A ‘colicky’ baby: could sensory overload be the cause?

When one’s baby is unsettled, lack of sleep, or plain exhaustion, is often not considered, as we are too busy looking for a ‘physical’ reason for our baby’s distress.

When we have good sleep, we take it for granted, but for those who are sleep-deprived, the word torture takes on a new meaning. It is no different for babies. An over tired baby is frequently a fractious, over stimulated baby. Sensory overload is one of the most common causes of unsettledness in babies.

So your unsettled baby may in fact be an over stimulated or overtired baby.

How the sensory system works

The behaviour displayed by a baby when stimulated will differ depending on the manner in which the stimulus is interpreted. Each sense (hearing, sight, touch, smell, taste, movement, sense of space, and body functions) works with the others to form a composite picture of what is going on around us .

Sensory integration is the critical function of the brain that is responsible for producing this picture. For most of us, effective sensory integration occurs automatically, unconsciously, and without effort. However, many babies, especially those born prematurely, may have difficulty in ‘processing’ too much sensory stimuli due to immaturity of the brain.

What happens when your baby is stimulated?

When a baby is exposed to sensory stimuli, one of three things may occur:

  1. The infant may interpret the stimuli as non-stressful and respond to the stimuli appropriately. The baby will display approach signals.These signals indicate that she is in control, and is neurologically well-organised. These signals invite interaction. They include:
  • smiling or mouthing with an ‘ooh’ face
  • soft, relaxed facial expression
  • cooing
  • relaxed limbs
  • smooth body movements with minimal activity.

This is the ideal time to interact with and to stimulate your baby.

  1. The baby experiences stresswhen exposed to the stimuli, but is able to produce a behaviour that decreases the effect of the stress on the nervous system. At this point, the baby still has the ability to self-regulate. However, if the stress/stimuli continue, the nervous system becomes unstable, resulting in a stress reaction such as crying.

Warning signals that the baby is becoming overloaded include:

  • hand on face
  • sucking
  • fisting
  • clasping of the foot
  • leg bracing
  • bracing body against sides of the crib, or into the mother’s neck
  • assuming a foetal position
  • shifting to a drowsy state

These signals must be interpreted as a warning message that the infant may be reaching maximum tolerable stress levels.

This is the time to allow your baby some space or to go to sleep, and to avoid any further stimulation.

  1. The stimulation stresses the infant to such a degree that the infant becomes unable to overcome the effect of this stress by self-calming. This happens when the stressful input (stimuli) simply exceeds the infant’s ability to compensate.

Signs of a ‘stressed’ baby include:

  • gaze aversion, or gaze locking (glassy eyes, gape face)
  • irritability
  • lack of alertness
  • finger splaying/saluting
  • squirming, sitting on air
  • frantic, disorganised, jerky movements
  • tongue thrusting
  • yawning, sneezing and hiccupping
  • gagging or spitting up
  • arching of the back
  • colour changes, – paleness, mottling, flushing or cyanosis (bluish discoloration of the skin)
  • changes in vital signs (heart rate, respiratory rate).

These signs are often misinterpreted as colic or boredom. However the sensory system at this stage is in such disarray that the baby is unable to self-calm and will cry inconsolably.

What can you do?

This is the time to:

  • modulate the environment (remove stimuli)
  • encourage hand-to-mouth activity, or non-nutritive sucking (dummy)
  • encourage finger grasping
  • swaddle or place in a sling
  • allow the baby to ‘nest’ into a foetal position

Important points

  • Babies who are constantly over-stimulated, and / or deprived of ‘quiet time’ will often be in a state of ‘stress’, and will be hard to put to sleep. It is of great importance to avoid over-stimulation and to let babies sleep as much as they need to.
  • It is important to remember that babies’ sleep cycles are determined by their awake times. To avoid babies’ becoming over stimulated and overtired, it is crucial that they are put to sleep whilst still happily awake! For guidelines of age appropriate awake times for your baby, please refer to the  article on the website.

By Ann Richardson