How much infant stimulation is too much?

How to interact with your baby without overwhelming him

“Tickle, tickle!” Your baby giggles and kicks her tiny feet as you wiggle your fingers against her soft little belly.

“Tickle, tickle!” She laughs again.

But as you tickle her for the fifth or sixth time, she turns her head away and sticks her fist in her mouth. No more giggles. In fact, she won’t even look at you now.

What happened? “Your baby has reached her limit and is feeling overstimulated,” says Chaya Kulkarni, director of Infant Mental Health Promotion at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Stimulation and interaction are essential to babies because their brains are developing rapidly. However, it’s important to recognize when your baby has had too much of a good thing.

“You can’t talk about overstimulation without talking about temperament,” Kulkarni. “Some babies are easygoing and go with the flow; some are ‘Bring it on! I’m ready!’; and some are easily overwhelmed.” So an environment or activity that’s fun and entertaining for one baby may lead to tears for another. Both the level of intensity and the duration matter in determining when it’s all too much.

Sarah Dufton of St. Marys, Ont., noticed with her second child, Libby, that things her older brother had taken in stride were upsetting for the more sensitive Libby. “Her brother would easily take naps in the stroller, but Libby was overwhelmed by all the things going past as I pushed her along, and she’d just cry. I learned that I had to carry her in a wrap so she’d be reassured by being close to me.” Dufton also used some of the fabric of the wrap to block Libby’s view of the outside world, helping her to relax and be content.

How can you tell when your baby has reached his limit? “Some babies are more subtle than others, but you’ll get to know your baby’s own cues,” says Kulkarni. “Usually when you are playing with a baby, he’ll maintain eye contact with you. The overstimulated baby will avert his gaze and look away. He may try to push you away, may close his eyes and try to sleep, he may suck on his hands or fingers, he may cry or fuss.”

Overstimulation at times is inevitable, and Kulkarni says an occasional misreading of baby’s cues isn’t a concern.

But, she adds, “there’s always the chance that if the parent repeatedly doesn’t respond — if you continue trying to play the game or ignore his distress — that the baby will zone out, withdraw or mentally retreat.” To feel securely attached to you, your baby needs to be confident that you understand and will help him out with those overwhelming emotions.

Figuring out the best response to an overstimulated baby is usually a matter of trial and error, Kulkarni says. “You’ll soon learn what works for your baby, if you pay attention to his responses.” Most are soothed by being held close, but some may not like to be picked up or touched if they’ve reached their limit. If it’s the situation that’s too stimulating, just taking the baby to a quieter place or darkened room may do the trick, and offering a feeding or a pacifier can soothe a baby who is feeling wound up. And while basic temperaments stay consistent, your baby’s reactions will change over time. “Your baby at six months is very different than he was at three months, and what was once overwhelming may now be a favourite activity.”

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