Sensory overload in infants

Learn more about how infants process sensory information and what you can do to guard them from sensory overload.

An infant absorbs everything in his environment. Factors such as smells, sounds, touch and light can affect the way an infant reacts to his environment. An infant’s central nervous system is not fully developed when he is born, so brain connections exist mainly to control involuntary reflexes such as digestion. As an infant grows, brain connections are made helping the infant learn about the world around him. It is important for parents and caregivers to monitor the type of stimulation and the intensity of the stimulation their infant is exposed to.

The way infants process sensory information forms the foundation for attention span, self-regulation and coping skills. When a baby overreacts to stimulation from her environment or is unable to accept input from her senses easily, the result is sensory overload. This happens when a baby is given too much stimulation at a given time or is unable to tolerate certain types or levels of stimulation.

It is very important to recognize what your infant may be sensitive to and respond appropriately. Knowing your infant’s triggers and avoiding those things will help your infant from experiencing sensory overload. Understanding your infant’s cues is a key factor in avoiding sensory overload. Some cues may be turning away, falling asleep, extending arms, continuously crying, sleeping more than necessary, ignoring an activity or a toy, tensing the body and arching the back, and be inconsolable or unable to calm.

While trying to combat overstimulation, a baby uses energy that could be used to absorb stimulation, process information and make new brain cell connections for learning. According to neuroscientists, environmental stress activates the brain through stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. This causes a baby to become prone to be hypersensitive and hyperactive to his environment.

As a parent, the key is being proactive in preventing sensory overload by recognizing your baby’s cues and adapting and responding appropriately.

For more articles on child development, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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