Prevent sensory overload in infants
Learn how to prevent, spot and encourage recovery from sensory overload in infants.
The moment babies are born they take in an enormous amount of information through all their senses, and learn every time they touch, smell, see and hear. At birth, the central nerves system is not yet completely developed. It is important for parents and caregivers to manage the type, intensity and amount of stimulation babies receive. If babies receive too much stimulation or activity, it may cause their sensory system to overload. The way babies’ brains process sensory information creates the foundation for their attention, self-regulation and coping abilities.
When babies experience sensory overload, they will let their parents or caregivers know by sending signals. By paying close attention to these signals, you can prevent situations that may cause overload. Each baby will have a different threshold for the type, intensity and amount of stimulation they receive. They will also have unique cues to let you know they are on overload.
Some common cues of sensory overload include:
- Being difficult calm or console
- Crying continually
- Acting very fussy and irritable
- Tensing or arching the body
- Sleeping or shutting down
- Extending arms as if to say, “Stop”
- Splaying fingers (fingers spread apart)
- Avoiding eye contact
By paying close attention to signals you can prevent situations that may cause overload. If you do notice distress, you may help them recover by:
- Stopping the activity and giving the baby some time to recover
- Applying firm pressure to the skin; avoid light touch that may tickle or excite
- Rocking the baby repetitively and slowly
- Swaddling the baby
- Allowing the baby to suck on a pacifier or finger
Babies who experience sensory overload may repeatedly create an over-action of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This exposure can cause babies to become hypersensitive and hyper-reactive to their environments. The best way to protect babies from sensory overload is to become an expert interpreter of his or her cues, and then you can begin to find the balance between what the baby can handle, and what and how much stimulation is enough to encourage learning.
For more articles on child development and parenting please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.