Do Children Really Get ‘overtired?’

When your little one gets fussy and is hard to calm, do you blame it on overtiredness? Believe it or not, overtiredness is probably not the cause.

Simply put – overtiredness is over-diagnosed. Don’t waste so much energy on it! Instead, think about it as dysregulation. It’s a more inclusive and accurate term that explains why kids get cranky and ‘out of sorts.’

What Is ‘Dysregulation?’

Dysregulation is a complicated term for a straightforward concept. Your nervous system controls how you create stress, and it determines whether you feel calm or go into a fight/flight mode. That’s why it’s so hard to fall asleep when you feel stressed out – your body is geared up and ready to go!  Even if you do fall asleep while in this state, you might feel restless and wake up easily. Your baby or child feels the same – they might be experiencing stress. What you interpret as ‘acting up’ could be, in reality, a reaction to frustration, anxiety, or boredom.

Self-regulation is the ability to get from a state of stress and negative arousal to calm. A child may be stressed because they are hungry, wet, dirty, and uncomfortable, in pain, lonely, frustrated that they cannot reach something, or they may be tired.

Confusing Stress With ‘overtiredness’

When you see your child acting grumpy, you likely assume that they are tired. However, they might actually be experiencing a range of emotions. They could be bored, hungry, need time outside, want things to be quieter, need more stimulation, or need some one-on-one cuddles. Trying to put a child down to sleep when they are cranky but not tired certainly isn’t going to help!

Remember – even if you see your child yawning, that doesn’t mean they’re tired. When we feel stressed, our cortisol can build up – we can get rid of cortisol through yawning. So, yawning can actually signify that your child is experiencing stress.

Your Child’s ‘Body Clock’ Might Need a Later Bedtime

You might be exerting pressure on your child to fall asleep around 6pm, but they may not yet be fatigued. As a result, they’re going to push back on their bedtime by whining, squirming, and crying. If you think that means they’re ‘overtired,’ you might then try an even earlier bedtime, which will make the problem worse!

If your child’s sleep schedule is off, manipulate the timing of their last nap before bedtime. Move it closer to bedtime so that there is a smaller gap between the last nap ending and bedtime. Always feel free to fiddle around with their nap timings until you can get it right.

Think of it this way – sleep is a parasympathetic state (red light) while alertness and dysregulation are sympathetic states (green lights). Red lights and green lights don’t occur in traffic at the same time!  So, the trick is to recognise the green light state, and take steps to calm them before you start the bedtime routine.

Tiredness Is Not Always the Issue

Lots of parents are aware that overtiredness can be a problem, but they can end up forgetting about the other reasons that can cause a child to become dysregulated. I like to suggest changing the focus of attention from looking at children purely through a ‘tired lens’ and shift to a ‘dysregulated lens.’ Watching out for signs of the green lights, and then help them to become calm through co-regulation. A baby’s abilities to become calm are highly variable, which is why some parents report that their child can sleep for long stretches, and other parents need to intervene a lot.

Getting to the Bottom of Their Stress

When your baby or child is squirmy, fidgety, crying, difficult to engage with, having a tantrum, or feeling hot and sweaty (a result of their sympathetic nervous system going into overdrive) they’re ‘revved up,’ and not in the right headspace to fall asleep. Instead of ‘needing some sleep,’ they could:

  • Need to go outside
  • Had too much screen time
  • Wearing clothing that is too tight
  • Feeling overwhelmed by changes in the environment
  • Be coming down with an illness

How Can You Best Respond to a Stressed Child?

While sleep can sometimes be the solution, it could be countless other issues – trying to force your child to nap is not usually going to work. The most important thing you can do is get your foot off the gas pedal and shift into a calm state.

Try the following to co-regulate with your child:   

  • Holding them with the skin to skin contact
  • Bounce or rock them
  • Give them a firm hug
  • Make reassuring eye-contact with them
  • Go outside into nature
  • Breathe deeply together
  • Ask them what is bothering them (for older children) and empathise with them
  • Attach names to big, scary emotions
  • Toddlers may need some time to move their bodies – shake your sillies out!
  • Give them a massage or back rub
  • Read them a story

Step away from the limiting idea that all bedtime issues and late afternoon crankiness are due to ‘overtiredness.’ Viewing this issue from a framework of ‘dysregulation’ is far more useful, and will help you get better results!