What is overstimulation?
Overstimulation happens when a child is swamped by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than she can cope with.
For example, a newborn baby might get very unsettled after a party where he’s been cuddled by lots of grown-ups. A preschooler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party. A school-age child might be cranky if he goes to school, then after-school care and then a swimming lesson.
Overstimulated children get tired and can feel overwhelmed. When this happens, they need quiet time and a familiar, calm environment.
Signs of overstimulation
If your newborn or baby is overstimulated, she might:
- be cranky or tired
- cry more
- seem upset or turn her head away from you
- move in a jerky way
- clench her fists, wave her arms or kick.
If your toddler or preschooler is overstimulated, he might:
- seem tired, cranky and upset
- cry and not be able to use words to describe his feelings
- throw himself on the floor in tears or anger
- tell you that he doesn’t want to do a particular activity anymore
- refuse to do simple things like putting on a seatbelt.
You’ll get to know the particular signs that your child shows when she’s overstimulated.
Balancing activity time and quiet time
In the first five years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life. Your child’s early experiences – the things he sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate his brain, creating millions of connections.
This means your child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give her plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what she’s learning.
But it doesn’t mean you need to spend all day every day dangling toys in front of your baby, or that you have to rush your child from school to extracurricular activities. Babies and young children also need quiet time in predictable and familiar settings.
Your child will benefit from quietly entertaining himself, exploring his environment in his own way and at his own pace. This time lets your child learn how to occupy himself, work out when he needs quiet time and find things to do in that time to make himself feel better.
Babies: dealing with overstimulation
When you see that your baby is overwhelmed, take her somewhere quiet where she can calm down – for example, her cot. If you’re out with your baby, you can put her in the pram and cover it with a light wrap or blanket.
Wrapping newborns and babies can help them calm down because it reduces physical sensations. Your baby might also find it soothing to be carried next to your body in a sling or something similar, as you go about your everyday activities.
Toddlers and preschoolers: dealing with overstimulation
Here are some ideas for handling your overstimulated toddler or preschooler:
- Try to stay calm yourself. This will help your child to calm down too.
- Reduce the noise and activity around your child. For example, turn off the TV or radio and take your child to his bedroom, or let him spend time near you if he needs to be close to you to wind down.
- Help your child put into words the feelings that she’s expressing through behaviour. For example, you could say, ‘I can see that you’re upset’, ‘I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed’.
- Sit quietly with your child and choose a calming activity. You could read a story, lie down with him, sing some quiet songs or just stroke his back. When he’s calm, give him some time to play by himself.
- If your child says she doesn’t want to do a particular activity, see whether you can find out what she doesn’t like about that particular activity. It’s best to talk to her later on, when she’s calm.
If you’re seeing behaviour problems because your child is overstimulated or stressed, it’s almost always helpful to tackle them by changing the environment.
School-age children: dealing with overstimulation
At this age, children can start calming themselves down. Here are some ideas to help:
- Help your child put into words the feelings that he’s expressing through behaviour. For example, ‘I can see that you’re upset’, ‘I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed’.
- Suggest that your child goes to a quiet place if she’s tired or cranky from overdoing it. For example, she could read or listen to quiet music in her bedroom.
- Talk with your child about which activities he finds most interesting or valuable. He might need to think about letting some activities go if he’s finding he has too much to cope with.
- Look into mindfulness strategies for your child. You might be able to find some that you and your child could practise together.
Your child needs enough time during the week to do homework, spend time with family, socialise with friends and just be by herself.
Finding the right amount of stimulation
There’s no one ‘right’ answer to how much stimulation is too much, because every child is different. Different children can cope with different amounts of excitement. Some children cope with stimulating environments better than others.
Let your child be the guide, and remember that moderation is best.
For babies and young children, it’s a good idea to give your child some time each day to spend quietly playing or resting, apart from sleep time.
Your school-age child will probably benefit most from one or two extracurricular activities that he’s really interested in. Sport, music and other clubs can be a fantastic way to develop skills, make new friends and pursue interests. But too much time spent on organised after-school activities might mean your child misses out on time to relax and entertain himself.
The ability to occupy yourself is an important life skill. By encouraging it, you help your child on her journey towards becoming an independent adult.