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Is My Baby Overtired or Under-tired?

Sleep can feel like a giant puzzle and when you finally put all of the pieces together you get a well rested baby right? There are lots of pieces in the sleep puzzle. Feeding, activity, nap length, wake windows. In my opinion two of the most important pieces to the puzzle are deciphering whether your baby is overtired or under-tired. These two things look very similar so let’s look at some ways you can tell the difference and what to do about it.

Overtired Baby

An overtired baby has pushed past their natural wake window and needs to sleep again. A wake window is the amount of time your child needs to be awake before their body has built up enough “sleep pressure” and is tired enough to sleep again. Wake windows are based on age and change as your child grows. I have a very comprehensive wake window chart you can access for free here

Once you know what your child’s age appropriate wake window is then you can start looking for sleepy cues to help you understand when your child is telling you they are tired. The wake window is a pretty accurate gage to base nap times on but every child is different so pay attention to your baby’s sleepy cues. 

Here are some signs that your baby may be overtired.

1.  Fussiness Beyond Normal: They’re not just a little cranky; they’re inconsolably fussy. 

2. Difficulty Settling: Even when it’s clearly time for sleep, they struggle to calm down. It seems counterintuitive but it can actually be more difficult to fall asleep if you are too tired.

3. Hyperactivity: Paradoxically, some babies become hyper when overtired, making it even harder to settle. They may be laughing and playing, then crying and frustrated. Some of this behavior is just normal child development but coping skills disappear when people are tired. Even in babies. 

4. Frequent Waking: They may wake up more frequently during the night, unable to settle into deep sleep. When we stay awake past the time our brain is producing melatonin to help us fall asleep it sends a signal to the brain that we actually want to stay awake. This tells the brain that it needs to produce cortisol to stay awake. The extra production of cortisol makes night wakings and very early mornings common.

Under-tired Baby

An undertired baby hasn’t yet hit their appropriate wake window and may not be ready for sleep. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying your baby isn’t tired. I’m just saying they may not be quite ready for a good long nap. Here are some things you can watch for:

1. Short-Lived Naps: Short naps are one of our most favorite things. No one wants to hear their baby fussing 40 minutes after they go down. Being under-tired is one of the biggest culprits of short naps. They were sleepy, just not sleepy enough to carry them through a nice long nap.

2. Easily Distracted: They’re more interested in the world around them than settling down for a nap. You can prevent this by spending their wake window by playing age appropriate games, working on some physical skills (rolling, sitting, standing), and giving them some space by themselves to play quietly.

3. Short Awake Windows: They don’t stay awake for very long before showing signs of sleepiness again. This is a vicious cycle. Short naps make babies sleepy sooner rather than later because well, they didn’t take a long enough nap! You may need to push them through to the full wake window even if they get a bit grouchy.

4. Fussiness Due to Boredom: This is a pretty common problem. If your baby is fussing but nap time is 30 minutes away or less they are probably bored. My 2 favorite ways of pushing a wake window is taking your baby outside to see new things, get some fresh air and touch new textures or let them play is some water. Run the sink, turn on the hose, fill a bowl of water and let them splash. It’s very entertaining and will buy you some time before nap. 

Finding the Sweet Spot: Overtired or Under-tired?

Now that we’ve established some clues to watch out for, what can you do when it’s nap time or bedtime?

  • Babies 0-6 weeks just try for a nap about every hour. Your newborn needs a crazy amount of sleep. Feed them about every 2 hours and try for a nap. Sleepy babies and hungry babies look very similar and overtired can hit hard and fast at this age.
  • 6-12 weeks need to sleep about every 60-90 minutes. Start working on eat, play, sleep and use wake windows for tummy time and head control.
  • 13-16 weeks 4-3 naps a day work very well for this age. The gap between the last nap of the day and bedtime can feel messy so watch out for the overtired to set in.
  • 17-24 weeks like 3 naps a day and you can start doing 2-2.5 hours of wake time
  • 6 months and up I usually start working on a set schedule around 6 months. Most babies are ready for close to 3 hours of wake time and you can settle into 2 naps a day very nicely. 

What to do Next

Please check out my free sleep resources for the full wake window chart along with some other very helpful downloadables. If you find yourself constantly fighting short naps, bedtime crying, frequent wakings or fussy baby please schedule a free sleep assessment and let’s get you on track. Sleep math, as I like to call it, can be so unbelievably frustrating and I provide my private coaching clients with detailed schedules and tips on how to manage day to day life. I have been where you are, it doesn’t have to be this hard momma. 

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