To explain what overstimulation is, and what it has to do with sleep, I have to tell a joke:
This economist, Dr. Schwartz, sits down in his local diner, as he does every weekday morning. Millie, who has worked at the diner as long as anyone can remember (and has a pencil permanently embedded behind her left ear) approaches with a pot of hot coffee.
“So, Dr. Schwartz,” Millie asks “How’s your wife?”
Schwartz is an economist, so he answers as only an economist would:
“How’s my wife?” He shrugs, “Compared to what?”
What Do You Mean By “Overstimulation”?
The joke reminds me that “overstimulation” assumes that we know what a normal amount of stimulation is! Over-stimulated compared to what?
One expert defines “overstimulation” as more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than [the child] can cope with. This means there are two sides to the overstimulation problem. There’s the stimulus, and there’s the child. Depending on the child’s temperament, she may handle lots of stimulation without a problem, or she may easily melt down.
Need a SLEEP COACH?
The “Filter Function” and the “Tilt Switch”
Your child’s temperament might depend in part on her ability to filter out sensory information. Newborns have a neat way of dealing with this. As I’ve explained elsewhere:
The reason you are able to read this is that you are able to filter out most of the sensory inputs that are coming your way. You don’t pay attention to the lights in the room or to extraneous sounds coming from outside. You probably are also filtering out the scents around you and the taste in your mouth.
Now imagine that you are forced to pay attention to all these sensations equally. If you were, you’d be incapacitated. You’d be forced to stop everything and go lie in bed. This is what the world is like for a newborn. Fortunately, newborns are lying down already. This is why most babies prefer low-sensory environments. They do well in places where there isn’t too much light, noise, and temperature fluctuation. They tend to prefer dim lighting, near silence, and contact with warm human bodies. We can tell that babies prefer these conditions and do well in them because they eat and sleep better than in noisy, light, cold, and hot environments.
Because babies are unable to filter out sensory stimulation, they’ve developed a way to protect themselves from overstimulation. I call it the “tilt” function. In the era of desktop-based and hand-held gaming, fewer and fewer people remember old-school arcade pinball machines, complete with silver-ball plunger, electronic bumpers, and flashing lights. Classic pinball machines all came equipped with a “tilt” switch, which prevented you from cheating by jiggling the machine to make the ball go where you wanted. If you jiggled the machine, a “tilt” light came on, the machine went to sleep, and you lost the ball…
Parents often find out just how overstimulated their baby is when she becomes incredibly fussy later— after the sensory overload— when she has difficulty going to sleep or even feeding”.
Loss of the Tilt Switch
By toddler-hood, most children acquire pretty good sensory filters, but they lose the tilt switch. This means they can no longer “shut it down” when too much stimulation comes their way.
How much is too much stimulation depends not only on the child’s filter, but also on the child’s sensitivity to any stimulation.
It’s interesting to note that some adult conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, might really be disorders of filter function. Patients suffering from these disorders list sensory overload and physical activity among the most common triggers of their symptoms.
Obvious Sources of Overstimulation
Parents can usually tell when a day is going to be stimulating for a toddler. There’s a special occasion like a birthday party; or you take a long day trip to a zoo; or you have a particularly crazy day where you’ve raced from one activity to another. Fireworks displays are other obvious sources of overstimulation: they’re bright and loud! It might also seem obvious that the child can be overstimulated by being frightened by something she sees in a video or on TV.
Not-So-Obvious Sources of Overstimulation
Some children, especially sensitive types, may be overstimulated when they meet new people, or do an activity that they do not usually do. You may not discover that the child has been overstimulated until bedtime, when she may be unusually cranky or fussy.
Book-reading time may be a source of unexpected overstimulation. You probably already avoid scary or overly exciting stories before bedtime. But did you know that funny books can be overstimulated? Just try falling asleep when you’ve got a case of the giggles.
TV and Screens
For some families, video-watching is part of the bedtime routine. Even if the toddler is watching calm, soothing stories, she may be getting too much stimulation from the screen. This is because the blue light emitted from most screens inhibits her brain from sending out melatonin, the signal for the rest of her brain to shut down and go to sleep. The same goes for hand-held devices like cell phones. Children love to play games on their parents phones. But the hours before bedtime would not ideal, especially if your child is particularly sensitive to the blue light effect.
How to Prevent and Manage Overstimulation
Some sources of overstimulation cannot be avoided: there’s that birthday party for Grandma that everyone has to go to, etc. If you know ahead of time that a day is going to be busy or hectic, or if the child is sensitive to meeting new people or new activities, I recommend breaking the day up into chunks. Between each chunk, try to give the child some down-time. This is a period, an hour or so, of quiet and relative absence of activity. If the sound and sights and other sensations cannot be avoided, try to sit with the child and do a quiet activity. This can help “turn down the volume” on the stimulation she is receiving.
When she is older, she may learn to self-select what activities she does, avoiding the overstimulating ones. She may buy clothes that don’t irritate her. She may avoid large crowds, or jobs that involve constant contact with other people. In other words, she’ll find a way to get through life happy and well-adjusted. But during childhood, she’s largely at the mercy of her caregivers. If you aren’t sensitive to her sensitivities, you may be exposing her to more stimulation than she can cope with.
Pay attention! Follow her cues.