Birth to 2: The Tipping Point
Recognize the signs of overstimulation in your baby before it happens.
At her own birthday party, 1½-year-old Trina hung her head, put her thumb in her mouth, and refused to play with her friends. Even though she was in her own backyard and the other two girls were familiar playmates, Trina hung back. It had been a busy day, filled with singing, blowing out candles, and opening gifts. Fortunately, Trina’s parents recognized the signs of overstimulation in their daughter: shoulders hunched, head down, eyes lowered. Her mother took Trina’s hand, walked over to a shady spot, and sat down for a few minutes before joining the ball play.
Know Her Limits
Babies and toddlers, like adults, have differing temperaments: Some are cautious and more fearful, others are intense and easily irritated, and still others are easygoing. But even laid-back babies can become overstimulated when faced with too many new experiences too quickly or for too long a period of time.
Because of their different temperaments, babies have different tolerance levels for stimulation. A baby with an outgoing and positive response to new people, foods, and sounds might handle a family party fairly well. Another baby in the same situation might arch his back, close his eyes and turn away, and even cry.
Take care to watch for the physical signs in your baby that will alert you to overstimulation, especially before she can speak to express her frustration. You might notice stiffening, squirming, or a refusal to make eye contact. Keep in mind that a tired baby or one who is just getting over illness cannot take as much stimulation as one who’s healthy, well fed, and rested. If you see your child looking distressed or about to break into a tantrum, try to provide a space apart where you can hold her and quietly stay close until she calms down.
• Avoid toy clutter. Let your baby focus on a few objects at a time and put the rest away. This also helps strengthen her attention span.
• When you plan outings with your baby, keep them short at first and eventually work toward longer ones. Try to steer clear of noisy places and large crowds that may overwhelm your little one.
• If your child has become overstimulated and cranky, carry or lead her away from the action and provide lots of reassuring physical contact while you speak in soothing tones. Allow her time to recover.
Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. She is the author of Secure Relationships: Nurturing Infant-Toddler Attachments in Early Care Settings.