The holiday season can be filled with excitement, family gatherings, parties, school concerts, trips to see Santa, vacations, and lots of presents and new toys….
BUT, it is important to recognize how challenging this time of year can be for babies and kids. It is very easy for babies, and kids, alike to get over-stimulated (and who's kidding who, us adults as well!).
This time of year often also means different bedtimes, wake-up times, and even mealtimes. Lots of changes to routines and schedules, along with many new things can be the perfect recipe for disaster (aka overstimulation).
What is Over-Stimulation?
Overstimulation, can occur when a baby or child (and even us adults) is flooded by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than the developing brain can cope with. With overstimulation, the brain becomes overloaded, which then leads to things like crying in babies, and dramatic meltdowns in toddlers (and adults alike).
Even small and seemingly insignificant things can have an impact. For example,
A long day
Being around too many people or too much excitement
Doing too many activities in one day
Going to a noisy coffee shop with baby (think music, conversations, people)
Too much background noise, or too many bright lights and colours.
Too hot, too cold, to itchy or uncomfortable from the layers/bulk or fabric of their clothes
Too much sugar, or foods they are not accustomed to
Too many new things - new faces, new places, new routines (or lack of routine), new smells and foods, new toys
Stimulation, interaction, connections and engagement are essential for any human being to grow, develop and thrive. Overdoing it, however, may interfere with learning abilities, behaviour, and even sleep patterns.
Signs of Over-Stimulation
Babies and children have to work hard to concentrate on new faces, new experiences, and all the learning that comes with visiting and playing with loving family and friends. Over-stimulation can happen quite easily and lead to things like:
Fussiness - or generally being unsettled
Sleep Issues - difficulty falling and staying asleep - either at night or for naps during the day. Sometimes the opposite can occur and babies respond by completely shutting down and going to sleep because they are so tired and overwhelmed.
Reduced Eye Contact - turning head away from you, and/or averting or avoiding eye contact is often a sign of over-load
Changes in Body Movements - movements may become jerky, or a baby may clench his fists, wave his arms or kick - this can also be seen in young children. Babies may also push away from whomever is holding them.
Increased Crying - tears are still a major communication tool for babies and young children and you may see an increase in or more agitated crying
Loss of language skills - when stressed, toddlers and young children may lose access to the limited language skills that they has developed so far. They find it too difficult to form words and sentences and will fall back upon crying as a way of letting you know that they need attention and help.
Ways to Help Over-Stimulation
1.Regulate yourself first
Regulating ourselves first is one of the most important things we can do for our babies and children! They pick up on our cues - if we are stressed, they are stressed! If we are calm, then they will also start to calm! So take that pause to reset - a mindful deep breath, a quiet verbal 'ommmm', or taking a break to walk away. Do it for yourself, and do it for your child!
2. Slow things down.
Make sure you pace activities and visits so that your baby or child has time to communicate with you if things get a little crazy.
For example, if you have been shopping at the mall, with a trip to see Santa, and then walk into a family gathering for a meal, be mindful that that was a lot of potentially overstimulating experiences. Allow your child to stay close until you are sure that he or she shows clear signs the he is ready to play with all the new people. This may mean allowing your baby some quiet time in your arms before passing them on to all the loving relatives that want to hold and cuddle him/her. Or it might mean vocalizing to well meaning relatives that your toddler/preschooler needs a bit of space to unwind and get comfortable in this new environment before playing and interacting with them
3.Take a break
Even a quick break for just a few minutes, away from the busy and over-stimulating environment, can do wonders. Having a quiet space (or an alternative option) and a way for the child to signal when he/she needs a break (or watchful parents to notice when baby/toddler needs one) is important. This can be as simple as corner with a bean bag chair or some pillows, a small tent or canopy made from a sheet, baby wearing with a light blanket as a cover. It could be going for a walk before or after dinner, or even just hiding out in another part of the house, away from the bustle.
A quiet space, a break, is a great way to limit auditory, visual, and other input so a child can regroup and calm themselves down.
And, whenever possible, it is helpful to make a plan with your spouse/partner so you can take turns socializing and watching the baby.
4.Dampening or reducing sensory stimulation
Dimming the lights, quiet voices and environment, speaking slower, playing soft/quiet music or white noise in the background are great options.
simply turning off or dimming the lights is a quick and easy way to decrease visual stimulation. Other calming visual activities include repetitive visual input like watching fish in a fish tank or looking at sensory bottles and calm down jars filled with liquid and other objects (water, oil, water beads, glitter).
5. Deep Pressure & Heavy Work
A lot of kids benefit from proprioceptive input in the form of deep pressure and/or heavy work, which provides stimulation to the muscles and joints that can be calming and organizing.
Heavy work means moving the body against heavy resistance and includes activities such as squishing/squeezing play dough or a stress ball, pulling against resistance bands, pushing/moving toys or laundry baskets full of books or laundry, crawling, climbing, holding a heavy door open, and carrying books. For many babies and children, sucking and/or chewing can provide calming oral sensory and proprioceptive input. Think sucking on a bottle/straw, soother or other chewy pendants/bracelets or teething toys....get those teething necklaces ready mamas! For older children, chewy snacks such as bagels, chewy granola bars, dried fruit, or even gum ca be helpful.
Deep pressure includes things like big body/bear hugs, pillow squishes, a weighted blanket or weighted stuffed animal, and can provide full-body calming sensory input for babies and kids who might be overwhelmed or too excited.
6. Rhythmic Movement
Many children find repetitive, linear, and rhythmic vestibular (movement) input, including rocking, swaying, or gentle swinging to be extremely calming. This kind of sensory input can be a great and easy way to help a child reset when they are overstimulated, overwhelmed, or dealing with tantrums. Using a rocking chair, holding your child in your arms and just rocking your body back/forth, bouncing/rocking on an exercise ball, or doing the typical 'mommy bounce/sway' are simple ways to provide calming movement when babies or kids need it.
I know my holidays will be exciting and overwhelming all at the same time, but I hope to practice some of these tips and tricks and at the very least remember that just like me, my kids are doing their best! And so I leave you with this…..