Bringing a brand new baby home from the hospital is definitely a learning experience, especially if you’re a first-time parent. Learning to read the cues of a newborn isn’t always easy, and it’s a skill that usually comes with practice. Because babies come into the world with a nervous system that’s not yet mature, they’re not able to regulate the way they perceive outside stimuli in the same way as older children and adults. In the first three months of life, it’s easy for an infant to become overstimulated, which can cause them to become distressed and to have a difficult time calming down. Keeping your newborn happy is a delicate balancing act between providing her with the stimulation she needs to develop and protecting her from an abundance of stimulation, which will more than likely leave her tearful or even inconsolable. Recognizing the signs of over-stimulation can help to clear up some of the mysteries behind normal baby behavior, making it easier for your new family to fall into a calm and productive routine.
- Her Breathing Changes – Just as your breathing speeds up when you’re excited or exhausted, so can that of your newborn. Look for subtle changes in her breathing pattern, especially if the rhythm changes from slow and soft to a more rapid pace. Her movements may also become more choppy and jerky, especially if she’s on the verge of crying due to feeling overwhelmed and confused.
- She “Spaces Out” – A newborn’s first line of defense against over-stimulation is often to stare into space when there’s too much going on around her. Rather than trying to process the flood of information, your baby may seem aloof and disinterested in attempts to get her attention. Rather than panicking that your child isn’t bonding with you or is showing signs of developmental disorders, try to understand that a baby who shuts down is probably feeling overstimulated and overwhelmed.
- She Refuses to Engage – When a newborn refuses any attempts at getting her attention, looks away when you’re trying to interact with her and just doesn’t seem to engage, she’s probably overstimulated. This behavior may be especially prominent in loud spaces, when she’s been in a swing or bouncer, or anytime she is otherwise stimulated more than normal. Remember that some babies will find swings and bouncers soothing, while others just find them overwhelming. If your baby seems to regularly be overstimulated after a session in her swing rather than dropping off peacefully to sleep, it may not be right for her.
- She Cries Inconsolably – The mysterious crying fit is the bane of many a parent’s existence, especially since it seems to come with no explanation or noticeable solution. A crying infant who can’t be consoled by rocking, gentle speaking or other means of stimulation may actually be overstimulated, so your attempts to distract and comfort her may just be fueling the fire. Try reducing the amount of stimuli she’s subjected to, swaddling and cuddling her close with limited movement.
- Her Complexion Changes – While every screaming baby gets red in the face from time to time, flushing or complexion changes when your baby seems relatively calm could be a sign that she’s getting too much stimulation and is overly excited. Much like breathing and movement changes, subtle changes like flushing and redness can be a sign that it’s time to calm your newborn by getting her into a more soothing, calm environment.
Because no two babies are exactly alike, there’s no hard and fast rule regarding how much stimulation a newborn can handle. Some babies will seem largely unfazed by external stimuli, are able to sleep almost anywhere and never seem to be bothered by constant chattering around them. Others may have very low thresholds for stimulation, especially those with physical differences or who were born prematurely. Over the course of your baby’s first weeks, you will become adept at reading her behavioral signs, and will be able to tell with reasonable reliability when she’s had too much stimulation.