Loud toys, incessant snack demands, and the constant cry of “Mommy mommy mommy”…these things sound familiar? As you navigate the early days of toddlerhood (and, let’s be honest, the rest of childhood), it’s not uncommon to feel like an overstimulated mom.
There’s no denying we love our children, but their continual demands, sounds, and touches can lead to a flood of sensory input that can make you feel borderline delirious with desire for alone time.
As someone who struggles with high sensitivity, my children’s unlimited access to me can end up causing stress, irritability, frustration, exhaustion, and even anxiety.
But what are we supposed to do about it?
It’s not like you can eliminate all sensory stimuli. I mean, the dishwasher will still have to run, the hum of the AC is inevitable, and our children’s big emotions are here to stay.
Luckily, you can take steps to make a big difference in how you process these things. That way, you can hopefully avoid an unpleasant case of mom rage that nobody really wants to deal with–yourself included!
If you’re looking for ways to cope with overstimulation as a parent, stick around. We’ve listed 14 helpful ways to take care of your over-engaged senses.
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What is Sensory Overload?
So, you think you might be an overstimulated mom, but what does that even mean? While many of us will throw around buzzwords like overstimulation, we sometimes need to think about what they actually mean.
According to the Queensland Health Organization, sensory overload happens when our five senses take in information faster than our brains can process. Instead of “dealing” with this flood of stimuli, our minds go into the same flight, fight, or freeze mode they would in a life-threatening situation.
Think about your parenting experience. Can you remember moments that felt similar to this?
I know I can.
I remember days when all I wanted to do was get up and leave the house because I couldn’t handle anything else.
Sometimes I overreacted and yelled because there was just so much simultaneous noise and constant touching from my children.
I’ve even experienced moments of freezing up because of over-engaged senses: times when it felt like there were suddenly no thoughts in my brain, and I couldn’t figure out what to do next.
Flight, fight, freeze.
Our brains scramble to keep up with everything we’re experiencing. Suddenly, our normal instincts are replaced with “recovery urges” to stop the stimulation.
This might sound scary, but rest assured; it’s nothing unusual. No matter how much we mamas try to keep it together for our kids and portray ourselves as doing “fine,” we all have breakdown moments at some point or another.
Common Triggers of Overstimulation in Parents
Aside from locking yourself in a room away from the noise and mess of parenthood, there’s no real way to avoid the sensory stimuli that can bother many highly sensitive moms.
Before you can start dealing with your inevitable sensory overload, it’s crucial to understand the types of things triggering you in the first place. Some common triggers include:
1. Noise Triggers that Cause Overstimulation in Parents
Think about the number of sounds you hear in your home during any given day–toys, vacuums, television, music, baby cries, conversations, clothes dryers, screen door opening, and so much more.
When you’re an overstimulated mom, there’s no separating these noises. It can feel like they hit you all at once, leaving you flustered and overwhelmed.
2. Feeling “Touched Out”
Before becoming a parent, I talked with a friend who told me she felt “touched out.” I tried to nod sympathetically, but the whole thing sounded ridiculous–what kind of person gets stressed out from being touched “too much?”
Boy, oh boy, how wrong I was.
From waking up to bedtime, most children demand physical touch. From cuddles to breastfeeding, it can sometimes feel like there’s another person constantly clinging to you, climbing on you, or wanting to be close to you.
Then, there’s your partner.
There are kisses, hugs, sex, and cuddles crucial to every relationship. The struggle is, however, that when you’ve spent your day being pulled at by tiny humans, being touched at the end of the day can nearly make your skin crawl.
3. Visual Triggers that Drive Overstimulated Mamas Crazy
Whether it’s spilled milk, crayons on the walls, or an abundance of toys that never seem to be put away, sitting in a messy house can add to the sensory stimuli you’re already experiencing.
Everywhere you turn, a constant pop-up message interrupts your thoughts and plans to remind you there’s something else you need to do.
Signs of an Overstimulated Mom
So, how do you know if you’re experiencing sensory overload or just having an “off day?”
Here’s the thing about overstimulation–it looks different for everyone since we all respond to stress differently. That said, the sensory overload symptoms below are common among parents who are dealing with this situation:
- Physical Discomfort
- Sudden Mood Swings
- Strong Desires to Leave a Situation
- Fear and Panic
- Inability to Relax
Does This Only Happen if You’re a Highly Sensitive Person?
You might think that sensitive parents are the only ones who deal with overstimulation. On the contrary, it can (and does!) happen to anyone.
Some experts, like Dr. Linnea Passaler, say that sensitive individuals might face sensory overload “more often and at a greater intensity.” So if you’re already a highly sensitive person, you’re more likely to experience sensory overload.
13 Tips for Coping with Parenting Stress and Overstimulation
Conversations about your needs and reasoning don’t work when dealing with small babies and toddlers. Because of that, it might seem like there’s no way to prevent or avoid the sensory stimuli stressing you out.
However, there ARE steps we can take to improve our reactions and reduce the cases of mom rage we experience.
1. Recognize Your Sensory Overload Warning Signs (AKA “Triggers”)
The next time you start to feel overstimulation setting in, pay close attention to the warning signs at the beginning that tell you something is getting ready to start. Often, these have to do with the triggers we mentioned earlier (loud noises, mess, feeling touched out).
If you know your triggers, you’re much more likely to be able to recognize why you’re feeling the way you do. Then, you can take steps to regulate your nervous system to better control your reaction in the beginning instead of letting things build up until you enter the flight, fight, and freeze phases of sensory overload.
Some ways you can regulate your nervous system after you’ve been triggered include:
- Breathing exercises
- Light exercise (this can be as easy as taking a walk around the block while your partner watches the kids)
- Take a quick tea break
- Remove yourself from the situation momentarily by doing any or all of the above
2. Avoid Burnout by Taking Breaks
A break doesn’t have to mean a week-long vacation in the tropics. Taking a break can be as simple as carving out a few minutes here and there to catch your breath and step away from the chaos.
I’ll never forget one day when my daughter was exceptionally fussy. I’d rocked, nursed, bounced, and shushed for hours on end, but nothing was helping my colicky little one. As bad as I felt for her, the non-stop screams and cries started getting to me.
Instead of waiting to overreact, I took a break.
I placed her in a bouncer where I knew she was safe and stepped into the next room for a few minutes. It wasn’t much, but having those few moments to breathe and escape the loud noise was all it took to help level out my mood.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Screen Time
I know, I know… screens are horrible, electronic babysitters that are rotting our children’s brains (please tell me you caught my sarcastic tone there).
While I don’t recommend planting your little one in front of the tv and letting the bright lights of a screen comfort them for hours on end, giving yourself a break by putting on a show or game is okay.
If you notice your “mom overstimulation signs,” bust out a tablet and let it entertain them for a bit. While they’re preoccupied, fix yourself a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy some solitude.
4. Work On Not Overscheduling Yourself
You know that phrase, “Practice what you preach?” Well, that’s me with this tip.
Mamas are often guilty of loading our schedules with so many activities and events that we get stretched too thin and feel overwhelmed. From soccer practice to play dates, our children’s social lives are busier than ours.
If the schedule feels too full, don’t be afraid to make some cuts. I know your child probably wants to do EVERYTHING, but it’s important to take a hard look at how these overscheduled activities affect your life as a family.
Trust me; your kid would probably rather have one less trip to the park than a mom struggling with hardcore parenting anxiety.
5. Practice Stress Management Techniques
Self-care for moms, whether you’re experiencing sensory overload or not, is essential.
Adding stress management techniques to your daily routine can improve your reactions when things get overwhelming.
These techniques can be simple, too. Take a bubble bath, ask for a foot massage, or spend some time writing in your journal–small activities like these are game changers.
Pro-tip: schedule this time into your family calendar. If you can put 30 minutes to one hour for yourself on a shared family calendar, this adds gravitas to the practice.
It shows your partner that they need to show up for you during that time, and it helps YOU prioritize it because you’ve scheduled it!
6. Put Down Your Phone
Listen, I’m guilty of using my phone to dissociate from whatever mess my kids are making just as much as the next mom. But I find that if I “check out” or dissociate by looking at my phone, it can often make me even more anxious or “touched out.”
When I reach for my phone, I think about my email, my work calendar, when the cat will run out of food…the list goes on. In order to calm and center yourself, step away from that overwhelm, too.
You can even set a 30-minute timer on your phone, and when it goes off, you can pick it up again. Small breaks help, too!
7. Talk to Your Partner
Relying on your partner is crucial when you start feeling like an overstimulated mom. Not only can you tag team them with chores and tasks, but you can also use them as a sounding board when your mental load becomes too much.
Talking things out comes with great benefits, such as:
- Your partner can help you come up with alternative solutions
- Conversations can decrease the amount of stress you feel because you feel heard
- Talking about issues can make you feel lighter and reduce the power of your problem
- You’ll receive a different perspective on the situation that can be beneficial
8. Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Sleep
Did you know that not getting enough sleep can increase the negative ways we respond to stressful situations? If you’re tired, there’s a higher chance various sensory stimuli will affect you.
9. Spend Some Time Outside
Studies show that going outside is an excellent way to decrease stress levels and muscle tension. If the noise and chaos inside your house are getting the best of you, taking a break to get some fresh air will provide the much-needed change of scenery you deserve.
10. Create Routines to Simplify Decision Making
In our house, one thing that stresses me out is the little decisions we have to make. Arguments about clothes for school, breakfast, homework, and more are surefire ways to raise my stress levels.
Slowly but surely, I’m learning to create better routines for ourselves. Instead of fighting about clothes in the morning, for instance, we pick them out the night before.
Rather than trying to throw something together for dinner at the last minute, I meal plan on Mondays and create a menu for the rest of the week.
Streamlining your routine will allow less space for arguments and frustration throughout the day and will lead you AWAY from decision paralysis.
11. Wake Up a Little Earlier
Do you ever feel like there need to be more hours in the day to get everything on your to-do list done?
I know I do!
When I start feeling like this, it usually worsens my overstimulation. When there is so much noise, I tend to begin spiraling about all the things I cannot do. One solution is getting up a little earlier in the morning.
While getting enough sleep is crucial, waking up 20-30 minutes earlier can make a big difference in your day. This gives you time to quietly enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, sneak in a workout, or even finish a chore or two. Alone time is super important when you’re about to face a day of feeling touched out.
12. Prioritize Quiet Time
Our girls are five and seven, and while many kids around these ages aren’t taking naps anymore (ours included), there’s no rule stating you can’t enforce an hour of quiet time.
Have your little ones play quietly in their rooms for a set period each day. This way, you get a much-needed break from the hustle and bustle of parenting and can focus on your wants and needs for a moment.
13. Ask for Help
Last but certainly not least, if you feel like an overstimulated mom or parent, please don’t hesitate to ask for help. Whether from your partner, a friend, a grandparent, or even a babysitter, bring in another person to assist when things get challenging and you’re feeling stressed.
It’s easy to let pride get the best of us and worry about what other judging moms think if we call reinforcements.
Who cares, though?
It’s crucial to do what’s best for you and your family.
When you’re in a sensory overload situation, pulling yourself back out of it alone is hard. Letting other people help gives you the relief you need to overcome tough moments.
Do you know what it feels like to be an overstimulated mom? How do you cope?
Mental Health for Parents Link-Roundup
Would you like to read some more about mental health and parenting? Give the articles below a read:
- Dealing with Anxiety as a Mom
- Focusing on What You Can Control
- Emotions After Giving Birth
- Reclaiming the Word “Crazy”
- Rediscovering Yourself After Motherhood
Kristen Bergeron is a freelance writer from Florida. In addition to writing, she is a wife, mother of two beautiful girls, Hadley and Scarlett, and a part-time photographer. After overcoming infertility and having two successful IVF cycles, she’s made it a personal goal to help educate men and women on the realities of fertility struggles. She is passionate about supporting fellow women who are trying to navigate the complicated world of conception, pregnancy, and learning to be the best mothers we can be.