The holidays are an exciting time. There are lights of every size and color, music at every turn, parties and events just about every day, presents to buy, wrap, and then unwrap, and a full range of aromas from cookies to pine branches to turkey, and just about everything in-between.
In short, there’s a LOT going on.
As fun as all the commotion can be, it can also be a bit much – for both your baby and you. The overstimulation that comes with the holidays can interfere with any semblance of a routine you may have been working toward, could leave your little one tired and confused (and therefore cranky), and can leave you feeling more overwhelmed and exhausted than usual.
That doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy all that the holidays have to offer! It just means taking some extra care and holding some boundaries to make the most of the season while keeping baby and you happy.
Effects of Overstimulation
Generally speaking, overstimulation is the difficulty we feel when we’re unable to process information our senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) are taking in.1 Anyone can become overstimulated, and it’s caused – as the name suggests – by an overwhelming amount of stimulation. That means that any time there are multiple sensory stimulants at the same time, you could find yourself feeling overstimulated.
And when are multiple sensory stimulants almost guaranteed? The holidays.
Add to that your sleep-deprived state while adjusting to a newborn, or the thought of being a newborn – brand new to anything outside of the dark, quiet safety of the womb – and it can be a tricky situation.
So what happens when you feel overstimulated? There are both physiological and mental immediate effects of overstimulation, including sweating, flushed cheeks, an inability to focus, and irritability.1,2 In general, feeling overstimulated is not pleasant, and it’s not how you want to feel at a time that’s meant for merriment and family time.
And what about that sweet baby, who is still adjusting to life outside the womb? The extra noise and disrupted routines of the holidays can be more overwhelming for them than for you. It can also be hard to recognize when your baby is overstimulated, especially if they’re a newborn. They may be tired or cranky, could clench their fists or seem restless, or cry,3 and it might be hard to figure out that they’re overstimulated and not hungry, wet, cold, or genuinely tired. Being aware of the potential for overstimulation can be particularly helpful, especially if you try to soothe your baby using your usual solutions, and nothing helps.
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to counteract overstimulation for both your baby and yourself.
Tips for Baby
When you believe your baby is feeling overstimulated, there are a few steps you can take to help soothe them.3
- Find a quiet spot. If you think your baby is feeling overstimulated, try taking them somewhere dark and quiet for a bit to calm them down. Giving them fewer sensations to process can help them feel better.
- Swaddle or wear your baby. Swaddling your baby can also help reduce the overload of sensations they are experiencing. Wearing them accomplishes the same while also making it easier to set boundaries around passing them around too much when they’re already feeling overwhelmed. Further reduce the effect of lights and sounds by wearing a nursing shawl over their carrier.
- Use a stroller and a light blanket or shawl. If you want to keep your baby close without wearing or carrying it, you can use a stroller and cover it with a light blanket or shawl (making sure to leave breathing space) to keep things a little darker and quieter.
- Trust your gut. Holidays are ripe with opportunities for relatives and friends to offer their opinions and advice about what your baby needs, and it can feel intimidating to disagree. Nobody knows your baby better than you do, mama. If you think baby is overstimulated, take action. If you think baby needs a break from being passed around from aunt to aunt, it’s ok to take them back. There’s no need to feel guilty for doing what you think is best for your child.
Tips for Mom
What about you, mama? What can you do when you start to feel a little overstimulated this season?
- Be strategic in your socializing: When at events, try to avoid standing too close to speakers if there’s music playing, and consider smaller conversation groups in quiet corners of the room. Give some space between yourself and any especially bright or blinking lights, and avoid the kitchen if you can. Reducing the number of stimulants might help, and keeping to the outskirts makes it easier to get away for a few minutes if you need to.
- Take a break: Find opportunities to take some time for yourself. Set aside time between events when baby is asleep or mellow to read a book, watch your favorite show, or take a relaxing bubble bath. Find snippets of time to enjoy a soothing cup of tea. Making time to enjoy the quiet or something that meets your own needs can help you get through the more chaotic moments. The key is to actually relax in these moments! Don’t use your break to clean, run errands, wrap gifts, or get extra work done. Remind yourself that making time for yourself – even if it’s just a few minutes each day – will allow you to fully embrace the holiday season.
- Get some sleep. We know, this one is easier said than done for a new mom, but if you can manage it, take a short nap. Being sleep deprived can make it easier to feel overwhelmed or overstimulated.
- Plan a schedule, and stick to it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in holiday gatherings and stay much later than we intend to, but setting a “leave by” time – and sticking to it! – can help keep overstimulation to a minimum. This can help keep your baby close to their routine, and it can allow you to get a little more rest than you otherwise would.
The excitement of the holidays is a double-edged sword. It’s fun and festive and a great opportunity to share your newest addition with your family and friends, but it can also be a lot for a new baby and your less-than-rested self. Taking a few precautions can help you make the best of the situation so you enjoy it more than you’re exhausted by it.
1Shape: If You’re Feeling Overstimulated By Life Right Now, You’re Not Alone
2Healthline: What Is Sensory Overload?
3RaisingChildren: Overstimulation: babies and children