There are few more frustrating moments as a parent than trying to get an overtired baby to sleep. The more urgent the sleep becomes, the more the baby seems to fight it and most parents remain at a loss as to what to do.


An understanding of how hormones and neurotransmitters impact on sleep will help you in your endeavors to get your little one to sleep. The key hormones that govern sleep are melatonin and cortisol and their levels change through the day, resulting in one being able to fall asleep with ease at certain times in the day. Cortisol, for instance, is the hormone that keeps us awake and alert and is at its highest at 8 am, dropping off through the day. Melatonin on the other hand increases in the absence of light and prepares us to fall asleep. Why is this important to know for your baby? Well, by working with the hormones, half your sleep battle will be won.

To get your baby to sleep with ease, you should assist the brain to release melatonin and to try not to have to put your baby to sleep once her cortisol levels are high.

When your baby is overtired or has been stimulated for too long, she has to try to remain alert and focused and to do this her brain releases cortisol. Since cortisol keeps your baby awake, it is unwise to stimulate or stress your baby when a sleep is due or in fact to allow your baby to become overtired at all.


Little babies need very regular periods of sleep to process all they learn during the day. For this reason, babies have short ‘Awake times’. A newborn, for instance, can comfortably cope with only 45 minutes of stimulation or ‘Awake time’ before becoming fatigued. A six-month-old can cope with close to 2 hours of ‘Awake time’ and a toddler with between 4 and 5 hours of ‘Awake time’. When this ‘Awake time’ draws to a close, the baby or toddler begins to become drowsy and ready to sleep. If you settle your little one at this time, she will fall asleep with ease, as Melatonin will override the Cortisol.

If however, you keep your baby awake past the age-appropriate ‘Awake time’, she will need to access hormones to promote alertness and so adrenaline and cortisol will be released. These ‘stress’ hormones are not of any assistance when it comes to settling your baby to sleep, which is why overtired babies and toddlers fight sleep.


Step 1 of fatigue
When she becomes overtired, your baby will initially try simple little strategies to stay alert, like rubbing her eyes or ears or turning away from stimulation. A toddler may start to say “no” or become a little resistant.

Step 2 of fatigue

If these signals are ignored, she may start to use more overt self soothing signals such as sucking her thumb or looking for a dummy / pacifier.

Step 3 of fatigue

If you miss these signals, your baby may begin to exhibit autonomic signals such as hiccups or sneezing or blueness around the mouth (small babies) or sweaty palms or quick breaths. Now the signs are clear, your baby is overtired.

Final step of overtiredness

If you miss all these signals and are landed with a very overtired baby, these are the probable outcomes:

  • Newborn – colic, unexplained crying, back arching, pulling legs up – seemingly in pain
  • Older baby – grizzly miserable behaviour, crying, not wanting to feed, fighting sleep
  • Toddler – busy hyperactive behaviour, fighting with friends, running away, clumsiness, fighting sleep, resistant behaviour

All of these final steps are signs of Flight, Fright and Fight – the classic response to stress hormones.


The simple way to avoid overtiredness is to ensure your baby is settled to sleep according to the age appropriate awake times for her age.

Getting your overtired newborn to sleep

An overtired newborn will need lots of sensory soothing strategies to settle to sleep, particularly if she is already crying:

  • Swaddle – deep pressure
  • Rock her – vestibular calming effect
  • Hold her – touch
  • Feed her but not all the way to sleep – taste
  • Make the room dark – visual
  • Play white noise – sound

Getting your overtired older baby to sleep

Watch your ‘Awake times’ carefully with your older baby, and if she becomes overtired try these tips:

  • Take 15 minutes to calm her in her room before putting her down to sleep
  • To settle her to a drowsy state, read a book in the dim room
  • Rock her to drowsy
  • Feed if it is feed time
  • Sing a lullaby or play play white noise

Getting your overtired toddler to sleep

Toddlers who are overtired tend to become very active.

  • Remove her from all stimulation
  • Spend time quietly in her room
  • Read a story and give her a feed on your lap (noon or evening feed)
  • Rock to drowsy
  • Sit with her until she has fallen asleep if she is very fractious.