Babies take in information through all their senses to learn about their world but sometimes there’s too much stimulation for them to process. By reading baby’s cues, parents can reduce stimulation and provide comfort to help baby feel calm.
Baby's nervous system is still maturing
At birth, babies’ nervous systems are not yet mature. These systems will develop rapidly over the next few years.
Babies take in information through all their senses – everything they see, hear, taste, touch and smell sends messages to their brain. Each sense works with the other to give babies a ‘big picture’ of what’s around them.
At times, this may be too much stimulation for babies to process, and their immature nervous system becomes overloaded. Because they’re not able to calm themselves yet, they need help from a parent to regulate their nervous system and stress response.
All babies are different in how much stimulation they can handle. Although an older sibling may have coped in their first few weeks with taking the dog to the park, going to the post office and buying the groceries, the next baby may find this too much stimulation.
Premature babies are especially sensitive to overstimulation.
Signs of overload
Baby may indicate they are experiencing sensory overload by:
- turning away
- closing their eyes
- increasing their arm and leg movements in a jerky way
- becoming drowsy
Parents can learn to read their baby’s cues and respond sensitively by reducing the amount of stimulation. It’s not just about loud music and bright lights – it may be too much for baby to have mum or dad gazing at them, talking to them and rocking them at the same time.
Responding sensitively helps baby to trust
When babies are crying and overwhelmed by too much stimulation, parents can return them to a regulated state by calming and comforting them. They may have to take them away from a stressful environment. This brings stress response hormones back within a normal range.
Parents who mostly respond to their baby’s distress in a loving, warm way give baby the confidence to trust others. This early development of trust helps baby form healthy relationships throughout life. By soothing and comforting baby, parents are also helping baby gradually learn to self-soothe and manage overwhelming emotions.
When parents respond sensitively to their baby’s cues for sensory overload and monitor the stimulation baby receives, baby is likely to grow to be able to tolerate more stimulation and perhaps eventually to enjoy it.
Babies indicate they are ready to engage again by seeking eye contact, cooing, smiling, reaching out, or moving their arms and legs in a relaxed, smooth way.