Monday, December 20, 2010

Too Much Fun: Preventing Overstimulation in Infants and Toddlers

With so many families traveling and celebrating this time of year, it is not surprising that we see overstimulated babies and toddlers just about everywhere we go. Given that overstimulation can lead to crying in babies and dramatic meltdowns in toddlers, we thought we'd use this post to offer tips for parents hoping to prevent some of the fussing and tantrums so common during busy holiday preparations and parties. For some of you, all of this advice will seem silly. Your babies are able to socialize for long periods of time without showing any signs of stress and when they get tired of it all, they fall peacefully asleep. None of us had one of those babies. So, for the rest of you, we offer the following tips.

1. Be prepared.

Experienced parents know to take extra clothing, snacks, and distracting toys on any outing with babies and toddlers. Packing for trips to family gatherings or holiday parties should also include familiar soft objects or other favorite toys. Light blankets can be useful as needed cover for younger babies who need a break from all the fun. If you know your baby is particularly sensitive to large groups, scope out a quiet place at your destination that you can use for a quick retreat if needed. Make a plan with your spouse/partner so you can take turns socializing and watching the baby. While family and friends may be very happy to help, be sure you let them know about your baby's cues, especially the ones signaling that he is getting overwhelmed.

2. Timing is everything!

Unless your baby is a newborn, you probably know which times during the day are best for socializing with your baby. Both of my kids were happiest in the morning or just after their afternoon naps. If you have a choice about the time for your outings, try to match them up with the time of day when your baby is most likely to be alert, interested, and content.

3. Watch for the early warning signs.

No matter how easy-going the baby or what time of day, too much fun can bring on the tears if parents miss the early warning signs of overstimulation. Remember, babies have to work hard to concentrate on new faces, new experiences, and all the learning that comes with visiting and playing with loving family and friends. All babies and toddlers will give signs when they need a change or a break from stimulation. Younger babies will look, turn, and even push away from whomever is holding them or yawn, frown, or breathe faster and fuss a little. Just remember, these same cues are used no matter why the baby feels uncomfortable - too many new faces, dogs barking, or Aunt Lulu's loud voice. Your little one can't tell you what he needs a break from; it's your job to figure it out. Older babies will provide these same early cues but they can be far more sophisticated using gestures, pointing, and specific noises to help you know better what they want. Even toddlers who seem to be having fun will show indications when they need to slow things down. By responding to early cues, you'll avoid the stress of the crying baby or the screaming toddler who can't calm down.

4. Slow things down.

Make sure you pace activities and visits so that your baby has time to communicate with you if things get a little crazy. For example, if you walk into the family gathering right after a trip to the mall, be sure to keep your child close until you are sure that he or she shows clear signs the he is ready to play with all the new people. Loving relatives will want to hold and play with your baby. That's what your baby wants too. Just keep the transitions (from one person to the next) at a pace that your baby can handle and be ready, every once in awhile, to have a little quiet time in your arms.

5. Take effective breaks.

If you've noticed that your baby is getting tired or too excited with so much going on, be sure that you take an effective break, not just a moment in another room. Make sure that your baby is ready by watching for engagement cues or that your toddler is completely calmed down before you venture back out into the busy world. That way, you'll be able to spend a lot more time with friends and family before baby needs a nap or your toddler needs to go home.

While it may seem like you'll need to spend a lot of time and effort in avoiding overstimulation in your baby or toddler, you'll find that a little prevention can go a long way in keeping all of you happy (including your excited relatives). Unfortunately, misunderstanding of baby's behavior can end up with more melt downs, frazzled nerves, and desperate family members unsuccessfully using bribes or time-outs to control your baby's behavior. You'll find it will be much easier to work with your baby's natural rhythms and abilities. Everyone will have more fun.

Next time: Happy Holidays!


  1. Thank you for this post, it is a good reminder as we head into the "fray". We forget that our kids cannot run at the same crazy holiday pace that we generally do. During this time, our little ones are off their normal routine, they are in unfamiliar places with a bunch of people they don't know or remember, and they are being overwhelmed with gifts, noise, crowds, and in stiff and uncomfortable clothes. Manners go out the window and tempers flare. I think it is always good to remember a pair of jammies or comfy clothes, a blanky or comfort toy, some familiar foods (goldfish or crackers), their drinking cup and a quiet corner. Those items are the best way to regain their balance and control.

  2. I just went through a 45 minute screaming session and it was the worst. I could tell she was releaving stress after a full day of family members kissing, holding and overstimulating her. Loved the blog, glad to know I wasn't crazy and have decnt fatherly intuition with my 4 1/2 month old.