Issues Sleep

How To Break The Cycle Of An Overtired Baby

Here’s a common cycle that might sound familiar to you right now.

Your baby is overtired and you know they need to sleep, but they just won’t go down.

After a lot of crying and fussiness, they do eventually doze off, but sadly not for as long as you know they need in order to fully recharge.

Because they are still tired and sleep deprived, your little one continues to sleep badly and for shorter periods than they really need, and this leads to more tiredness and so on.

The cycle of overtiredness continues for days, and you start to wonder if it will ever come to an end.

Thankfully it is possible to end this vicious cycle, and in this post I’m going to show you what can be done to get your baby’s sleep back on track once and for all.

Why Do Babies Get Overtired?

Regular readers of Rockinbaby will know that one thing we always say is that no two babies are alike, so it’s often hard to pinpoint the one single thing that’s affecting your baby right now.

This means that when it comes to determining the cause of everyday issues like an overtired baby, it’s helpful for parents to understand several of the most common things that could be at play.

Once you have this information, it’s easier for parents to figure out what might be causing the current issue with your baby, and how best to resolve it.

What Is Overtiredness?

In simple terms, an overtired baby is when an infant is excessively tired and has gone past their optimal wake window.

Some children naturally sleep more than others, but a good starting point is to know what the recommended amount of sleep is for a child over a 24 hour period by age group, shown below (source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine).

Age Recommended Sleep per 24 Hours
Infants (4 to 12 months old) 12-16 hours
Toddlers (1 to 2 years old) 11-14 hours
Children (3 to 5 years old) 10-13 hours
Children (6-12 years) 9-12 hours

Did you notice how newborns aren’t included?

This is because infants younger than 4 months have a wide range of normal variation in the duration and pattern of their sleep, so experts aren’t confident in providing recommendations for babies in this range.

Why Overtiredness Is Problematic

It sounds counter-intuitive, but an overtired baby is MORE likely to resist sleep and will typically sleep worse and for shorter periods compared to a baby who is well rested.

The critical thing here is that when a baby is excessively tired, they become stressed and their adrenaline and cortisol levels rise, making it harder for them to relax and calm down.

Will an overtired baby eventually sleep?

Yes, but they may find it harder to settle and fall asleep, and once down they’ll likely sleep for shorter periods.

All of which negatively impacts their sleep and the cycle of overtiredness continues.

Related: Babies Who Fight Sleep Are Smart: Fact or Fiction?

What Causes Overtiredness?

As we mentioned above, there are multiple reasons why a baby can become overtired, with some of the most popular being:

  • Wake windows are too long
  • Overstimulation
  • Lack of sleep
  • Developmental leaps and growth spurts
  • Lack of a consistent sleep routine

Signs Of An Overtired Baby

Clearly it’s important for parents to know how to tell if their baby is tired, because as we keep stressing, an overtired baby will typically find it harder to fall asleep and won’t sleep as well as a well rested baby.

Listen out for a cry that is nasal, whiny and consistent – if you hear a cry like this while they are sleeping or while awake, there’s a good chance your baby is overtired.

Here are some of the other main signs to look out for in assessing whether your baby is tired or even chronically overtired.

Keep in mind that because every baby is different, the signs of over-tiredness may vary to some degree.

The key thing is being able to identify what may have changed in your baby’s routine or if they are suddenly demonstrating something that’s unusual compared to their normal behaviour or actions.

Baby Yawning


If your baby is aged between newborn and 6 months, the tell-tale signs include:

  • Yawning
  • Clenched fists
  • Pulling their ears
  • Having a worried look on their face or frowning
  • Sucking on their fingers
  • Increased fussiness and irritability

Babies Over 6 Months & Toddlers

For babies over 6 months of age and for toddlers the signs are a little different, so parents need to look out for the following:

How You Can Break The Cycle Of An Overtired Baby

If your baby is overtired and keeps waking up before they should, then you’ll be relieved to hear that breaking the cycle is possible.

But it will most likely require you do do a few things differently, along with a good dose of patience and consistency.

Here are some helpful things you can do to break this vicious cycle once and for all:

1. Don’t Stretch Wake Windows

Depending on your baby’s age, there is an approximate maximum amount of time your little one should be awake for during the day.

In your bid to break the cycle of overtiredness, it’s very important not to keep your baby awake for longer than these maximum recommended amounts shown below:

Newborn to 3 Months: 1 hour to 90 minutes

4  to 6 Months: 2.5 to 2.75 hours

7 to 9 Months: 3 to 3.5 hours

10 to 12 Months: 4 hours

When On One Daily Nap: 6 hours

You also need to watch out for those sleep cues and signs of overtiredness above, such as yawning or becoming more fussy.

If you spot any of these then it’s probably a good idea to shorten the wake window, because your child is signally to you that they need to sleep.

In most cases, being mindful of wake windows and looking out for any signs of tiredness is typically the number one way to prevent your baby from becoming overtired in the first place.

2. Move Bed Time Earlier

Let’s say you baby has a normal bedtime of 6:30pm to 7:30pm.

When your baby sleeps well (think back to before this overtiredness began), you might have put them to bed at 7:30pm.

However, during this cycle of overtiredness (and incidentally on any other day when your little one doesn’t nap well), don’t be afraid to put them down EARLIER at 6:30pm, instead of trying to keep them up and stretch their bedtime to 7:30pm.

Depending on your circumstances this might mean a really early bedtime, and perhaps an earlier start the next morning than you’re used to, which is probably the last thing you want right now!

But remember, this earlier than usual bedtime is not forever, it’s merely to help re-set your baby’s routine and to help break the cycle of a chronically overtired baby.

3. Give Them A Chance To Go Back To Sleep

Many sleep experts recommend setting a range when your baby should wake up, for example from 6am to 7am.

If your baby is awake before 6am, unless something is obviously wrong, don’t rush into their room but instead treat it like it’s the middle of the night and let them try and get back to sleep to catch up on that missed sleep they so desperately need.

4. Develop A Calm & Consistent Bedtime Routine

Unless your baby has a strong and consistent bedtime routine, it can be difficult for them to feel settled and to soothe themselves to sleep.

The result?

They’ll take ages to go down, which eats into their precious sleep time.

That’s why things like having a bath, brushing their teeth, giving your little one a massage and reading stories to them before bed are all terrific ways to develop that much needed routine that babies thrive on, and to help break the cycle of overtired baby.

5. Make Their Room As Comforting As Possible

Contrary to popular belief, babies and infants are not afraid of the dark, because they are too young to have an imagination.

Babies actually prefer sleeping in dark rooms, both in the evening and for daytime naps, because they find darkness comforting and familiar (hardly surprising given they spent 9 months in mommy’s cozy, dark womb).

So to help promote good sleep, try to make your baby’s room as dark as possible before you put your baby down, perhaps by using some quality black out blinds like the ones below if necessary.

5-Piece Set Blackout Shades/Blinds for Windows ($19.99, Amazon)

If your overtired baby keeps waking up, it could be because there’s too much room in their light, or they are affected by noise (in which case you might want to look into using white noise, which we’ll take a look at next).

6. Play White Noise

Playing white noise can sooth and calm a baby, and therefore help your little one fall asleep more quickly.

White noise machines are designed to replace silence – which can be unnerving to a baby – with a gentle, consistent and soothing noise (such as running water, music or a heartbeat).

These machines are generally safe for babies, as long as the sounds level doesn’t exceed 50 decibels, the machine is at least 7 feet away from your baby’s crib or bassinet, and you turn the machine off once your baby has fallen to sleep.

As mentioned above, they can be useful in establishing a consistent sleep routine, and they don’t necessarily have to break the bank (the model below costs under $30).

7. Consider A Pacifier

Many parents also report that their baby sleeps better with a pacifier, because it enables them to resist fighting sleep, settle more quickly and stay down for longer, especially during development leaps.

According to the AAP, you should only introduce one to your baby once they have established a solid breastfeeding routine.

So if mom has a good milk supply and breastfeeding is comfortable and consistent, and your baby is not experiencing issues with latching on, then you should be fine to introduce one to your breastfed baby.

If you do use one at night you should ensure that it’s never tied to your baby’s bassinet or crib, or around their neck or hand, as this may be a serious suffocation hazard.

8. Try Swaddling

Swaddling is a way of wrapping a baby in a blanket so that their limbs are secure and can’t wriggle out.

According to many pediatricians, swaddling can help a baby feel calm and can promote better sleep because it helps replicate the feeling of being in mom’s womb and because it can help keep the moro (startle) reflex from kicking in.

Keep in mind however that when your baby starts showing signs of rolling, it no longer becomes safe to use a swaddle.

That’s because there is a risk your child could end up face-down in their swaddle, and with their arms tightly wrapped, your baby would not be able to move out of that position and could therefore suffocate.

This means that when your baby is around 3 to 4 months and is showing signs that rolling over isn’t far away, you should not dress them for sleep in a swaddle and opt for a sleep sack instead.

How To Settle An Overtired Baby

baby crying in their crib

Aside from the above, here are some other tips and tricks for settling an overtired or chronically tired baby:

  • Offer them reassurance in a calming and comforting voice, and given them cuddles to help calm them down.
  • Hold them in your arms or on your chest until they fall asleep.
  • Gently rock or bounce them on your shoulder, or pat them on the back, in a quiet, dark room.
  • Stay with your baby until they fall asleep.
  • For daytime naps, try continuous movement, such as a long walk in the stroller, car ride or a walk in a baby carrier.
  • If you are still breastfeeding, offer them your breast, even if it’s just for comfort rather than for the milk.


There’s no doubting that dealing with a baby who is more tired than normal can make parenting extra challenging.

As with most baby-related issues, this too will pass, and the good news is there are some things you can do immediately to reverse the cycle of overtiredness.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the signs of an tired baby, and act quickly whenever you notice your baby exhibiting any of these signs.

Don’t be afraid to implement a much earlier bedtime than usual, because this is one of the best ways to reset your child’s sleeping pattern.

Prime their environment for a good night’s sleep by creating a quiet, dark and soothing space, and begin incorporating a consistent pre-sleep routine if you’re not already doing so.

And lastly, watch those wake windows, because the last thing you want to do is stretch these beyond the maximum recommended length.

Learn More: The Ultimate Guide To Baby & Toddler Sleep

Nick is a passionate dad who co-founded Rockinbaby to share his parenting journey with other new parents. He has a BSc and MBA, and works as a senior marketing professional. In his spare time Nick loves watching sports, staying fit and traveling. Learn more about Nick here.

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