Look at the pictures below of this 2 week old infant. Write down what you see that might signal signs of sensory overload. What are some strategies and tips for calming an infant who shows signs of being overloaded?

baby with hand out of swaddle
crying infant
infant with pacifier

Expert’s Response:

Signs of sensory overload are the following:

  • Movement: The infant tends to show jerky movements of his arms and legs or thrusts his tongue. The infant also is likely to turn his head away, arch the back, squirm, and push himself away when being held.
  • Facial expression: Observe the facial expressions of the infant. Frowning, grunting, yawning, and grimacing are all signs of sensory overload. Other signs include sneezing, gagging, spitting up, and hiccups.
  • Arousal/alertness level: An infant who falls asleep suddenly when the environment around her is noisy may be shutting down due to sensory overload. If the infant is quiet and calm but suddenly begins crying a lot, it could also be a sign of sensory overload.
  • Vital signs: A fast heartbeat, breathing irregularly, sweating, and a color change, especially in the face (from pale, flush, or blue), are signs of sensory over load.
  • Infant’s response: Observe the infant when you try to calm him. Dim the lights, turn off any loud noises, talk in a calm voice, remove any noisy and brightly colored toys, and rock and swaddle the infant.
  • Rule out any other reasons for distress. Make sure the infant is fed, has a clean diaper, burped after eating, and has slept.

Strategies an ECMH consultant can suggest to calm the infant down:

  • Respond to the infant’s needs by learning to read his signals. This reinforces his trust in you, which contributes to bonding and attachment.
  • Look around the room and determine if the environment is too overwhelming. Decrease all the factors that might overload the infant by dimming the lights, turning on some quiet music, and rocking the infant with steady movements.
  • Analyze your interaction style with the baby. Be aware of the following factors: Do you bounce him too much? Do you talk too loudly? Do you stay in public places during his nap time where there are loud noises?
  • The parent can attend all of the infant’s baby checkups in order to rule out any medical or developmental problems.
  • If breathing patterns and heartbeat are irregular on a regular basis, share this with the infant’s physician.
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This product was developed [in part] under grant number 1H79SM082070-01 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or HHS.