Overstimulation. Is your baby at risk of sensory overload?

September 28, 2016

Sensory overload is often referred to as overstimulation. It happens when a baby or young child is flooded by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than the developing brain can cope with. While sensory stimulation is an important way babies learn about themselves and the world around them, in this article we talk about why some infants will easily become overstimulated and how you can prevent this from happening. You can also watch our free online BabyROO video series for babies from birth. This video series helps parents understand what is the right stimulation to give their babies and when is the right time. Our series comes highly recommended by paediatricians, early childhood experts and the Maternal Child and Family Health Nurses Association. (Available in Australia and NZ only).


While a baby’s brain does develop very rapidly from birth, life outside the protected environment of the womb is much louder, brighter, more active and less predictable. During the first months a newborn’s brain is learning how to sort, analyse and respond to all this new information, and initially it does so, one sense at a time. If a baby is overstimulated the brain will quickly become overloaded. Sensory overload may result in agitated crying and unsettled behaviour. Your baby may turn his head away from you, his movements might become jerky, and he may clench his fists, wave his arms or kick. Some babies respond by completely shutting down and going to sleep because they are so tired and overwhelmed.


Newborns also have a very strong survival reflex response. The Moro reflex causes them to cry if they are overstimulated by loud noises, bright lights, sudden movements or too much stimulation. The Moro response also causes the body to produce the ‘flight or fright’ hormone, cortisol, raising blood pressure and causing a baby’s skin to go red and to sweat. Babies who are overstimulated for long periods have continuously high levels of these stress hormones flowing through their brains and research tells us that they are at risk of ongoing emotional and developmental difficulties.  So, while some stimulation is important for development, it is best done in short bursts, with rest periods in-between.  If your baby is exposed to overstimulation, it’s very important to provide her with a calm environment so stress hormones can return to their normal levels.



When you come along to BabyROO, you will notice that stimulating activities are punctuated with periods of calm. So, massage (a calming activity) is followed by exercise (a rousing activity), which is followed by a nursery rhyme (a calming activity). This way babies have time to relax and the brain has time to compute the sensory inputs without becoming distressed.

Importantly, we also understand that the brain responds to SLOW movement much

more efficiently and easily than fast movement. Slow movements give the developing brain time to work out what’s happening and how to respond appropriately. Fast movements often confuse the sensory systems, and rather than stimulate the wiring and the firing of the brain, it just stops responding until it can make sense of what’s happening again.



1. In the first six weeks of life, what your baby needs most is to know she is loved, fed and safe. This creates the foundation for secure emotional attachment, which is essential for healthy brain development.


2. Gradually introduce your baby to different forms of stimulation. Too much, for too long can cause your baby to become irritated, agitated and upset. Your baby’s attentiveness is vital to what may be going on physically and emotionally.  When she is not over stimulated, tired, hungry, or otherwise distracted, she will be most attentive.


3. Your baby is sensitive to your moods.  Communicate your love and warmth as you hold him closely. Your baby develops a sense of security as he feels your warmth, your soothing touch and smells your scent.


4. Interaction is extremely important.  Your baby will learn best when fully interacting with the most important people in her life. A screen, (TV, Tablet or phone) is not a good companion for a baby and is not recommended. These devices do not provide one-to-one interactions or responses and research is proving them to be detrimental to healthy development.


5. Your baby’s position makes a difference whether in the cot, on a play-mat on the floor or in your arms. The cot should be re positioned monthly until about nine months of age.  In addition, your baby’s head position should be alternated from one end of the cot to the other, giving him varying orientations thus providing a variety of stimulation.  Flickering patterns of light on the wall change in appearance when viewed from different angles.


6. Emphasize repetition.  Repetition is a primary means by which babies learn.  Rituals such as tucking in your baby with a lullaby or reading to her nightly, promote learning.  Once your baby has mastered a given stimulus, it has been learned and may become boring.  It is time to advance to another stimulus.


7. Use infant stimulation to arouse and quieten.  Be sensitive to your baby’s physical, emotional and mental states.  For example, when your baby is alert, this is not a time to rock him or her gently to sleep; this is a time to stimulate.  Conversely, when your baby is tired or over stimulated, this is not the time to insist that he or she pay attention; this is a time to hold him or her and rock while humming.


8. The more stimulation babies receive, the more they tend to want it and seek it on their own.  Stimulation in infancy lays the foundation for a curious adult, but be careful in the first months not to stimulate too many senses at once, nor for too long.


9. The environment you provide at home has the strongest impact on your baby’s brain.  Babies possess a biologically driven need to learn during their first year.  Your child’s environment includes his cot, room, objects, sounds, tastes, smells and most importantly, his mother, father, siblings, extended family and friends.


10. Practice Rhythm, Reciprocity and Reinforcement. Rhythm means the progression of reactions your baby goes through when paying attention to a stimulus.  A cycle occurs as your baby becomes excited, then calms down and becomes excited again with the next stimulus. Reciprocity refers to your sensitivity to your baby as she moves through stimulating experiences. Watch your baby’s reactions attentively so you can learn to recognize her pattern of response and you can adjust the stimulation accordingly. Reinforcement denotes your positive reactions to your baby.  Providing positive reinforcement to your baby after she reacts to a stimulus encourages her to repeat that behaviour.


While sensory stimulation is an important way for a baby’s body and brain to learn about itself and the environment, babies can very quickly become overloaded when too many sensory messages overwhelm the brains ability to understand and respond.  

Slow, intermittently stimulating activities that are practiced at home on a daily basis are best for your baby’s brain in the first months of life. Our BabyROO classes are all about helping parents to learn what is the right stimulation to give their babies, at the right time. You can join in our highly recommended classes once your baby is six weeks of age.


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