Right from birth, Anne’s daughter Cassidy, now 5, was not fond of her colourful, musical mobile or visitors who babbled baby talk right in her face. “She just wasn’t keen on having too much going on or being held by lots of different people,” says the Toronto mom. Cassidy would often turn her head and look away or arch her back if being held by someone who was too loud — as if she was trying to tune them out.
“I’d read that these were signs of stress. And they must have been, because if we ignored them, it was only a matter of time before she would start to wail.” That’s why, when the holiday season rolled around, Anne didn’t let too many people hold her then three-month-old, a choice some family members didn’t understand. “I received some negative comments and some eye-rolling, even from other parents, but I didn’t care because I knew my daughter just couldn’t handle all the action.”
“Parents need to recognize there is such a thing as overstimulation,” says Dr. Fabian Gorodzinsky, associate professor of pediatrics at The University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “Newborns in particular feel their environment with their whole body.” The reason for this, he says, is that myelin — the insulating agent of the nerves — is generally only fully developed as a child reaches his first birthday. For babies still developing this important insulation, overstimulation can be brought on by bright lights, toys with too many bells and whistles, being passed around at family functions or even being handled roughly or tightly by a tense parent. In younger babies, this stress may result in a child who cries, doesn’t sleep well or is irritable, says Dr. Gorodzinsky.
In older babies it may result in temper tantrums. The key, he says, is to recognize your child’s signals. “Some babies like to be bounced on a knee, but if the baby is crying every time, it is not right for that particular child. You have to follow your baby’s lead. What is right for one baby may not be right for another.”
Avoiding eye contact and arching her back are just two signs your baby may be feeling stressed out, says Cindy Brandon, an early childhood education professor at Centennial College in Toronto. “She may also start to cry abruptly after laughing and smiling. Other signs are much more physical, but can include a rapid heartbeat or rapid breathing,”says Brandon.
The best way to help your baby in these situations, she says, is to remove her from the stimulus. That may mean being cuddled softly in a quiet room and or moving her to a more subtle environment such as near a fish tank, a window overlooking a garden, or even going for a car ride. “Because babies have an underdeveloped nervous system at birth, they can easily be overstimulated,”says Brandon. “Often, they can only handle one stimulus at a time. Therefore, when cuddling your baby, just use a gentle touch without voice.” Choosing a simple black-and-white mobile, toys with lower volume levels and being gentle when picking up your baby — and making sure others do the same — can also decrease your little one’s stress levels.
Overstimulation not only makes babies cranky, it can also affect children later in life by making them nervous and anxious, says Dr. Gorodzinsky. “If you do interpret cues correctly, you demonstrate respect for your baby,” says Brandon. “This respect leads to a happy and secure child that is more inclined to have better self-esteem and feels much more independent.”
Senior editor Robin Stevenson’s daughter found Baby Einstein DVDs way too stimulating as an infant. In fact, they made her cry.
This story is part of our New Baby Guide. Check it out for more info on bringing home, planning for and surviving having a new baby.