Coping with sensory overload

Written by Dr Caroline Boyd, perinatal clinical psychologist.
As parents we can quickly feel over-stimulated. Throughout the day, we’re managing competing sensory demands – breast or bottle feeding our baby, children hanging off us, jumping off sofas, as well as constant NOISE, from shouts of glee to crying and low-level whinging. Combine sensory overload with exhaustion, physical depletion and a felt lack of control over this sensory input and you have a recipe for total overwhelm.

Sensory demands for mums postpartum include:

Baby tapping you to get your attention – this light touch activates your tactile system, alerting it to potential danger.

The sound of the washing machine combined with baby’s cries or children’s shouts overloading your auditory system.

Feeling hypervigilant to keep your baby safe – dialling up your threat system.

Not having time to eat proper meals - hunger contributing to feeling overwhelmed.

When we feel overstimulated by all the noise, light touch and little people demands, our body and brain moves into ‘threat’ mode. We shallow breathe, our heart races and head aches. We clench our jaw, feel stiff and tightness in our neck, shoulders and chest. We may also zone out & struggle to focus attention. In these moments feelings of anger and overwhelm may accompany thoughts such as:






Sensory processing regulation in the moment is so important.

Tips for managing sensory overload:

Acknowledge how you’re feeling and name it: “I’m feeling overloaded right now.” 

Remind yourself that you’re safe with a soothing affirmation: “This will pass.”

Take 5 minutes out to deep breathe – with intentional, elongated exhales.

Lengthening the out breath AUTOMATICALLY activates our rest and digest system (our body can’t help but relax). If you struggle to find your breath, place your hands on the lower part of your ribcage. Apply a small amount of pressure. Breathe in - as your hands ’tell' your ribcage what to do. Applying pressure on your ribcage helps you exhale AND gives you calming proprioceptive input.

Redirect your attention to your feet. Becoming aware of the soles of your feet connected to the earth is grounding. This simple act will help you feel calmer and more centred.

Place one or two drops of a calming essential oil on a cotton wool ball or handkerchief and inhale the scent to restore a sense of calm. Lavender, patchouli or rose geranium are all recommended for bringing stillness & balance.

When feeling touched out:

Ask your partner for a deep pressure hug (this is calming as opposed to light touch).

Lean firmly against a wall.

Lie under a weighted blanket.

To manage auditory overwhelm:

Turn off low-frequency, background noises (TV, washing machine, dishwasher).

Use noise-cancelling headphones or ear plugs.
When I was asked to write my newly launched book: Mindful New Mum, I knew I wanted to make it as helpful as possible for a new mum. I’ve read lots of the parenting books & research so mothers don’t have to – my aim is to share ideas accessibly in a way I hope reassures & anchors new mums. I wrote Mindful New Mum as an antidote to all the parenting manuals prescribing a “right” way to mother. I offer holistic care with a focus on mindful compassion, evidence-based psychology ideas, meditations, visualisations plus nutritional advice, natural remedies, baby massage & yoga. Birthing this baby was a real labour of love – bringing together all my ideas & experience from my clinical practice, published research and my own experience as a parent.

I really hope my book helps mums understand:

Significant brain, body, and identity shifts during this transformation known as “matrescence”.

The intense, emotional rollercoaster of this first year, explaining why experiencing feelings such as anger & anxiety doesn’t make you a “bad” mother.

Why it’s important to learn to self-soothe, with practical psychological strategies to help you nurture yourself, as well as soothe your baby.

Why couple dynamics shift with the arrival of a baby, and ways to stay connected.

How to use your values to guide your decision-making, making choices that fit for YOUR family.

I also include info on intrusive thoughts – & real-life experiences from mums.

You can order your copy of Mindful New Mum here and discover more about Caroline Boyd by following her on Instagram @_drboyd.