7th Mar 2021

How to Get an Overtired Toddler to Sleep?

What is Overtiredness?

Toddlers can be tricky when it comes to showing signs of tiredness. Unlike adults who get slow and listless when they are tired and sleepy, some toddlers can become even more active as the night wears on - even though they are in desperate need of sleep.

Overtiredness is a state of exhaustion when your toddler hasn't gotten enough sleep - when his body has gone from state of being ready for sleep to "alert and active". The body can no longer cope and activates a stress response, pumping adrenalin and cortisol (hormone that keeps us awake and alert) into the body. This interferes with the normal release of melatonin (hormone that makes us drowsy), causing irritability and hyperactive behaviour.

What Causes Overtiredness in Toddlers?

Skipping a naptime is one of the main cause of overtiredness in toddlers.

A toddler generally has an "awake time" of 4-5 hours. When this "awake time" draws to a close, he becomes drowsy, he may begin to rub his eyes, or yawn showing signs that he is tired. This is the best window of time to put your toddler down for a nap, or for the night. At this point he is likely to fall asleep quickly because the melatonin in his body overrides the cortisol.

However, this window of time is relatively short and if you miss it, your toddler will become more tired and he'll need to access stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol to stay alert. This is why an overtired toddler fights sleep. The longer your toddler is awake, the more stressed his body will become, releasing more and more adrenalin and cortisol, making it even harder for him to sleep.

Common Symptoms and Behaviours of an Overtired Toddler.

Your toddler's overtired signals may be as unique as he is. You can learn his overtiredness signs by watching him closely. Below are some of the common signs of an overtired toddler:

  • Clingy
  • Being clumsy
  • Refusal to eat
  • Crankiness
  • Defiance
  • Hyperactivity
  • Meltdowns
  • Temper tantrums
  • Fights going to sleep

All of these are signs of the fight-or-flight response to stress hormones.

How to Settle Your Overtired Toddler to Sleep?

When your toddler is overtired, the first thing you want to do is calm him down. Once your toddler is calm, you can work towards getting him drowsy, and hopefully to sleep. Use these below strategies to clam your toddler and help induce drowsiness:

Remove all distractions and stimulations

Remove phones, tablets and loud toys, turn off the TV, dim the lights and get your toddler into a nice quiet space.

Do a calming wind-down activity

A quiet activity such as puzzles and colouring could be great way to calm your toddler down before bedtime.

Make sure he's not hungry

Your toddler may have been too focused on other things during the day to have eaten enough. A hungry toddler with a rumbling stomach will not fall asleep.

Give him a lavender scented bath

A few drops of lavender essential oil into his bath will relax and calm him down. Keep bath toys to a minimal and try not to encourage too much play during his bath.

Use low volume white noise

White noise contains mixture of all frequencies and therefore it can't distract you since you're unable to focus on one frequency over the other. White noise also drowns out surrounding sounds making it easier to fall asleep.

Rub his back or belly

Once your toddler is ready for bed, lay him down and rub his back/belly in soothing motions. The repeating movement and the touch gives him something to focus on and will relax him to sleep.

Try an earlier bedtime

Even though it seems counterintuitive, it often works, since an earlier bedtime helps ward off overtiredness.

How to prevent your toddler from becoming overtired?

You can prevent your toddler from becoming overtired by putting him to sleep slightly before his "awake time" closes. A toddler can generally handle 4-5 hours of "awake time". You can ward off overtiredness by watching your toddler's sleep and feeding schedule carefully, and making sure that naps and feeding are happening at the right time.

Of course keeping to any kind of schedule is a challenge when you're dealing with a toddler with ever changing needs. Take it one day at time, and don't be too hard on yourself. Soon you'll be able to figure out your toddler's own unique signs and solutions to overtiredness, and progress towards better quality sleep for your toddler and yourself.

If you know someone who may benefit from this article, then please share this article with them.

We wish you and your toddler lots of restful nights’ sleeps!

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