Babies and Over-Stimulation: What are the Cues?

Have you ever felt overwhelmed or insecure at overcrowded, noisy places such as sports events or concerts? Sometimes these exposures make us feel so uncomfortable that we want to run away or escape. Have you ever considered that babies feel the same way when they are over-stimulated? It is not uncommon for parents to miss their baby’s  discomfort and over-stimulation cues . Typically, this lack of recognition is connected to the parents’ excitement about playing with their infant or having their baby with them at events or places that involve more environmental stimulation or human interaction than a baby is capable of managing. Just like adults, children need to feel calm and secure in order to engage in positive and healthy interactions. While some babies, who feel overwhelmed shut down, others cry until a caregiver reduces the stimulation causing the baby’s stress. Today’s blog is about: increasing parental awareness of  cues and signals of over-stimulation; the negative impact of over-stimulation; and the Growing Great Kids Curriculum tools available to support parents skills for making their babies feel safe and secure.

Let’s first discuss what overstimulation for babies is. Over-stimulation occurs when a child is experiencing sensations, loud noises, bright lights, rough play, and any other human interactions or activities that are more than what he/she can handle.  The causes of over-stimulation for each baby are different and so is his ability to deal with it. What seems to be consistent though is that over-stimulated babies get tired, shut down (disengage), upset (stressed) or frustrated, and they send cues to let us know this.  When this happens, what they need most is a quiet, familiar and calm environment and caregiver. When parents respond with type of an empathic response, they are developing feelings of trust and security with their caregivers; thus, their social and emotional development is positively impacted.

Social and emotional development is firmly tied to every other area of growth and development – physical growth and health, communication and language development, and cognitive skills, as well as early interactions and relationships.  Social and emotional development lays the foundation for how a child sees himself and how he reacts and responds to the world around him for the rest of his life (ZERO-TO-THREE, 2005).  For an infant to develop strong social and emotional health, he needs to receive consistent and nurturing care, emotional nurturance, protection, and adequate stimulation.

Dr. Peggy C. Maclean and her colleagues at the University of New Mexico found that infants who have higher emotional reactivity and who have difficulty regulating their distress are at an increased risk of developing behavioral problems and other difficulties later in life (Maclean et al. 2009).  This study highlights the importance of parents supporting their child emotionally by responding empathically to the baby’s cues, especially the stress cues.

The Growing Great Kids Curriculum provides conversation guides that help support “Recognition and Responsiveness To Cues” learning for parents very early.  The 2015 Prenatal manual includes Unit 2-Module 6: Infant States…How and When to Play with Newborns that helps parents start to think about cues even before the baby is born. The Birth to 12 month manual has an entire Cues & Communication module on how babies communicate and how they feel when they are over-stimulated. The 0-3 Months: Cues and Communication module incorporates a subsection called Beware of Too Much Stimulation. During this conversation guide, the home visitor first explores how parents feel when they experience over-stimulation themselves. Secondly, parents get to practice observing how their baby communicates feelings of over-stimulation.  They do this by practicing the Getting Rattled Demo. Additionally, this conversation guide is designed to expand on parents’ thinking about particular situations they have found that might be over-stimulating their baby. When parents understand how distressed and overwhelmed babies feel when over-stimulated, they learn to respond in more empathic ways to their babies. We know that when babies’ receive consistent nurturing and empathic responses from their parents/caregivers they feel secure, respected, and understood. Ultimately this leads to learning to trust others.

In addition to conversation guides, the Growing Great Kids provides a number of parent handouts and child development activities designed to promote positive parenting practices that will, in turn, support their child’s healthy social and emotional development. Just to name a few….

  • Figuring Out Your Baby’s State of Wakefulness or Sleepiness: Prenatal Unit 2 Handout. This handout helps parents begin to recognize these states so they know how to better respond to their child.
  • The Cues and Signals of Young Infants: 0-8 Months Handout. This handout provides a listing of cues and signals broken down into two categories: Engagement – “I like this… I need this… give me more” and Disengagement – “I don’t like this…this is too much for me…I need a break”.
  • Baby Charades Activity. This activity allows parents to practice observing babies’ engagement and disengagement cues and signals (facial expressions, body movements, sounds, eye contact, and skin color).
  • Ignore Me and I Feel Stressed. This demo underscores how much stress babies experience when their needs are not responded to and points out that children need predictability to form secure attachment relationships and good mental health
  • Cueing Jeopardy. This activity supports parents’ skills for recognizing both subtle (not very strong or obvious) and potent (strong and clear) cues.

The GGK Character Builders Daily Do , a set of parenting skills intended to support social and emotional development, is another essential tool provided by the GGK curriculum.  The Character Builders Daily Do includes three stages of social and emotional development.  The first state occurs during the first 8 months after birth, and it’s mainly concern with helping infants to learn to trust. Parents are encouraged to practice the Character Builders Daily Do many times every day by incorporating parenting practices to help babies feel safe and valued.  During this stage, parents are supported to increase awareness of over-stimulation and provide downtime and predictable environments.

Of course, don’t forget the E-Parenting Daily Do. This parenting skill set is all about responding to a baby’s cues in a nurturing and empathic manner. The Getting in Sync and Ready for Play Action Tools are also very important in supporting parents to practice reading cues.

Remember that learning to read a baby’s cues and signals takes time, effort, reflection, and practice in order to understand what she is experiencing.  Help your families grow these parental skills by using the GGK curriculum tools to create joyful experiences as they work to find the right balance between quiet and active times.


ZERO-TO-THREE (2005). Helping Young Children Succeed: Strategies to Promote Early Childhood Social and Emotional Development. National Conference of State Legislature. Retrieved from

Maclean, P. C., Erickson, S. J., & Lowe, J. R. (2009). Comparing emotional reactivity and regulation in infants born ELGA and VLGA. Infant Behavior & Development32(3), 336–339.

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