Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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12 Ways To Help Your Baby Sleep When Sick in 2023

It is natural to want to do everything possible to help your baby sleep when sick.  Having a sick little person can put a parent on edge and even cause anxiety.  This can be especially true if you've worked hard to come out of sleep deprivation, shape a good sleeper and your ideal sleep schedule.   You might be wondering if you are doing the right thing, or undoing your baby's great sleep habits? 

When you have sick children, your number one goal is to help that child stay rested.  When you're sick your body needs more sleep as your immune system is at work when you're sleeping fighting off foreign invaders. Sleep is even more important for health and well being when your baby is sleep. Flu season tends to peak December to February. Your child may have a stuffy nose, sore throat or high fever. With any of these symptoms one of our best ways to help is with extra sleep. 

The challenge for many parents can be that these symptoms in sick babies can distract your little one from sleeping.  Distraction can make it harder to fall asleep and then stay asleep.  SO you might see shorter naps or more night waking.

The question I would ask you is, “What kind of sleep training have you already done?”  Does your baby have healthy sleep habits? What techniques have you implemented to have your baby falling asleep in her crib from awake without assistance.  Basically is your child completely self-soothing independently? You can read more about sleep training in our best selling book on Amazon.

If you have put much time and effort into getting your child to fall asleep on her own without sleep crutches such as nursing, sucking from a bottle, or rocking, then you might indeed have anxiety about taking steps backwards in the sleep department.

I tell my clients  “We help kids who can’t help themselves”.  If your child has a runny nose, congestion or a cough her sleep will be disrupted and you need to help her out.

When your child is sick, your body will instruct her to sleep more to help her fight bacteria and viruses.

For parents, it does not seem that way because the child’s sleep will be more interrupted than usual.

Hacking coughs, sniffling noses, general malaise will make it harder for your child to settle into sleep.

12 Things you can do to help your baby sleep when sick:

1. Don’t let her cry  She’s uncomfortable and needs help.  Offer reassurance and cuddles.

  • You may be worried all your sleep training work will go out the window.
  • Try not to stress, your baby has learned the self-soothing skills and they will return once she’s feeling better and the distractions of being sick have passed.

2. Offer lots of fluids.

  • Depending on your child’s age and situation, this may be breastmilk or water to keep your little one hydrated.  Being dehydrated can cause complications. Keeping your child hydrated is the most important thing, more important than sleep.  

Signs of dehydration include: 

  • Plays less than usual
  • Urinates less frequently (for infants, fewer than six wet diapers per day)
  • Parched, dry mouth
  • Fewer tears when crying
  • Sunken soft spot of the head in an infant or toddler
  • Stools will be loose if dehydration is caused by diarrhea; if dehydration is due to other fluid loss (vomiting, lack of fluid intake), there will be decreased bowel movements.
  • When in doubt, seek medical attention.

3. If your child is not eating much during the day, offer more feeds at night

  • This includes breastfeeding or bottle fed babies. Even if your child hasn’t had night feeds for months
  • The goal is to keep your baby hydrated. 

4. Maintain your boundaries.

The most common question is;  "Should I bring her into bed with me?"  

All parents want their little ones close when they have sick kids, but do you and your little one sleep well in that situation? 

I tried co sleeping again when he was sick but I found that my baby wasn't used to it and my presence was more distracting than helpful, AND I got kicked a thousand times in the night and wasn't well rested the next day.  That was the last time I tried that.

  • Be close by, by camping out in your baby's room next to the crib if you're worried about them.   Don't disrupt their well established independent sleep habits if they are working. 
  • If you have done much work with sleep training I suggest keeping her in her room when offering reassurance.
  • Stick to your regular schedule or timing for naps or bedtime, but if baby seems tired sooner, put her down earlier. Your child's body needs more sleep for their immune system to fight. 

5. If your child has a cold and nasal congestion

Your baby's nose may be clogged and she might have difficulty breathing through it.  Breastfeeding will help clear the nasal passages

  • Use “snot sucker” aka nasal aspirator to get the boogers out such as Nose Freida
  • I thought these were so gross, until they delivered results and then I was sold, can be somewhat addictive
  • If she needs a cuddle in the night, sit her upright or slightly inclined to help the nasal passages drain

6. If your child has a cough

  • Use a cold mist humidifier like this one  to cool the air
  • Consider running hot water in the tub with the door closed to steam up the bathroom
  • In the winter, open a window to let the cold air in, but bundle her up

7. Medicate

  • If there is inflammation such as with the croup, consider anti-inflammatories such as Advil
  • If there is pain, consider painkillers such as Tylenol.
  • Your child has the stomach flu, investigate Pedialyte
  • Always talk to your pharmacist or pediatrician about delivering medications

8. Wash your hands frequently

  • Prevent the spread of illness
  • Prevent the introduction of new illness to your little one when her immune system is fighting

9. Keep it dark

Remember being sick is a distraction.  So we want to minimize other distractions just as we would with regular sleep.  I love these Sleepout Curtains to block out the light/distractions.  Use my code helpingbabiessleep for 10% off. 

10.  Pause the Sleep Training 

This is not the time to be working on healthy sleep habits.  Your child is not at their best, they're distracted and you will have tons of self doubt that they're able to learn new skills and break sleep associations during this time.

11.  Let Them Sleep More

While some of you will have interrupted sleep and worry if your baby is getting enough sleep , there are those of you who will have longer naps and more sleep.  This is often seen with vaccine reactions.  Some young children will have longer naps and night sleep than usual, while others will be more interrupted.  I would let my baby sleep and wake them only to feed as I want to make sure they are staying hydrated.  

12. Remember this too shall pass

Having a sick baby can be incredibly stressful.  Remember that this too shall pass.  The average cold takes about 10 days to resolve completely.  Being sick doesn't mean that your baby can't sleep at all, in fact some kids will sleep more.  It means she may be distracted and need more help.    You will offer more help and you will get back to your normal routine when baby is feeling better. 

I always say to my clients “We help kids who can’t help themselves.”  This is a good guideline to help you analyze the situation.  

A Word on Fevers! 

Fevers are scary for a parent.  And they don't always appear like one might think - with a crying, hysterical baby.  My son got his first fever when we were on a cruise.  I heard him babbling to himself awake in the crib for about 20 minutes before I checked in on him and low and behold he was hot!  He had a fever.  In the end it was associated with an ear infection from his cold.  When your child mucous accumulates in your child's ear canals that join the back of their throat, bacteria can replicate and an infection happens. A fever is your body's way of fighting off an illness or infection.  According to the Academy Academy of Pediatrics, "fevers are generally harmless."  This post by the AAP reviews when to call the doctor when your baby has a fever. That's one of the great things about telehealth now is you can consult a nurse or doctor over the phone rather than having to drag your child into the office when really your baby needs extra rest.  In most cases, sleep is the best medicine.   If your baby has a high fever, over 100.4 please call your pediatrician. While it is important to look for the cause of a fever, the main purpose of treating it is to help your child feel better if she is uncomfortable or has pain

Signs of an Ear Infection can include:

  • A low grade fever
  • Rubbing their nose or cheek bone
  • Pulling at their ear (also common in teething) 
  • Disrupted sleep 
  • General fussiness and grumpiness 

Lastly, remember that sleep really is a journey.  Bad nights will naturally come and go.

If you’ve been thinking about sleep training, I can teach you everything you need to know about setting your child up for successful sleep step by step in my best selling Amazon book, The Helping Babies Sleep Method; The Art and Science of Teaching Your Baby to Sleep.

Helping Babies Sleep Book Cover by Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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