By Raising Children Network
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In the past 20 years, children’s free time has shrunk by up to 12 hours a week, as time spent on structured activities has increased.
Many parents worry about whether they’re giving their children enough experiences. But children need downtime too. It’s all about finding a balance that’s right for your child.

What is overstimulation?

Overstimulation happens when a child is swamped by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than she can cope with.

For example, a newborn baby might get very unsettled after a party where he’s been cuddled by lots of grown-ups. A preschooler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party. A school-age child might be cranky if he goes to school, then after-school care and then a swimming lesson.

Overstimulated children get tired and can feel overwhelmed. When this happens, they need quiet time and a familiar, calm environment. 

Signs of overstimulation

Overstimulated newborns and babies might be cranky or tired, which might make them cry more. They might also seem upset or turn their heads away from you. Your baby’s movements might become jerky, and she might clench her fists, wave her arms or kick.

Young children who are overstimulated get cranky and upset too. Your child might seem very tired and be hard to manage. He might tell you that he doesn’t want to go to a particular activity anymore. It’s worth listening carefully to find out what it is about that particular activity that he doesn’t like.

Behaviour problems can also crop up as children get overstimulated. They might not want to do the things they’re normally happy to do.

Balancing fun time and quiet time

From birth through to preschool age, children’s brains grow very fast, so children need lots of learning opportunities. They’re constantly learning, taking in all the wonderful experiences the world has to offer.

This doesn’t mean you need to spend all day every day dangling toys in front of your baby, or that you have to rush your child from school to extracurricular activities. Babies and young children also need quiet time in a predictable and familiar setting.

Your child will benefit from quietly entertaining herself, exploring her environment in her own way and at her own pace. This time lets your child learn how to occupy herself, work out when she needs quiet time and find things to do in that time to make herself feel better. 

Handling overstimulation

By watching your baby or child you’ll learn the different signals that your child uses to show that he’s overstimulated.

When you see that your baby is overwhelmed, take her somewhere quiet where she can calm down – for example, her cot. If you’re out with your baby, you can put her in the pram and cover it with a light blanket.

Wrapping newborns and babies can help them calm down because it reduces physical sensations. Likewise, some babies find it soothing to be carried by parents, tied onto your body in a sling or something similar, as you go about your everyday tasks.

Video Wrapping a newborn

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This short video demonstrates different ways to wrap or swaddle a newborn baby. Wrapping is soothing for some babies and can reduce the risk of SUDI (including SIDS and fatal sleeping accidents) by keeping babies on their backs during sleep.

Toddlers and preschoolers
Here are some ideas for handling your overstimulated toddler or preschooler:

  • Reduce the noise and activity around your child. For example, turn off the TV or radio and take your child to his bedroom, or let him spend time near you if he needs to be close to you to wind down.  
  • Help your child put into words the feelings that she is expressing through behaviour. For example, you could say, ‘I can see that you’re upset’, ‘I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed’.
  • Sit quietly with your child and choose a calming activity. You could read a story, lie down with him, sing some quiet songs or just stroke his back. When he’s calm, give him some time to play by himself.

If you’re seeing behaviour problems because your child is overstimulated or stressed, it’s almost always helpful to tackle them by changing the environment.

School-age children
At this age, children can start calming themselves down. Here are some ideas to help:

  • Help your child put into words the feelings that she is expressing through behaviour. For example, ‘I can see that you’re upset’, ‘I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed’.
  • Suggest that your child goes to a quiet place if he’s tired or cranky from overdoing it. For example, he could read or listen to quiet music in his bedroom.
  • Talk with your child about which activities she finds most interesting or valuable. She might need to think about letting some activities go if she’s finding it all too much to cope with.

Your child needs enough time during the week to do homework, socialise with friends and just be by himself.

Finding the right amount of stimulation

There’s no one ‘right’ answer to how much stimulation is too much, because every child is different. Each child has a different tolerance for excitement. Some children cope with stimulating environments better than others.

Let your child be the guide, and remember that moderation is best.

For babies and young children, it’s a good idea to give your child some time each day to spend quietly playing or resting, apart from sleep time.

Your school-age child will probably benefit most from one or two extracurricular activities that she’s really interested in. Sport, music and other clubs can be a fantastic way to develop skills, make new friends and pursue interests. But too much time spent on organised after-school activities might mean your child misses out on time to relax and entertain herself.

Giving your child the chance to explore his environment and spend time in quiet activities is part of good parenting. The ability to occupy yourself is an important life skill. By encouraging it, you help your child on his journey towards becoming an independent adult.
  • Last updated or reviewed 16-04-2013