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How To Help Your Baby Sleep When Sick

image of a dad holding a thermometer and another dad holding a baby who is sick bella luna family
Christine Brown

Christine Brown

First off, I’m sorry your little one isn’t feeling well. It is tough when our children are sick or in pain and we can’t take it away. Hopefully our tips below on how to help your baby or toddler sleep when sick will help!

I remember the calls from daycare to come and get my twin boys because they weren’t feeling well. Their immunity building was HARD on all of us. My husband and I went through a second round of immunity building their first few years. It felt like we were all sick a lot.

At that point, my boys were sleep trained and had been for quite a while so sickness didn’t affect their sleep that much. I find that is really common with children that have healthy sleep habits, but it isn’t always the case.

This is why, I am going to answer the top questions that we get from parents on how to handle sickness and sleep!

Why Is Sleep So Important When Babies / Toddlers Are Sick?

Sleep is vital when our little ones are sick. Sleep helps the body to fight off whatever bug is making them feel so crummy. Sleep is when our bodies repair and heal so adequate rest during times of sickness is imperative.

Tip: Having healthy sleep habits and meeting sleep needs on a daily basis has also shown to increase immunity. Getting adequate rest can help your little one (and you) to not get taken out from sickness as frequently. A solid reason to work on healthy sleep habits when your little one is healthy!

Should I Let My Sick Baby / Toddler Sleep More When Sick?

Yes! Your little one will likely need more rest than normal when they are sick. So if your little one is taking a long nap or you feel like your baby is sleeping all day when sick, let them sleep. This is your child’s body trying to fight off the illness.

Tips:

  • Even if you are letting your child sleep more, make sure that your babe is still getting fluids and feedings in as usual. This will help your child to stay nourished and hydrated.
  • If your little one is sleeping longer than 3 hours for any nap, you’ll want to wake them up.
  • If your baby or toddler is napping very late in the afternoon (4:00 pm for babies on 2 naps and toddlers), you want to wake them so they are able to settle into sleep at bedtime and get an adequate amount of super restorative night sleep. Night sleep reigns supreme from a restorative standpoint so it is important that naps don’t affect your little one from meeting their nighttime sleep needs.

How Much Should I Intervene?

In cases of sickness, we recommend parents use their judgment when determining how much help their little one needs during sleep periods.

This blog post isn’t medical advice and it is written for a general audience. You are there with your little one. You know when something doesn’t feel right. Always use your judgment and let that guide how you handle your child’s illness and sleep.

The first step is to assess the severity of your child’s illness. This will dictate how much intervention your child needs.

MILD

If your child has a little cold and the sniffles, but is fine otherwise, your little one likely doesn’t need a lot of intervention from you for sleep. In cases like this, most children that have healthy sleep habits won’t necessarily have disrupted sleep. Most kiddos are stuffy a lot of the winter so if we intervene every time they have a stuffy nose, you’ll all be overtired quickly!

MODERATE TO SEVERE

If your child is uncomfortable and is experiencing pain, a tummy bug, a fever or cough, this can result in broken sleep and the need for more comfort from you. You’ll want to keep your little one as comfortable as possible by using natural remedies and other treatments as prescribed by your doctor.

No matter how sick your child is, always check-in with your pediatrician through an office visit or through the portal/nurse line. They’ll be able to provide insight on pain relievers, like ibuprofen, acetaminophen or other medications to help alleviate discomfort.

Tips:

  • If your little one is uncomfortable during awake periods, they will definitely be uncomfortable during sleep. To keep your little one comfy, use whatever pain reliever your pediatrician recommends.
  • Make sure your baby / toddler’s room is optimized for sleep. The room should be cool and dark with continuous white noise playing.
  • During the dry winter months, a cool mist humidifier will help with colds and respiratory issues. Run one in your child’s room for all sleep periods to help keep the nasal passage moisturized and minimize coughing.
  • For toddlers and preschoolers, keep tissues and a spillproof water bottle on the nightstand, near your child’s bed
  • Unless your pediatrician recommends elevating one side of the crib, leave the crib mattress flat for safe sleep.
  • If your child has nasal congestion, breastfeeding will help clear the nasal passages. You can also use the slightly gross, truly amazing Nose Frieda Snotsucker.

What Should I Do When My Sick Baby / Toddler Won’t Sleep!?

When our children are sick, we need to do whatever we can to make them comfortable. Your little one doesn’t understand why they don’t feel good so they are definitely going to need some extra TLC. Think about how you want to be cared for when you don’t feel good!

Even champion sleepers may have difficulty settling to sleep or staying asleep when they aren’t feeling well. (although many children who are sleep trained will still sleep through, even when sick!) This may require us to do things that we normally don’t do. Things like rocking or holding to sleep, which is totally ok!

Just know that these types of activities can quickly become sleep associations. Your little one may think that they “need” these activities, even after they feel well again. Bedsharing/holding for sleep and feeding are two of the stickiest habits. These will be hardest to break once your child is feeling well again.

If you can avoid these activities, it will be easier to get back on track, but don’t overthink it! Here is some guidance on what to do if your baby or toddler is having difficulty during bedtime, at night or during naps.

BEDTIME WHEN YOUR CHILD IS SICK

Try to remain consistent with your child’s routines, sleep times and habits as much as possible at bedtime.

If your child is having a hard time settling at bedtime, try these steps:

  • Follow your normal bedtime routine and put your child down as usual
  • If your little one doesn’t fall or stay asleep, go back into the room, repeat the end of your bedtime routine again (like songs and snuggling), then leave again
  • If your little one is still having a hard time settling, try holding your child until they are in a deeper sleep (breathing gets slow and deep – may take up to 30 minutes), then transfer to the crib/bed again.

NIGHT WAKINGS WHEN YOUR CHILD IS SICK

If your child wakes in the night while sick, you want to take care of all of your child’s needs and provide a little TLC.

If your baby normally feeds at that time, feed your little one and get them right back down.

If your child has night weaned already or your baby is waking outside of a normal feed time, try these steps to get your child back down:

  • If you think you’re little one may resettle independently and they are mildly sick, you can wait up to 5 minutes to give them a chance to return to sleep before intervening
  • If your child is moderately or severely sick, get your butt in there pronto to check on them. Try to alleviate symptoms according to your plan with your pediatrician. Then try putting your little one back down like you normally do
  • If your little one is having a hard time resettling, try holding your child until they are in a deeper sleep (breathing gets slow and deep – may take up to 30 minutes), then transfer to the crib/bed again.
  • If this doesn’t work, as a last resort, you may want to consider feeding to sleep or room sharing to help your little one settle. Don’t worry – you can get back on track once your little one feels well again.

Tip: If your child is severely ill and you need to be close, instead of bed-sharing, consider dragging a mattress into the nursery instead. Keeping your child in their room and in their sleep space, will make it easier to return to healthy sleep habits, without establishing a new bedsharing habit that you’ll have to work to undo after your babe feels better.

NAPTIME WHEN YOUR CHILD IS SICK

Naptime can be more challenging for our little ones when they aren’t feeling well. The drive to sleep isn’t as strong during the day as it is at night. If your child is boycotting nap because they are uncomfortable, you’ll likely have to intervene. Try these steps:

  • Follow your normal routine and put your child down as usual, giving up to 5 minutes to try to settle into sleep without intervening
  • If your little one doesn’t settle or can’t stay asleep, do what normally works to help your child settle. This can include stroller or car sleep or holding your little one for the entire nap.

It’s important that your little one sleeps to help with healing and any unwanted habits can be alleviated again once your child feels better. Don’t fret!

Can We Do Sleep Training While Baby Is Sick?

No! If your baby is sick sick, sleep training isn’t advised. It is best to pause sleep training and then restart once your child is feeling better.

Your baby may truly need you . You want to attend to those needs until your little one is feeling better.

On top of that, the primary predictor of success with sleep training is your ability to stay consistent during the process. If your baby doesn’t feel well, you’ll be second guessing yourself. This will make it very hard to stay consistent and it can create confusion in your child, which will delay or halt progress.

Helping Your Baby or Toddler’s Sleep Get Back On Track After Illness

Once your little one feels well again, if sleep doesn’t go back to normal, you may need to do a little remedial sleep training to move away from the new habits (aka sleep associations). If your baby / toddler already has healthy sleep habits established, they should reset pretty quickly. They’ll remember their super sleep skills and it should only take 2-4 nights to get back on track.

I hope that these tips on how to help your baby or toddler sleep when sick help your entire family to get through this challenging time. Remember this is temporary and it will get better!

If your child’s sleep habits weren’t great before the illness or you are having challenges getting back on track, we’d love to help you. Book a discovery call to chat with one of our certified child sleep consultants to talk about working together.

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