Dr. Sarah Mitchell
About Author
October 24, 2019

5 Signs Your Baby is Overtired

As a parent, putting your overtired baby to bed can be one of the most challenging experiences. When a baby is overtired, they have a much harder time settling down and falling asleep. This results in fussiness, crying, and bedtime battles that can be frustrating and exhausting for everyone.

But how do you know for sure if your baby is overtired? Simple eye rubbing can be misleading.  Recognizing the signs of an overtired baby is crucial so you can take action before things escalate into an all-out bedtime meltdown.

5 Signs your Baby is Overtired 

  1. She immediately falls asleep in the car seat
    If every time you put your baby in the car she falls asleep immediately. This a sign that she was exhausted before she got into the car, and the motion of the car soothes her into sleep.  A well rested baby will not usually fall asleep in the car right away unless it happens to be her nap time, and her awake time has surpassed. This is true up into the toddler years.
  2. Increased activity
    While some babies slow down and withdraw when overtired, others respond by demonstrating increased frenetic activity. Your exhausted baby may start bouncing, swinging their legs, arching their back, and moving about more erratically. They may seem wired or startle easily. These bursts of activity are a dead giveaway that a tired baby is trying to fight sleep by moving around.
  3. ‍Increased fussiness
    When babies are tired, their behavior changes. You may notice your normally happy baby become increasingly fussy, irritable, and sensitive. Overtired babies have shorter fuses and are quicker to frustration. Whining, crying, and increased protests are common when a baby is tired and in need of rest. If your baby is rubbing their eyes, tugging on their ears, and generally cranky, it’s a clear sign they’re ready for bed.  After working with me, so many of my clients say "I can't believe how much less fussy she is in the daytime now that she's well-rested."
  4. Your baby wakes up crying from a nap
    If a baby wakes up after a 45 minute nap and is crying, this is a sign that she is still tired.  One exception is that if she has gone 4 or more hours since a feed, then it could be hunger.  If your baby wakes up crying from a 45 minute. She’s gone through one sleep cycle, and either can’t figure out how to relax herself back into sleep or is so exhausted can’t calm herself to do so. Another exception can sometimes, although rare, be that you have  a grumpy baby on waking from naps. Some babies are just like that.
  5. She wakes up every 3 hours or more at night
    A night time sleep cycle is ~ 2.5 to 3 hours. So it is not uncommon for a child who relies on being held, rocked or nursed to sleep to surface from a sleep cycle and cry out for Mom to help put her back to sleep in the same manner in which she fell asleep.  But if your child wakes up every 3 hours through the night, there is also like over tiredness at play here.  Many babies sleep longer stretches of 4-6 hours, but then start waking up every 3 hours at 4 months.  You can learn more about that on my blog about the The 4 Month Sleep Regression. (It’s legit!)

What Are The Dangers of Overtiredness

There are different scenarios of being overtired.  There's chronic overtiredness in which your child has been short on a cumulative 24 hours of sleep for days to weeks.  These babies typically present with lots of signs of tiredness.  They seem to constantly have signs of sleepiness.  They may rub their face, and yawn soon after waking up.  You may find that your baby's sleep cues are hard to read, seemingly always presenting you with cues.

Overall these babies are hard to read and always seem to be overtired and not getting sufficient sleep, despite your best efforts.   I frequently see babies like these in my practice.  It can be very hard to get out of this overtired cycle if you continue to try and read cues, as silly as that might sound. 

Usually the solution for these babies 4 months and older, is counterintuitive.  It's actually to do some sleep teaching, so that you are no longer responsible for "making your baby sleep."  Obtaining self-soothing skills is the best way to getting great sleep, but it comes with the mind shift of you moving away from controlling sleep. 

Overtiredness negatively impacts:

  • Physical growth: Overtired babies burn more calories fussing and crying. This can result in poor weight gain.

  • Brain development: Lack of sleep disrupts cognitive function and information processing which are crucial at this age.

  • Emotional regulation: Sleep deprivation and fatigue impact a baby's ability to cope with stress. Overtired babies have more frequent tantrums and meltdowns.

  • Immune system function: Lack of sleep compromises the immune system, increasing risk of sickness. Overtired babies get more colds and infections.

  • Motor skill development: Overtired babies lack the energy and focus needed to advance their physical skills. Progress may plateau or regress.

  • Feeding: Overtired babies become too fussy and distracted to feed properly.  You may notice your baby either falls asleep at the bottle or breast or takes a small feed.

    While many people don't want to do "sleep training" sometimes its the only way to get a child out of an overtired cycle.  It becomes a decision of measuring the amount of sleep your baby is currently getting with the belief that more sleep is available and getting out of the sleep debt is a priority. 

Setting Your Overtired Baby Up for Sleep Success

Here are some tips for setting your overtired baby up for sleep success:

  • Establish a calming naptime routine and bedtime routine to cue your baby that sleep is coming. Use favorite lullabies, gentle massage and low lighting.
  • Make sure the sleep environment is optimal. A cool, dark room with white noise playing helps signal to your baby's body that it's time to sleep.  We love Sleepout Curtains to make the room dark and minimize distractions.  Sleepout Curtains, use my code helpingbabiessleep10 for 10% off.
  • Give your baby time to fall asleep on their own. Stay present and gently pat or shush until they nod off. Overtired babies may protest at first but will eventually give in to sleep.
  • Avoid overstimulating your exhausted baby. Limit playtime and screen exposure in the hours before bed so your baby doesn't get a second wind.
  • Pay attention to your baby's wake windows. Overtiredness often happens when babies are awake too long between naps and nighttime. Adjust scheduling as needed.
  • Stick with a consistent, calming bedtime routine every night. Routine and predictability are comforting when a baby is struggling with sleep.

Download our sleep guide to learn when to put your baby asleep for each age group .  This will teach you about your new baby 's appropriate awake time.   Timing along can help so many parents of tired babies nail regular naps.

What About Babies Who Wake Up After 20 Minutes

A daytime sleep cycle is 45 minutes, and the research shows that babies tend to connect 2-3 cycles at night before they have an "arousal" or surface from sleep.  When a baby wakes up 20 minutes into a nap, she hasn’t even cycled through one cycle.  This can be a sign that she was overtired before she fell asleep.  Unfortunately, there can be other reasons for this 20 min wake up too such as being undertired.  Yep that can be a real thing. This usually can only happen if you are "making sleep happen" but rocking or feeding to sleep.  Other distractions can include too bright, acid reflux or needing to burp.  You can learn more about how acid reflux can affect sleep in this blog post.

It takes forever to get her to fall asleep

When my clients tell me that it takes “forever” to get their baby down for a nap or at bedtime, the first thing we look into is the gap of time from waking from being awake to being put down. These are known as your baby's wake window or awake time.  Putting your baby down too early or too late can make it harder for them to fall asleep.  sleep “timing” is off.   Have you every stayed up late 4 nights in a row or been out all weekend partying and then try to go to bed on the Sunday night but you can’t because you are sooo tired – that is overtired.  I know you’ll have to think back a few years

Sometimes parents resort to holding their baby for sleep.  If this is you, you'll want to read this blog post Newborn Won't Sleep Unless Being Held.

Newborn Babies and Sleep 

In the 0-3 newborn stage, feeding that baby is our most important endeavor.  Especially if a Mom is breastfeeding, as that in itself is an all encompassing and often challenging practice.  We’ve always heard the term “sleeps like a baby” so we assume that this is something that will come naturally.  But for most people – that is NOT the case.  You have to decide when it’s sleeping time.  This is what we teach in our best selling Amazon book - The Helping Babies Sleep Method.  Gentle newborn sleep shaping so you can understand your baby’s sleep and feeding needs and slowly build healthy sleep habits. 

Newborn Sleep Timing

Your newborn 0-3 months,  will be ready to be back asleep 45 min  to 1.5 hours after waking up. 

So really, we’re talking, eating, burping, being held or play for a very very short time, and then putting her back to sleep on her own, or with a little help from you.   Don’t underestimate the power of a swaddle, a Mom’s “ssssshing”, and a timer to give that scenario 5 minutes to be successful.  As new parents it is very common that we give up on things too soon. 

Download our sleep guide to learn when to put your baby asleep for each age group .

Young Babies and Sleep - 4 Months of Age and Older 

By 4 months, the maximum amount of time stretches to 1 hr and 45 minutes, and then 2 hours by 5 months.  Don’t forget though that these are maximum times, based on babies who are sleeping well through the night, and not waking every 3 hours.  Thus, the awake time may be shorter for some babies, which is when the signs can be helpful.   Getting your baby down with the right time can mean the difference between having that baby asleep in 10 minutes, versus 45 minutes.

The other thing about sleep is just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes!

Download our sleep guide to learn when to put your baby asleep for each age group .

The Benefits of Catching Up on Sleep

The good news is overtiredness is temporary and reversible. When your exhausted baby gets the rest they need, the changes are dramatic. Getting enough consolidated sleep helps babies wake up happy and engaged. A well-rested baby will feed eagerly, play enthusiastically, laugh and coo more. Their overall disposition will improve. Your baby's health, growth and development depend on getting adequate, quality sleep.

The key is recognizing when your baby is overtired and making sleep a priority. While dealing with an exhausted, cranky baby is tough in the moment, taking action quickly improves things rapidly. Watch for tired signals, adjust scheduling as needed, and double down on calming routines. With patience and consistency, your overtired baby will be sleeping soundly in no time. Sweet dreams!


Are you struggling with your baby’s sleep? Come take my free baby sleep quiz. I'll learn more about your baby's sleep habits, what you find challenging and make 1 simple recommendation that you can implement tonight.


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