A stimulating environment to play in and explore helps your child learn and grow. However, sometimes too many activities add up to overstimulation, so downtime is important for your child too. It’s all about finding a balance that’s right for your child.

What is overstimulation?

Overstimulation happens when a child is swamped by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than she can cope with.

For example, a newborn baby might get very unsettled after a party where she’s been cuddled by lots of grown-ups. A pre-schooler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party. A school-age child might be cranky if she goes to school, then after-school care and then a swimming lesson.

Overstimulated children get tired and can feel overwhelmed. When this happens, they need quiet time and a familiar, calm environment.

Signs of overstimulation

If your newborn or baby is overstimulated, she might:

  • be cranky or tired

  • cry more

  • seem upset or turn her head away from you

  • move in a jerky way

  • clench her fists, wave her arms or kick.

If your toddler or pre-schooler is overstimulated, she might:

  • seem tired, cranky and upset

  • cry and not be able to use words to describe her feelings

  • throw herself on the floor in tears or anger

  • tell you that she doesn’t want to do a particular activity anymore

  • refuse to do simple things like putting on a seatbelt.

You’ll get to know the particular signs that your child shows when she’s overstimulated.

Balancing activity time and quiet time

In the first 5 years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in her life. Your child’s early experiences – the things she sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate her brain, creating millions of connections.

This means your child needs a stimulating environment with lots of different activities that give her plenty of ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what she’s learning.

However, it doesn’t mean you need to spend all day every day dangling toys in front of your baby, or that you have to rush your child from school to extra-curricular activities. Babies and young children also need quiet time in predictable and familiar settings.

Your child will benefit from quietly entertaining himself, exploring her environment in her own way and at her own pace. This time lets your child learn how to occupy herself, work out when she needs quiet time and find things to do in that time to make herself feel better.

Babies: Dealing with overstimulation

When you see that your baby is overwhelmed, take her somewhere quiet where she can calm down – for example, her cot. If you’re out with your baby, you can put her in the pram and cover it with a light wrap or blanket.

Wrapping newborns and babies can help them calm down because it reduces physical sensations. Your baby might also find it soothing to be carried next to your body in a sling or something similar, as you go about your everyday activities.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers: Dealing with overstimulation

Here are some ideas for handling your overstimulated toddler or pre-schooler:

  • Try to stay calm yourself. This will help your child to calm down too.

  • Reduce the noise and activity around your child. For example, turn off the TV or radio and take your child to her bedroom, or let her spend time near you if she needs to be close to you to wind down.

  • Help your child put into words the feelings that she’s expressing through behaviour. For example, you could say, ‘I can see that you’re upset’, ‘I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed’.

  • Sit quietly with your child and choose a calming activity. You could read a story, lie down with her, sing some quiet songs or just stroke her back. When she has calmed, give her some time to play by herself.

  • If your child says she doesn’t want to do a particular activity, see whether you can find out what she doesn’t like about that particular activity. It’s best to talk to her later on, when she’s calm.

If you’re seeing behavioural problems because your child is overstimulated or stressed, it’s almost always helpful to tackle them by changing the environment.

School-age children: Dealing with overstimulation

At this age, children can start to calm themselves down. Here are some ideas to help:

  • Help your child put into words the feelings that she’s expressing through behaviour. For example, ‘I can see that you’re upset’, ‘I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed’.

  • Suggest that your child goes to a quiet place if she’s tired or cranky from overdoing it. For example, she could read or listen to quiet music in her bedroom.

  • Talk with your child about which activities she finds most interesting or valuable. She might need to think about letting some activities go if she’s finding she has too much to cope with.

  • Look into mindfulness strategies for your child. You might be able to find some that you and your child could practise together.

Your child needs enough time during the week to do homework, spend time with family, socialise with friends and just be by herself.

Finding the right amount of stimulation

There’s no one ‘right’ answer to how much stimulation is too much, because every child is different. Different children can cope with different amounts of excitement. Some children cope with stimulating environments better than others.

Let your child be the guide, and remember that moderation is best.

For babies and young children, it’s a good idea to give your child some time each day to spend quietly playing or resting, apart from sleep time.

Your school-age child will probably benefit most from one or two extra-curricular activities that she’s really interested in. Sport, music and other clubs can be a fantastic way to develop skills, make new friends and pursue interests. However, too much time spent on organised after-school activities might mean your child misses out on time to relax and entertain herself.

The ability to occupy yourself is an important life skill. By encouraging it, you help your child on her journey towards becoming an independent adult.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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