Parent sensory overload: Causes and how to take the edge off

Key takeaways

  • Each of us are different with a specific sensory makeup and neurological threshold for different sensory experiences. Mental overload, lack of sleep, and stress can increase our sensitivity to sensory triggers.
  • When our sensory systems are constantly working it’s common to experience sensory overload. These symptoms can include things like an overall sense of discomfort, feelings of overwhelm, agitation, and frustration, and an inability to focus.
  • Causes for overstimulation can include factors such as feeling overtouched, strong smells, lack of self-care, watching a constantly messy house unfold before your eyes, constant movement, etc.
  • There are tips for overstimulated moms and dads out there, and even advice on how to stop sensory overload in its tracks before it even happens. Things like making time for yourself, putting down your phone more often, and using noise-reducing earplugs.

There’s no getting around it – parenting life is hectic.

Amidst the hilarious moments, the tender times, and the sleepy cuddles there is a crazy sort of chaos that comes with the territory.

Sibling arguments. Blaring TV. Doorbell ringing. Phone beeping. With the odd raging temper tantrum thrown in for good measure (all because of the really rational reason that they can’t have a pet lion or that they didn’t want their milk to be white). And it’s not even 11am.

Oh, the wonderful life of parenting. There’s no doubt it’s beautiful and rewarding – there’s nothing like watching your little human growing up. But that doesn’t mean the journey isn't thwarted with tantrums, timeouts, and tears (and that’s just your own). The thing is, as a parent you’re multitasking from day one, as soon as your little one arrives into the world. It’s like having 50 tabs open at once that you’re desperately trying to go back and forth between, without forgetting anything.  

And where your senses are concerned, come the 5pm witching hour, it can often feel like a full-blown assault. You may find yourself snapping at your kids or partner. And chances are, you’re not even angry, you’re just overstimulated.

The truth is, parents everywhere are being overwhelmed with sensory stimuli, and their ability to process and cope with it is having trouble keeping up.

In this blog post we’re going to delve into what it means to be an overstimulated parent, what causes it, and look at the
ways in which we can cope better and understand our triggers. First up, sensory overload.

What is sensory overload?

Your senses are busy working behind the scenes all the time. Overstimulation happens when one or more of them are taking in too much information for our brains to process. Which is when you become at risk of sensory overload.

When you’re in sensory overload your brain isn’t using its higher centers of reasoning and emotional regulation. It’s very focused on keeping you safe. So then your body releases stress hormones and the
blood flow into your brain moves to the primitive or lower centers. Sensory overload isn’t necessarily a new thing to parents. It can happen at any point during our lives.

But maybe before parenthood, sensory overload was easier to manage. You had more “you” time, more sleep, and more overall peace and quiet - all the things that work wonders in life to reset the tension.

 It’s safe to say that parenthood doesn’t always bring the same sense of peace to the table. As a parent with sensory stimulation constantly overloading your nervous system, it’s common to go into a constant
state of fight-or-flight response mode. And being exposed to this all day, every day can make people feel desolate and angry, and eventually lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.

Symptoms of sensory overload

The way sensory overload can present itself varies from parent to parent. For example, one person may be more sensitive to sound, while others may find certain textures unbearable.

Common symptoms include:

  • An overall sense of discomfort
  • Feelings of overwhelm, agitation, and frustrationInability to focus
  • Unable to ignore sounds, smells, or other sensory input
  • Anxiety, or even fear
  • Restlessness
  • Extreme sensitivity to certain textures
  • Stress
  • Insomnia

What causes overstimulation in parents?

Where our bodies are concerned, everyone has different capacities for enduring things at a certain level before they’ve had enough. Think about different reactions to sun exposure or the amount people
eat before they feel full.

The same goes for sensory processing – each of us has our own way of taking in sensory information.

Some things make sensory processing more of a challenge, and they’re things that go hand in hand with parenting. Like: sleep deprivation, ageing, and a stressful mental load. Sounding familiar?

Here are some of the common causes of overstimulation:

Parent sensory overload Parent sensory overload

You’re over-touched

Ever heard the term “touched-out?” Any parent of young children will know the deal: not a single hour ever passes by when you’re not picking up something… being cuddled… rocking someone to sleep… getting your feet trodden on… elbowed in the ribs. The list is endless.

Sometimes you just want a period of time when no one touches you. Not your child, your partner, the cats. Not a single soul.

In fact, in those moments, it can feel like you’re completely saturated by physical touch, and the thought of another being needing you is too much to bear. At its worst, it can lead to feelings of overwhelm, panic, and even anger.

Earplugs for Parents

You’re on-call 24/7

The term ‘sleeping with one eye open’ has never been more apt than for parenting.

From the moment your child is born, you are their person. And especially when they’re babies, you are on-call 24/7. There’s no calling in sick, or hour-long lunch breaks. You are in it and it’s full-on.

The causes of parent sensory overload The causes of parent sensory overload

Auditory overstimulation

There’s also the washing machine on its 10th cycle that day. Singing toys. Microwave beeping. Not to mention the iPad in use that’s giving you five minutes’ ‘peace’.

The sound of babies crying is also a major cause of stress, overwhelm, and sensory overload. Check out our post about how to deal with a crying baby.

Noise is a constant when you’re parenting, so it’s no wonder it’s one of the major culprits of sensory overload that parents report.

Physical demands

There’s a lot of bending down and picking up involved with young children. Not to mention the rocking and swaying of young babies. And this is all when you’re attempting to function after a run of sleepless nights.

All the bending is activating your vestibular system around the clock.

It can feel completely overwhelming, especially when you couple it with everything else your senses are going through.

Kids and their activities… well… they don’t always smell great

Fact: Children bring a wide variety of smells with them. And it can often feel like a barrage on our senses, especially if you’re sensitive to smells at the best of times. There’s their food and constant snacks. There are countless diaper changes. Not to mention the baby lotion, powder, and medicines.

Our earplugs

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Watching the mess unfold

Endless mess is stressful for any parent, but when you’re watching the laundry pile up, toys mount on the floor and the never-ending cycle of dirty dishes, it can be hugely overwhelming.

Your physical needs aren’t being met

The way you’re feeling physically inside the body can contribute to overstimulation as a parent. Maybe you’re tired or maybe you’re not doing the best job at feeding yourself. It’s also common for new parents to experience anemia, an underlying condition where you’re not getting enough iron in your blood.

If you’re struggling with all these feelings physically, your senses are more likely to struggle from other stimuli, making you more susceptible to overload.

Your “inner critic” could raise its ugly head

“I’m not a good parent” “I snap at my children too much” “Other parents aren’t like this.”

It’s time to stop. It’s nothing you’re doing wrong, it’s a completely normal part of the journey. Take a step back to gain some perspective. When you’re already feeling anxious and wracked with self-doubt, your brain is more likely to go into overtime, bringing on more feelings of overstimulation.

No time for self-care

REMEMBER: If you are experiencing feelings of sadness, depression, or loneliness make sure you reach out and speak to someone. It’s easy for parents to become overstimulated. You’re not alone. New parents need and deserve support.

Constant movement

When kids are buzzing around you there’s a lot of movement. Playing, running, jumping, skipping, falling over etc. It can leave the best of us with our nerves completely shot when all you’re desperately seeking is some peace and quiet.

With all of these things in mind, it's important to remember that noisy and boisterous is exactly how children are meant to be. They’re needy and noisy, always wanting to play or cuddle. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take its toll. It’s about recognising our sensory triggers so we’re able to fully enjoy the experience of our children growing up into the awesome human beings they are.

Overstimulation in Parents Overstimulation in Parents

Ways to cope with overstimulation

Yes, it’s all part of parenting, but it’s important to also make sure that you’re protecting your brain and fully able to enjoy your children as best you can.

Here’s how you can deal with overstimulation as a parent:

  1. Hold back on the scheduling Life is busy, especially when you put kids into the mix. But when you start overpacking your schedule it can lead to stress. To try and minimize the stimulation, try and spread out activities as best you can, or eliminate them altogether if possible. It creates space for you to recharge, regulate your feelings, and give your sensory system a break. You can only do so much.
  2. Accept multitasking isn’t always achievable You may pride yourself on your amazing multitasking abilities. And why shouldn’t you? But the problem is that when we multitask our attention is divided, which means in turn that our sensory processing is divided too. This leaves an almost impossibly small window for anything else to get a look in (namely, your kids). So when you’re cooking dinner, answering an email, and having a conversation with your partner, remember to try and leave a bit of room for sensory interruptions or unexpected help requests. It will help limit your feelings of overwhelm from sensory overload.
  3. Schedule in Quiet Time Let everyone know that you are taking time for yourself. And then do it. Even if it’s just time out in your bedroom upstairs (complete with ‘do not disturb’ sign and all, if it works!). Maybe introduce quiet time for when you return home from an activity outdoors. That way, everyone will get into the routine and know where they stand. You know that you’ll get that all-important time to recharge, instead of getting to the point where overwhelm sets in and you snap and start to feel guilty.
  4. Let technology do its thing Most parents will agree: The iPad has saved them dealing with many meltdowns. It can be a very effective tool for distracting your children and giving you the breathing space that you need. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to put your kids in front of a screen for hours, but by allowing them iPad time, it means you get some much-needed time to recharge. Then you can come back more refreshed and ready to push through the sensory overload and overwhelm without the risk of snapping. The key is finding a balance and discovering ways that you can give yourself a break and recognising your own wellness as a priority, too.
  5. Use noise-canceling earplugs for parenting When you consider that the sound of a baby crying can reach 120 dB (close to the noise intensity of a departing plane), it’s no surprise that sensory overwhelm is always looming. Noise-reducing earplugs can really help to deal with sensory overload as a parent. Earplugs such as Loop Engage and Loop Engage Plus. These modern earplugs are especially designed to limit the volume of parenting, while making sure that you don’t miss a beat. Loop Engage are earplugs that take the edge off parenting life by reducing noise levels by up to 16 decibels. With a patented acoustic channel and a newly engineered filter, they’re 100% safe to wear while looking
    after children. You’ll still be able to hear everything, just with a bit more calm. They’re also ultra-comfortable and flexible, and fit into all types of ears. If you’re looking for a higher level of noise reduction, Loop Engage Plus sound like the earplugs for you. They’re perfect for reducing the noise while still hearing everything crystal-clear, allowing you to focus on remaining present and calm.
  6. Practice self-care It’s not just a buzzword. It’s massively important to our wellbeing. As parents, we can almost find ourselves feeling guilty for taking the time. But it’s a major priority to ensure you care for yourself to pre-empt feelings of stress, overstimulation and burn out – you’ll feel more refreshed and less near breaking point.
  7. Put down the phone Tech can be a massive crutch when you’re parenting, especially for helping to combat feelings of isolation and helping you feel more connected to the outside world. The problem is, it can also be damaging and has links to sensory overload. When we are always on
    our phones, our focus is intense so any distraction instantly becomes an interruption. You may not be aware of it, but it’s a leading cause of sensory overload in mothers and fathers everywhere. By limiting phone usage, you can also limit the amount of overstimulation you’re experiencing. 
  8. Say what you need Talk to your family about overstimulation. If your kids are the right age, it not only teaches them empathy, but is also a good lesson about why they should value their own wellbeing too.
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