep begets sleep.
You will by now have gathered that undoubtedly the best plan is to avoid overtiredness in the first place! This is done by ensuring your child is able to take the sleep that they need and the first step is knowing just how much sleep that actually is. Whilst no two children are the same, there is surprising commonality in sleep needs across age groups and infant and child sleep knowledge is sufficiently advanced to identify what these average needs typically are. In my experience upwards of 95% of children sit within the average sleep requirements. However I would estimate that nineteen out of twenty parents I speak to believe their child is in the 5% that needs less! Once we have successfully built that child’s sleep skills we see, almost without exception, the child slip seamlessly into the 95%.
Two things drive a child to finish their period of sleep – either they have taken all the rest they need and are fully refreshed, or, they have had all the sleep they can take. These two scenarios are very different. A child equipped with the skills, security and confidence they need to sleep well can stay asleep until they are no longer tired.
A child who is unable either to navigate through sleep cycles independently or return themselves to sleep once they wake will tend to sleep only until the edge has been taken off their exhaustion, which is why we commonly see those 30 minute “disaster” naps. Much of my work is about equipping children with the skills they need to sleep until fully rested.
I am always happy to provide a parent with information around average sleep needs by age. This is knowledge that should be in every parent’s toolkit – whilst some children’s sleepy cues are easy to spot, others tend not to show them until it’s almost too late and those little ones do need a parent to keep one eye on the clock. Whilst I don’t advocate rigid schedules, the reality is that many little ones do struggle to sleep well at night if their daytime sleep is out-of-kilter.
And I’m yet to work with a parent who struggles to fill the two or three hours each day that we have taught their little to happily snooze in their cot!