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How to Identify if Your Baby is Over Stimulated

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a baby yawning in a stroller

Sarah cradles her two-week-old son gently in her arms. The young adoptive mother  was in the delivery room when her baby was born, and was the first one to hold him. “But something seems wrong,” she tells me. "When I play and talk with him, he looks away from me. Maybe he’s looking for his real mommy?”

Normal newborn behavior can lead to such misunderstandings! Sarah doesn't realize that her son is responding to her energetic attempts to interact with him by responding in a typical newborn way. I call it an “SOS”: a Sign of Over-Stimulation.

What is an SOS?

A baby spends nine months in the relatively quiet world of the uterus, comforted by the movement of his mom’s body and the continuous “shosh” of her heartbeat. Now, in this strange outer world, he has to deal with the temperature change of a fanny wipe, the swirl of Dad dancing him around the floor and the excited intrusion of a two-year-old brother’s toy truck. A baby is not good at multitasking - that is, keeping his body under control while simultaneously responding to the normal stimulation of family life. When he can't handle it, he sends out an SOS.

What does an SOS look like?

There are two kinds of SOS: Body SOS and Behavioral SOS.

Body SOS

A baby who is over-stimulated may show a body SOS by changes in his color (from normal skin color to pale or bright red), changes in breathing (from slow and regular to fast and choppy), and changes in movement (from smooth movements to jerks and tremors.)

Behavioral SOS

There are three behavioral SOS as well: Spacing Out, Switching Off, and Shutting Down. A baby who is slightly over-stimulated might suddenly look away from her parent and stare into space (Spacing Out). If you continue to try to engage with him, he might  turn away from your face again and again (Switching Off). If the stimulation persists, the baby may move from alert and engaging to drowsy or sleepy (Shutting Down). All babies will at times be over-stimulated, and babies born early or with physical challenges send SOS more frequently. However, diapers must be changed, and interactions with the family must occur, so what should a parent do?

How can I help my baby when he sends an SOS?

You can become an expert at noticing the subtle body and behavioral signs of over-stimulation. When you see an SOS, you can both decrease stimulation and increase support of the baby. For example:

  • Decrease stimulation by speaking more quietly and holding the baby still for a few minutes. You'll likely see that SOS melt away.

  • Increase support by swaddling the baby, swaying her gently, or encouraging her to suck—a finger, your breast, or even a pacifier (once breastfeeding is well established.)

When you try these interventions, you'll notice that your baby’s jerks or tremors decrease, his skin color returns to normal and his breathing becomes more regular. His eyes brighten, his movement slows, and he appears more alert and ready to eat or play. As the weeks go by, your baby's ability to handle the stimulation of the outer world will increase.

After discussing normal SOSs, Sarah smiles. “Now I understand why my baby looks more at his dad than at me. I never stop chattering when I hold him. But, my husband is so spellbound that he says almost nothing and just stares at the baby’s face.” I watch Sarah as she quietly holds her new baby close to her face. Within a moment her son turns and looks squarely into his mother’s eyes. “I guess he’s found his real Mommy!” I tell her.

 
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