At the end of a long or unusually busy day, you’ve probably experienced that wonderful feeling of crawling into bed and immediately falling into a deep and restful sleep. Ah, what a blissful sensation.
Unfortunately, this concept is utterly foreign to most toddlers. Instead of slowing down and desiring stillness, toddlers often go into an overdrive mode that can result in kicking, screaming, crying unhappiness.
The way young children respond to tiredness cues is largely due to their biology and maturity, but your actions can help minimize and hopefully prevent the overtired drama.
Here are the reasons behind the sleepy struggles and our tips for how to get an overtired toddler to sleep.
What is Overtiredness?
The human body produces hormones that create a balance between sleeping and wakefulness, also known as the circadian rhythm. The main hormones that influence the circadian rhythm are melatonin and cortisol, and their levels rise and fall based on the time of day, the amount of sunlight present or other outside triggers.
Melatonin is responsible for feelings of sleepiness, and your body typically starts to release it as sunlight dwindles in the evening. Cortisol sends the waking signal and prepares the body for the day’s activities. Your body normally drops off cortisol levels throughout the evening and overnight hours and ramps up production in the morning to help you wake up alert and energized for the day.
If you don’t get your toddler to bed when they show normal tiredness cues, they can enter the overtired stage. The brain goes into an exhaustion-induced stress mode and triggers an ill-timed cortisol release, which can override the effects of melatonin. In response to the increased cortisol level in their body, your child’s behavior can turn unruly and defiant, and they can be difficult to calm down.
Additionally, when levels of circulating blood cortisol are high before sleep, your child may struggle to rest peacefully even after you manage to get them into bed.
Since young children lack the maturity to understand or control their impulses, they are at the mercy of their bodies at this point in their life. Your overtired toddler is not just being naughty or trying to annoy you; rather, they desperately need your help to slow down, relax and let their tired body and mind rest.
What Causes Overtiredness?
Missing a nap
Whether your child is in that gray area of beginning to transition to no nap or your day’s activities interfered with the normal nap routine, this is probably the most common reason your child could reach the overtired stage.
Too much screen time, exciting evening activities, too much sugar or caffeine late in the day can all work against winding down and entering a restful state.
Staying up late
Delaying your toddler’s bedtime by even an hour or so could be enough to throw off your child’s normal internal clock.
A change to the normal schedule
Since they can’t tell time or truly understand the concept of time, young children are creatures of habit who rely on a familiar pattern of events to guide them through their day.
Traveling and holidays are probably some of the most common reasons behind a schedule disruption that can last more than one night. When you’re away from home or having extra family members at your house, your normal schedule is bound to change at least a little despite your best efforts to maintain whatever normalcy you can.
Signs Your Toddler is Overtired
Every child is different. Some toddlers will respond to overtiredness with subtle signs that might be easy to miss, while others will make their sleep-deprived state absolutely unmistakable.
No one is at their best when they feel tired, and any manners-related impulse control your toddler has learned is probably out the door when they get too tired.
Your child may be inconsolable over small things, they may try to hit or push you away or they may yell and throw a tantrum.
Toddlers are naturally energetic people, but you’ll probably know when their level of activity morphs into something beyond normal. Overly rough play, running wildly or seeming a bit frenzied are all signs that your toddler has passed the sleepy stage and has entered the overtired phase.
Lack of coordination
Your child may drop objects or trip over things more easily when their exhausted brain isn’t able to respond as quickly.
As opposed to some children who run wildly, others may adamantly refuse to leave your side and cry or scream when you attempt to set them down.
Resists rest or sleep
This sign is probably the most ironic one of all. Why would a child who is suffering from excessive tiredness fight the thing they need most?
Remember that stimulating hormones are flowing through your child’s body at this stage, and your child cannot just turn them off or override them.
How to Get an Overtired Toddler to Sleep
Once your toddler reaches the overtired stage, your calm, pro-active response can help prevent the challenging behavior from escalating. Your soothing demeanor can also encourage your child to wind down and get some much-needed sleep sooner.
It’s likely that your child will need some time and quiet to relax before you can hope to lay them down with any success. You may have to dig deep if you’re also tired from a long day, but remember that your child is physically and mentally unable to figure this out on their own. Your toddler needs your patient help right now.
Get Some Peace and Quiet
If you’re at home, take your child to their room. If you’re away from home, find a room or area away from the activity. Bonus points if you can dim the lights a bit.
If you have a quiet activity available, use it with your child. Here are a few ideas that might be good options.
- Reading books
- Doing a puzzle
Remove All Screens
The blue light emitted by televisions, tablets, smartphones and computers mimic daylight, and it can have a stimulating effect on your child’s brain.
To give your toddler a chance to rebalance and get ready for sleep, try to avoid all screen time for at least an hour before your child’s intended bedtime. Even if taking the device away leads to a tantrum, letting your child spend more time watching a screen will probably only make the situation worse later on.
A Warm Bath
Warm water is soothing to almost anyone, and eliminating the running-wild option by confining your child to a small space might have a calming effect.
Moreover, body temperature naturally decreases throughout the evening and during the night to help you rest more deeply. Soaking in a warm bath raises body temperature, and the rapid cool-off after getting out of the tub can help induce sleep.
Aromas like lavender have a relaxing effect of their own, so take advantage of the power of aromatherapy by using scented bath soap or lotion.
Offer a Calming Snack
Most young children dearly love snacks, and having something to munch on may provide your toddler with a distraction while giving their body the chance to be still.
Some foods contain nutrients that have a soothing effect on the body. Offer your child a small amount of one of these snacks.
Warm milk. Besides the natural calming effect that a warm beverage often has, milk also contains the amino acid tryptophan which is thought to encourage drowsiness.
A small banana. Bananas are high in magnesium and potassium, two minerals that encourage muscle relaxation.
Additionally, bananas tend to be popular with the toddler set, so you will probably be able to get your child to cooperate pretty easily.
Cheese and whole-wheat crackers. Cheese is another source of tryptophan, and whole-wheat crackers provide carbohydrates that can encourage the body to release even more tryptophan.
Tell a Quiet, Silly Story
The goal is to get your child to relax and focus their attention, so make the story funny and engaging. However, be sure to use the gentlest, most soothing voice.
You may also want to end the story with the main character relaxing and going to sleep to tie in with your ultimate goal.
Sing While Walking or Rocking
Lullabies have undeniable power, and the gentle, rhythmic motions of being rocked or carried can influence your child’s body to relax.
Hold your child and review the day’s events in a calm and gentle voice. Even if your child isn’t old enough to respond, listening as you speak in a soothing tone can have a calming effect. If your toddler is able to have a simple conversation, talking about what happened that day can give them something to focus on.
Soft, rhythmic strokes over your child’s back, shoulders, stomach or head let you utilize the power of gentle touch to calm your child. Touch often conveys love to a young child in a way that they can readily understand, and methodical motions provide soothing predictability.
Make Sure Your Child Gets Adequate Sleep Throughout the Day
Take a hard look at the average number of hours your child spends sleeping per day. This helpful chart from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows how much sleep most children need by age, so compare it with your child’s sleeping habits to see if you need to make any changes.
Think About the Timing of Your Child’s Naps
Does your child take a morning nap and then have six to seven hours of awake time before bed? Older toddlers may be able to handle that much awake time without a problem, but it could be too long for younger children.
Consider moving nap time a bit later in the day. Make the change in small increments, and see how your child responds.
Stick to a Regular Schedule
It’s not always possible, but try to follow as predictable of a schedule as possible every day.
While staying up late for a family movie night every once in a while won’t greatly affect your child’s overall sleep, having an early bedtime on weekdays and a much later one every weekend probably will.
Particularly if your child seems to be prone to becoming overtired easily, try to schedule fun family events earlier in the day until your toddler develops more mature sleep patterns.
Institute an Earlier Bedtime
Especially if your child is going through the process of dropping a daytime nap, an earlier bedtime can help your toddler get the amount of quality sleep they need on a daily basis.
Even if you aren’t dealing with a dropped nap, a child’s sleeping needs could change due to a number of factors, including new daytime activities or a change to their schedule that requires an earlier wake-up time.
Your child’s adequate rest is worth it, so don’t be afraid to make a bedtime change if needed.
Do What You Can
Some circumstances are beyond your control, and you just have to do the best you can with what you have in these instances.
For traveling, bring along some familiar items that might help your child relax. Try to keep bedtime and nap time as close to your child’s normal routine as possible, and don’t forget to take any time zone differences into account.
The occasional busy or special-occasion day may call for an earlier bedtime, if possible. Otherwise, try to block out some time throughout the day for periods of rest. Your child might not actually be able to sleep, but some time away from all the excitement can still give their brain a chance to wind down a bit.
Dealing with an overtired and crabby toddler is no walk in the park, and you’ll probably have to call upon your own reserves of patience and maturity to respond appropriately.
Try to keep in mind that as your child grows and develops, they will eventually respond to sleep cues in a more mature way. When that happens, you can both enjoy that blissful feeling of peaceful sleep after a long day.
How does your child respond when they get too tired? Do you have any other tips or tricks to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!