The Dreaded Overtired Cycle

If you've been following some of my newborn posts, you've seen me mention "The Dreaded Overtired Cycle" in reference to newborn sleep challenges, and may be wondering what exactly it is, and how to avoid it. 

what is the dreaded overtired cycle and how do you avoid it?

The Dreaded Overtired Cycle is, in simplest terms, when a newborn baby is too hungry to sleep well, but too tired to eat well. It happens because new babies have such short wake times (the time between when they wake up and need to go back to sleep again) in the early weeks, so short that they sometimes cannot complete a full feed before they need to go back to sleep again.  This is especially a problem with breastfed babies. Nursing can be challenging and take a while in the beginning. It’s a steep learning curve for baby and especially first-time moms. So, this is a very tough combination, because babies are so sleepy and nursing is such hard work that they simply conk out at the breast, before they finish eating. This can lead to them waking only a short time later, still hungry, but as soon as they try to nurse, instead of taking a full feed, they just fall asleep again before they’ve really filled their little bellies.

All this snacking and catnapping results in a very overtired, cranky newborn and one exhausted, desperate mom.

All this snacking and catnapping results in a very overtired, cranky (or just wide awake) newborn who isn’t sleeping long stretches, day or night, and a poor tired mamma who can't get a break for more than 15 minutes!

What’s a new mom to do?

One of the best solutions is prevention. Start off, from the beginning, feeding baby upon waking, instead of feeding him to sleep. This will mean he has enough energy to take a full feed and then take a good long nap, perpetuating a positive sleep cycle, and working towards avoiding common pitfalls of always nursing to sleep, which can be challenging to fix later.

Mom can also work hard to keep baby awake until he finishes feeding. Burp him if he’s falling asleep early. Tickle his toes, blow gently on her face. Change her diaper in between each side. But don’t do this for so long that baby starts getting overtired. In the first month, a newborn’s wake time is about 60 minutes by 4 weeks. That means it’s less than that in the first few weeks. Try sticking with 20 minutes on each side if breastfeeding, then quickly change the diaper, swaddle and put baby right down for a nap. If baby wakes up after 30 minutes even though he had a good feed, don't assume he needs to feed again. Try getting him back to sleep longer, even if you need to hold him or use some motion.

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Protect Baby's Sleep. Even when company comes over, protect your baby’s nap times. Let them get their sleep so they can continue having enough energy to feed well. Don't push them past their awake window just because you want to show them off. Some babies have easy enough temperaments that they will still be able to get to sleep even though they're getting overtired. But many babies will become too overstimulated and will fight sleep instead of easily drifting off. 

Avoid nursing constantly. These little snack feeds give baby just enough to go another 30-40 minutes without feeding, but that short of a nap isn’t restorative and won’t help them take a fuller feed next time. This is often the problem I see with newborns who are waking up every hour throughout the night. They were never encouraged to get full feeds from the beginning, so they are in a perpetual state of snacking and cat napping.

What do you do if you’re already in The Dreaded Overtired Cycle?

Rescue Naps! Even if you have to rely on the swing or a carrier or car ride, spend several days just helping babe recoup his sleep debt. Then get on the new rhythm of feeding upon waking and always encouraging full feeds.

Call For Help! Get lots of family and friends involved with baby's care so that you can try to take care of yourself. But if you're doing all of the above and you're feeling desperate, please reach out to Little Lamb, and we'd be happy to come along side you and find the solutions that work best for you and your little one.