*Overtired Child

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My biggest source of frustration with my child is when he is overtired. On the way to the melt-down, he can’t pay attention to rules or parental suggestions, he bounces off the walls, and moves his attention from thing to thing rapidly. It is hard to watch and hard to deal with. Eventually he melts down into inconsolable tears.

I know that the best way to deal with this is to make sure that he gets enough sleep. So maybe this isn’t a “child” issue so much as a “logistics and household” issue. Preschool starts early in the morning (8:30), our child won’t nap during rest-time or after school (his day ends at 3:30), and we eat dinner as a family around 6 (based on my husband’s work schedule). While feeding my son dinner at 5 in order to get him into bed by 6:00 or 6:30 is something we sometimes do, we do like eating all together and having time together at the end of the day.

Are there any techniques, tricks, or skills for dealing with the bad behavior that comes as the result of overtiredness?

Thanks in advance,

Bedtime Bedlam


Dear Bedlam,

You already know that it’s well near impossible for an overtired child to “behave right” when he doesn’t feel right. It is a logistics issue, which by no means implies that it has a simple solution! It can be incredibly difficult to stick to a sleep schedule that works for a young child while accommodating all the demands of the adult world.

It’s an awkward stage of life, when your kid is too old for naps yet can’t quite last through dinner time without one. Perhaps you can consider feeding your son at 5:00, and then having “special time” when Dad gets home at 6:00 as part of the bedtime routine (bath, stories, songs, heart to heart conversations, etc.).

But of course life tends to throw us off schedule, so when you do end up with an overtired child, you’ll keep in mind that there’s not much you can demand of him in terms of rules and expectations. An adult can dig deep and manage to function in the face of (some) hunger and sleep deprivation, but little kids just….can’t. Once they’ve gone past that natural point of sleepiness it can be very hard for them to settle.* Telling them they are “just overtired and need to calm down” will only be enraging. Nobody likes to be told their feelings are not valid because of some “reason.” (Consider being told, “You’re just upset because you’re having your period!”)

The only thing you can do is handle with care and try to guide your child through the storm. If he’s running around maniacally, you might help him make the transition to sleepiness by:

  • Putting on some music. Start by jumping around to an upbeat song.  Then dance more slowly, to a song with a slower tempo. Then you can lie down together to a lullaby.
  • Helping him blow off steam. “You’ve got some energy left over, even though it’s late. Do you want to take five big jumps or ten before snuggling into the blanket cave?”
  • Getting his pajamas on with playfulness instead of scolding. Make the PJ pants say, “Please stick your leg in me. I feel very flat!”
  • Rolling him up in his blanket, explaining that you’re making a hot dog out of him and the blanket is the bun. Press him down all over while telling him you’re putting on the ketchup. Sing him a soothing lullaby.
  • If he does melt down into “inconsolable tears,” hold him and comfort him without scolding or recrimination. Resist the urge to put in a dig (“I told you you needed to go to bed! See what happens when you don’t listen?”)

You get the idea.  He is not going to be the cooperative, easy-going kid you sometimes enjoy. He is miserable and out of sorts. You’re going to be making no demands of him and working extra hard to help him calm down. It’s not very convenient but that’s life with kids. At one point he will miraculously move on to the next stage and be okay with a 6 pm dinner and a little less sleep.

Good luck and let us know what happens,

Joanna and Julie


*Sleep experts explain that once a child is overtired, hormones are released that stimulate the body and keep the child awake. It may feel counter-intuitive, but having an earlier bedtime often results in an easier transition to sleep.