An “overworked” baby is the scourge of many parents. Your child has not slept for a long time and is clearly tired. However, when lying in bed, they are restless and agitated, unable to gently withdraw into the world of dreams and noisily demand your attention.
When overworked, babies are more likely to get stuck in an emotional state such as agitation, anxiety or fear, writes Helen L. Ball, professor of anthropology and director of the Durham Center for Infant and Sleep at Durham University.
“It’s a survival response that keeps us awake in times of danger, no matter how tired we are.”
Too emotional to sleep
But a crib is generally a cozy, quiet, and safe place, so why is this survival response involved? This is because the longer people go without sleep, the harder it is for us to regulate our emotions. A famous 2007 study showed that the emotional centers of a sleep-deprived brain are more responsive to stimuli compared to a rested brain.
“It’s as if without sleep, the brain reverted to more primitive patterns of activity, in the sense that it was unable to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled, appropriate responses,” study author Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology . psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Human Sleep.
Because babies need more sleep than adults—12 to 16 hours a day, broken up into numerous daytime naps in addition to longer nighttime sleep—it’s easy for them to get into this state of overwork, but adults are also susceptible. Do you ever wake up at night reflecting on the decisions you made earlier in the day or planning the chores you have to do tomorrow? You’re more likely to get stuck in this insidious rumination loop if you’re overtired.
“A rested brain is good at ignoring what’s happening all the time but has no real consequences,” Matt Jones, professor of neuroscience at the University of Bristol, told BBC Science Focus. But when you’re overtired or suffer from insomnia, “you’re less able to let go—consciously or unconsciously—of unnecessary information,” he further explained.
Coincidentally, parents of small, potentially overworked children are themselves more at risk of overwork. Balancing work and childcare, along with personal physical hygiene, while trying to maintain a semblance of a social life can be mentally and physically exhausting. Our constant “active” hyperconnected existence can also make us overworked. 24/7 work email, quick news updates, and social media notifications leave our brains with little chance to unwind during the day.
How to avoid overwork
Making time for peace and quiet can help. A study published last fall found that a quiet, one-hour walk in nature, free of other distractions, calms activity in the amygdala, the main brain area that processes emotions, including fear and anxiety.
It is also helpful to follow the rules of sleep hygiene. After all, poor sleep also makes us overworked, cruel feedback. If possible, reduce the amount of distractions you encounter at least before bed, especially from technical sources. It is important to note that this clotting process should not take place in bed.
“It’s all about managing what’s called ‘stimulus control,'” Dr. Alex Scott, professor of psychology at the University of Kiel, told BBC Science Focus. “Essentially, this means that you should not associate your bed with excessive anxiety – this can lead to even more problems with sleep.”
The rumination that sometimes leads to sleepless nights is often the result of your actions at the start of the day. Preventing brain fatigue will help you get a restful night’s sleep more easily.