What is overstimulation?
Overstimulation happens when children are overwhelmed by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than they can cope with.
For example, a newborn baby might get very unsettled after a party where they’ve been cuddled by a lot of grown-ups. A preschooler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party. A school-age child might be tired and cranky if they go to school, then after-school care and then a swimming lesson.
Overstimulated children need quiet time and a familiar, calm environment.
Signs of overstimulation
Newborns or babies who are overstimulated might:
- be irritable or tired
- seem upset or turn their heads away
- move in a jerky way
- clench their fists, wave their arms or kick
- cry, especially if the overstimulation has gone on for a long time.
Toddlers or preschoolers who are overstimulated might:
- seem tired, irritable and upset, or have a tantrum
- cry and not be able to use words to describe their feelings
- throw themselves on the floor in tears or anger
- say they don’t want to keep doing what they’re doing
- refuse to do simple things like putting on a seatbelt.
School-age children who are overstimulated might:
- seem irritable or tired
- be more clumsy than usual – for example, drop or spill things
- be more clingy or need more attention than usual
- become bored easily
- fuss over food
- cooperate less with requests to help
- ask for more help than usual with things like homework or chores.
You’ll get to know your child’s signs of overstimulation.
Balancing activity time and quiet time
In the first 5 years of life, children’s brains develop more and faster than at any other time in their lives. Your child’s early experiences – the things your child sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate your child’s brain, creating millions of connections.
This means your child needs a stimulating environment with plenty of different activities that provide many ways to play and learn, and a lot of chances to practise what they’re learning.
But babies and young children also need quiet time in predictable and familiar settings to feel secure and calm down.
Your child will benefit from quietly entertaining themselves and exploring their environment in their own way and at their own pace. This time lets your child learn how to occupy themselves, work out when they need quiet time, and find things to do to calm themselves.
Babies: dealing with overstimulation
When you see that your baby is overwhelmed, speak softly and reassuringly to them. For example, ‘I’m here. You’re safe’.
It can also help to take your baby somewhere quiet and less bright, if possible, where they can calm down – for example, the cot. If you’re out with your baby, you can put them in the pram and cover it with a light wrap or blanket. Just make sure you leave a gap for airflow.
Wrapping newborns can help them calm down because it reduces physical sensations. Your baby might also find it soothing to be carried next to your body in a sling or something similar, as you go about your everyday activities.
Toddlers and preschoolers: dealing with overstimulation
Here are ideas for helping toddlers and preschoolers handle overstimulation:
- Try to stay calm yourself. This will help your child to calm down too.
- Reduce the noise and activity around your child. For example, turn off the TV or radio and take your child to their bedroom. Or stay with your child if they need to be close to you to calm down.
- Help your child put into words the feelings that they’re expressing through behaviour. For example, you could say, ‘I can see that you’re upset because there’s a lot of people here today’ or ‘I can see that everything is too much right now’.
- Sit quietly with your child and do a calming activity. You could read a story, lie down with your child, sing quiet songs or stroke your child’s back. When your child is calm, give them time to play by themselves.
- If your child says they don’t want to keep doing what they’re doing or they’re very upset, give them time-in or work through steps to calming down. Then see whether you can find out why they felt overstimulated or what they might like to do instead.
- If your child is behaving in a challenging way because they’re overstimulated, try changing your child’s environment.
Screen time and digital technology use can be stimulating, even if your child seems relaxed. It’s best to limit digital technology use if you notice that it overstimulates your child. It’s also a good idea for your child to switch off devices at least an hour before bedtime.
School-age children: dealing with overstimulation
At this age, children can start calming themselves down. Here are ideas to help:
- Help your child put into words the feelings that they’re expressing through behaviour. For example, ‘I can see that you’re upset. Do you need a rest?’
- Suggest that your child goes to a quiet place if they’re tired or cranky. For example, they could read or listen to quiet music in their bedroom.
- Talk with your child about the activities they find most interesting or valuable. Your child might need to think about letting some activities go if they have too much to cope with.
- Look into mindfulness strategies for your child. You might be able to find some that you and your child could do together.
- Help your child calm down. You can do this by noticing your child’s emotions, naming the emotions and pausing. Wait for the emotions to pass before you talk about what happened and what might need to change.
Your child needs enough time during the week to do homework, spend time with family, socialise with friends and just be by themselves.
Finding the right amount of stimulation
The amount of stimulation your child likes will depend on their temperament. Some children cope with stimulating environments better than others.
Let your child be the guide, and remember that a balanced approach is often best.
It’s a good idea to give babies and young children time each day to spend quietly playing or resting, apart from sleep time.
School-age children will probably benefit from 1-2 extracurricular activities that they’re 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 themselves.
The ability to occupy yourself is an important life skill. By encouraging it, you help your child on their journey towards becoming an independent adult.