How to Cope With Your Child's Sensory Overload

Children learn and grow when they have a stimulating environment where they can play and explore. But just like anything, there can definitely be too much of a good thing. As a result, all the wonderful activities and sounds your baby or child loves can suddenly become too much and result in overstimulation. When this happens, you often find yourself faced with a cranky baby, a screaming toddler, or a grumpy preschooler.

Learn how to determine when overstimulation is the culprit and what to do to address the situation.

overstimulation in children
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

What Is Overstimulation?

Overstimulation happens when children are swamped by more experiences, sensations, sounds, and activities than they can cope with. For instance, a newborn baby might start crying after a family gathering where he has been cuddled by lots of strange grownups. A preschooler might have a meltdown after a particularly rowdy birthday party, and a school-age child might come undone if he goes straight from school to after-school care, and then on to karate class

When kids are overstimulated, they often feel overwhelmed and tired. As a result, their outbursts are meant as a plea for some downtime and not an act of defiance. Consequently, parents need to recognize that the best thing for their child is a little quiet time in a calm and familiar environment. Unfortunately, though, it is easy to mistake a meltdown as something else entirely.

For this reason, it is important that parents know how to recognize the signs of overstimulation. It's also helpful to learn just how much your child can take. Some kids do fine with lots of outside stimulation while others need more quiet time than most. The key is to determine what works best for your child so that you can strike a healthy balance of stimulation and downtime.

Signs of Overstimulation

Everyone responds to different sensory information in different ways. Some kids will have a low threshold to certain types of stimulation. So, they respond negatively to this stimulation much quicker than others might.

While particular symptoms of overstimulation can vary from child to child, there are some general guidelines including crying, crankiness, tantrums, and even over-the-top meltdowns.

Kids also may get more hyper, aggressive or excited when they are overstimulated. Or, they could do the complete opposite and zone out, withdraw from people, or act sleepy.

Keep in mind that kids who are overstimulated do not know how to deal with what they are feeling. They also do not have the communication skills to talk about their distress. So, they respond in the only way they know how—by acting out. Here are some signs that your child might be overstimulated.

Overstimulated Newborn or Baby

If your baby or newborn is overstimulated, you might notice the following behaviors:

  • Seems to be extra cranky or tired
  • Is crying louder or more than what is normal
  • Turns her head away from you
  • Moves in a jerky way
  • Clenches her fists, waves her arms and kicks her legs

Overstimulated Toddler or Preschooler

When a toddler or preschooler is overstimulated, it is easy to mistake their behavior for the "terrible twos," or assume they are being defiant. As a result, it is important to know what overstimulation looks like at this age. An overstimulated toddler or preschooler might do the following:

  • Seem tired, grouchy and upset
  • Cry a lot without being able to use words to describe their feelings
  • Throw themselves to the floor in tears or anger
  • Refuse to do little things like put on a seatbelt or pick up a dropped sippy cup

Overstimulated School-Age Child

While it is much easier to identify overstimulation in older children, especially because they might be able to tell you what is wrong, it still helps to know what overstimulation looks like at this age. For instance, an overstimulated school-age child might display the following characteristics:

  • Acting out-of-character for their personality
  • Being aggressive or wild
  • Throwing a fit or being extra grouchy
  • Acting a little off or running around for n reason
  • Appearing sleepy or overtired

Helping Your Overstimulated Child Decompress

The key to helping your child cope with overstimulation is learning how your child responds to different types of sensory stimuli. Knowing this information will help you prevent overstimulation and keep your child from acting out.

This is especially important with babies and toddlers who have not learned any coping techniques yet. As your kids get older, you can help them cope by teaching breathing techniques, going for a walk, lying on the ground, or refocusing on something that calms them.

Another technique for older children includes any type of slow, steady resistance that requires children to exert effort against their muscles. Examples might include playing "Simon Says" and requiring heavy work activities like, "Simon says march in place while stomping," or "Simon says walk like a crab." These activities help them calm their bodies and clear their mind.

Here are some additional strategies for helping calm children when they are overstimulated.

Calming an Overstimulated Baby or Newborn

When you start to notice that your baby is overstimulated, take her to a quiet place where they can calm down. If you are at home, take her to her room and dim the lights. If you are out of the house with your baby, try putting her in her stroller with a light wrap or blanket. Some babies even like to be swaddled. Doing so helps reduce any physical sensations they may be experiencing.

Sometimes babies find it soothing to be carried next to your body in a sling or something similar. Using this method allows you to go about your everyday activities or continue your day out while your baby is snuggled up next to you.

Calming an Overstimulated Toddler or Preschooler

The first step in calming your toddler or preschooler is to stay calm yourself. If you get upset or uptight, this will only cause your child's emotions to escalate. So, take a deep breath and calm down before rushing in.

Next, try reducing the noise or activity around your child. For example, if you are home, turn off the television or radio or take your child into their bedroom and do something quiet together like snuggle or read a book. Once your child is calm, give them some time to play on their own.

When your child is ready to reengage with you and others, try to help them put into words how they were feeling. You can start by saying, "I could tell you were upset." Then ask in a calm voice what was bothering them. If your child says they do not like a particular activity, try to find out what they don't like about it. Their answer will give you important insight into your child's preferences and may help you prevent future episodes of overstimulation. You may have to wait until a later day to talk about it if your child is particularly upset.

Calming an Overstimulated School-Age Child

At this age, kids are learning how to calm themselves down. But, there will still be times when they may need your help. If you notice your child is struggling with overstimulation, suggest that she go to a quiet place and rest, especially if you feel like she is tired or cranky from overdoing it. Sometimes, it is helpful for your child to read or listen to quiet music in their room with the lights dimmed. Other times they may just need to cuddle up on the couch next to you.

When talking with kids this age about how they are feeling, it sometimes helps to indicate that you know they are upset, but you are not sure what is causing it. If your child struggles to name their feelings, gently guide them in identifying how they are feeling and why they might be feeling that way.

You also may want to talk to your child about which activities she finds most interesting or valuable. When kids are feeling overstimulated, it could be that they have too many things on their plate, and they might need to let some things go.

Remember, extracurricular activities are important but your child still needs enough time during the week to do homework, spend time with family, socialize with friends and just be alone. Be sure they are not over-scheduled or you may have to deal with overstimulation more often than you care to.

Limit Technology

Another culprit of overstimulation is technology in the form of the television, computer, tablet and cell phone. As a result, be sure you are following the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for media consumption.

In general, they recommend that children younger than two should not use any media and if they do, it should be limited and only when an adult is around. An example of media use with a child this young is video-chatting with grandparents while the parents are present. For toddlers, media should still be limited, consist of high-quality programming, and never be used alone.

And, for children two to five years of age, screen time should be no more than one hour per day. You also should avoid using media as the only way to calm your children down. They need to learn other strategies for coping with difficult emotions.

Balancing Activity Time and Downtime

During the first five years of a child's life, their brain is developing faster than any other time in their life. As a result, your child's early experiences, including the things they see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, stimulate their brain, creating millions of connections.

Children need a stimulating environment with lots of different activities—there should be plenty of ways for them to play and learn and lots of opportunities to practice what they are learning.

However, do not exhaust yourself trying to spend all day, every day dangling toys in front of your baby nor should you try to cram their schedule with activities, outings, and other things. Babies and young children also need downtime in a place that is quiet, familiar, and predictable. You also should not over-schedule your school-age children with lots of extracurricular activities.

Don't underestimate the value of allowing your child to play quietly at home. When they are given this opportunity, they learn to entertain themselves as well as explore their environment in their own way and at their own pace. This downtime also allows children to learn how to occupy themselves, find things to do, and be creative.

When You Should Be Concerned

Remember, it is normal for kids to get overstimulated, especially if you have a lot going on or an extra busy schedule. Overstimulation is especially likely to occur on family vacations, weddings or other events where the child is outside of their comfort zone for an extended period of time. And, in most cases, overstimulation is not something to be concerned about—except of course when it occurs.

If you find that your child is getting overstimulated every day, you may want to consider talking with your healthcare provider.

Keep in mind that you should not have to rearrange your entire life around the overstimulation of your child. If you are doing this on a regular basis, your child may need medical intervention, including possibly sensory integration therapy. Your doctor can advise the next steps in dealing with your child's sensitivity and overstimulation.

A Word From Verywell

There is no right answer when it comes to how much stimulation is too much because every child is different. So, the amount of stimulation one child can cope with will be different for the next child. Additionally, some children cope with stimulating environments better than others.

As a result, it is best to let your child be the guide, and remember that moderation is the key. Babies and young children need to have time each day to spend quietly playing or resting while school-age children will benefit from one or two extracurricular activities that they are really interested in. Sports, music lessons, and clubs are a great way to make new friends and develop social skills.

But too much time spent in organized activities means children miss out on time spent relaxing and entertaining themselves. Your goal is to find a balance between appropriate stimulation and downtime.

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