The dangers of overstimulation

Why rushing from one playdate to the next and planning endless activities for your little one might not be in her best interests. By Tammy Jacks

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Although there’s a place for stimulating activities and social events, downtime – when your little one can rest and play on her own – has merit and will go a long way in creating a contented child, believes childcare expert and author of Toddler Sense, Sister Ann Richardson.

ALSO SEE: 10 ways to a content baby

The dangers of overstimulation

“The current emphasis on a baby’s need for stimulation, along with the boom in group activities for toddlers and preschoolers, has pushed children’s social development forward by about a year. That single year is a quarter of a four-year-old’s lifetime and, sadly, some children just can’t cope,” says child psychologist Penelope Leach.

ALSO SEE: Are all those extramural activities really necessary?

While you might think it will be fun to take your child from her swimming lesson to a playdate and then to a pizza place for an early dinner, she might show you that it’s not OK through behavioural issues like tantrums, endless crying episodes, irritability or sleep problems that translate to: “Help! I’m only just managing.”

The truth is, your child’s sensory system can become overloaded quickly, explains Ann. It also depends on her individual personality and how her nervous system interprets external input from the environment, such as loud noises, strong smells or a room full of people.

Your child’s personality plays a large role in how she handles the world around her, too. For example, if she’s shy and reserved, she might prefer quieter activities and need less interaction with others, compared to another child who might crave attention and affection from others. However, even if you have a busy child who likes to be entertained, it’s still important to regulate whatever she’s exposed to and help her deal with it daily, says Ann.
Child education expert and university lecturer Simone Tonkin agrees: “When parents overschedule their children, it can backfire in a number of unexpected ways.”

For instance, a baby or toddler who never has the chance to play on her own might lack initiative later as everything is always planned for her, Simone explains. “She also learns that her identity and purpose lies in activities and performance – this can have a negative effect on her self-image, as she may not succeed in all tasks down the line. Relationships with parents and siblings can also be affected, as a busy lifestyle limits bonding time in a relaxed environment.”

ALSO SEE: The importance of creative play and how it benefits your child’s development

Signs of overstimulation:

  • Constantly sucks her hands and fingers
  • Has decreased eye contact with you
  • Obsessively puts objects in her mouth (such as sucking on a toy)
  • Picks her nose and fidgets
  • Seeks tactile input, like wanting to be picked up
  • Has a whiny tone to her voice
  • Wants to lie down.

Top 6 tips to avoid overstimulation

  • Respect your child’s sleep times. Avoid outings at her nap times or late in the evening. Sleep and rest are critical for brain development, and studies show that napping on the go, in a car seat or in a pram, is not as restorative asa longer nap in a bed or cot.
  • Limit extramural activities. A young child doesn’t need more than two structured activities a week if she is attending a playgroup or preschool, says Simone.
  • Plan physical activities for later in the day. This not only sets your child up for a good night’s sleep, but afternoon activities should be things your little one might not do at crèche or school, like swimming or ballet.
  • Playdates are excellent, but keep them simple. Avoid having too many children over at one time and keep the activity to no more than two hours for a two-year-old and even less for babies.

ALSO SEE: Your guide to a successful playdate

  • Don’t be tempted to fill up all your child’s time. “Unfortunately, many parents find it challenging to ‘occupy’ their children in the afternoons, so they overschedule activities,” says Simone. “But the truth is, you don’t need to plan too much structured play for your child to thrive. We have a wonderful climate in South Africa that allows for plenty of outdoor play. Gardens offer a variety of games and activities, not to mention wonderful opportunities for children to be creative.”
  • Remember less is more. If your child is about three years old, don’t put out more than two to four toys or activities at once and leave her to choose and play, monitoring and checking on her, but not always being her playmate. Activities and toys could include playdough, blocks and balls, says Simone.
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