Traveling with Baby: The Danger of Overstimulation

Babies are input sponges. They see or experience something new and there’s no stopping them from observing whatever it is to the fullest. It’s utterly refreshing to watch my daughter witness the world with wide-eyed fascination. But babies also don’t know when to shut off their receptors when they’ve reached maximum capacity. They need their parents to help them unplug from their environment.

A Quiet Spot
As adults, we know when we’ve reached our limits on a project and just have to step away, even if we don’t have another task to do at the moment. We fix a snack, get a cup of water, take a stroll through the office or block, or just sit back and close our eyes for a moment. Babies don’t have that instinct. And when you’re traveling, everywhere happens to feel like a public place.

It’s up to us parents to create a quiet spot no matter where we go, even if it’s the nearest bathroom. Leave the toys and other distractions with the other parent, someone you can trust or, if you have to, bring them with you but keep it out of sight. The baby might see her toys in a new environment and try to distract herself again. While that might work, a baby who’s overstimulated just needs to completely empty her head. Remember: overstimulation is a time when the baby will have nothing of her food or toys or even simple games anymore. The little tricks that used to make her laugh may not work. Enough quiet time with you may be the only solution.

And sometimes the mere aspect of being somewhere completely new is enough to push normally calm and social babies into overstimulation. It can be really scary to not have something familiar or concrete to comprehend, if not just plain shocking. I think of it like how Arthur Dent felt when he woke up in the Vogon ship with Ford Prefect in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“[Arthur] wished there was something simple and recognizable he could grasp hold of. He would have felt safe if alongside the Dentrassis’ underwear, the piles of Sqornshellous mattresses and the man from Betelgeuse holding up a small yellow fish and offering to put it in his ear he had been able to see just a small packet of cornflakes. But he couldn’t, and he didn’t feel safe.”

You get the idea. Now imagine all of that as a baby who can’t so much as properly communicate your flood of emotions (which are all raw and unfiltered, by the way), let alone walk away from it all to decompress. At such a time, distractions like a well-loved toy may help but, most likely, all she wants is you– the person she trusts and know won’t let her down.

Establishing “Home”
I’ve gone over the possible solutions for calming down baby when she hits her enrage in public before. But what do you do when you’re hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from where you and baby usually call home?

Last week, I emphasized the necessity of creating a home-away-from-home to help baby sleep at night and during naps. The same goes for helping your baby get away from “everything else” on vacation. This is probably your ultimate quiet spot. Your baby can crawl about and act like she would at home, which is a relief in and of itself. Moreover, since the baby will recognize this “home” for sleeping and rest, she’ll naturally calm down and readily embrace its effects. For all you know, she might fall asleep and be right as rain in an hour or two.

Speaking of sleep, I neglected to mention that with overstimulation can come the danger of your baby becoming over tired. On our trip to California, we thought all of the traveling and new sights would tire our daughter out and she’d end up sleeping for the next fifteen hours despite the time changes. Boy, were we wrong! It turns out that she was too tired and couldn’t sleep well. She woke up around 5am local time and fussed till we brought her to our bed for another couple of hours of rest.

Some experts speculate that overtiredness and overstimulation disrupts sleep because babies feel like there’s too much of a party going on and they don’t want to miss a single moment! Many adults (like me) feel like if they’ve done or seen too many things at a time, they’re wiped out and often sleep quite soundly from sheer exhaustion. That exhaustion in babies, however, translates into frustration. They’re frustrated because they can’t participate in whatever activities are still going on; and they’re frustrated due to their tiredness– all of the additional input is bothering them and all they want is some peace and quiet to sleep! On top of all that is the frustration of having both of these rather opposite desires.

Whew, life as a baby is rough! That’s what they have us parents for, after all: to help them make sense of their experiences and the world.


About Toriah the Mom

Mom, quasi-librarian, gamer, writer
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