The Witching Hour: Overstimulated and Overtired

The newborn witching hour. That challenging time toward the end of the day when your baby is fussy and nothing seems to soothe her. In most cases, this witching hour is a combination of overstimulation and overtiredness after a long day for your little one. In most of our homes, daytime is far more stimulating than nighttime. The lights and sounds and activity of the day is all around your little one. And even though your newborn baby may not be participating in all of that activity, she is still taking in all of these sensations.

Stimulation is so very important for healthy newborn development. Talking to your baby, reading stories, exaggerated facial expressions, and music are all excellent sources of stimulation for your baby, however there is such thing as too much stimulation.

Overstimulation happens when your little one is taking in more experiences and sensations than she can cope with. A newborn's nervous system hasn’t quite matured yet, meaning that she may have a difficult time regulating the amount of stimulation flooding her nervous system. This is even more so the case in premature infants.

For many newborns, the amount stimulation that crosses this threshold can be pretty low. After a long day, she may have met her limit! If your newborn baby is overstimulated, she may be extra tired or cranky, cry more than usual, turn her head away form you and avoid eye contact, and move in a jerky way, clenching her fists or waving her arms/kicking her legs. She also may bring her legs up to her stomach then stretch out, even arching her back. All of these signs of overstimulation are often times misinterpreted or misdiagnosed as a sign of gastrointestinal pain, mild reflux, or colic.

To go along with the overstimulation, if your newborn does not quite have the best sleep patterns, overtiredness may be a contributing factor to her “witching hour”. Babies have a narrow window in which they will fall asleep easily. Too early, and she may not be tired enough and fight sleep. Too late, and she may be overtired and fight sleep. If it has been more than 1.5-2 hours since baby last woke and you are struggling to get your new baby to settle or sleep, chances are she is already overtired. If your little one has not had solid stretches of daytime sleep with appropriate awake times throughout the day, that collective overtiredness can contribute to that witching hour in the evening.

So how do you combat overstimulation and overtiredness? Here are some tips:

  • Decrease stimulation throughout the day. Bright lights, lots of noise, and lots of people may be more than your little one can cope with.

  • If in a crowded space with lots of people, wear your baby in a wrap or baby carrier or cover her stroller/carseat with a blanket if the stimulation seems to be getting overwhelming.

  • Keep awake times in mind, most newborns are not ready to be awake from more than 60-90 minutes (and definitely no more than 2 hours) at a time. An eat/play/sleep routine where baby eats, is awake for approximately 60 minutes, then back down to sleep is a great start to forming healthy sleep habits.

  • A consistant, early bed time can help form healthy sleep habits from early on. Most babies are ready for their night sleep by around 6:30pm. Starting bedtime routine around this time allows you to catch that window when baby will fall asleep more easily and help avoid overtiredness. Bedtime should be sometime between 6:30-7:30 pm most most infants, allowing at least a 12 hour night for sleeping.

  • Start baby off in an environment conducive to good sleep from day one! This means a dark room, white noise, and baby on their sleep surface (bassinet or crib) for naps. This allows baby to get good, restorative sleep.

  • If baby is starting to show signs of overtiredn