How to Help a Sick Baby or Child Sleep

by | Jul 28, 2021 | Blog, Illness and Sleep, Podcast, Sleep Challenges | 0 comments

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Caring for a sick baby or child is a common challenge parents face. When illness strikes, it’s natural to wonder how to ensure your little one gets the rest they need without disrupting their sleep routine.  

“Do I remain consistent?”  

“Should I let him cry?”

Do I automatically help them fall asleep, knowing she’s sick?”

“What do I do so that their sleep doesn’t fall apart every time they catch a cold?”

These are some of the most common questions I get about how to help a sick baby sleep.  

At the same time, it’s also important to ensure your little one is getting ample sleep in order to recover while you’re managing their discomfort.

These are all fantastic questions given that babies and young children can get sick pretty often.  It’s completely normal for your little one to come down with a mild virus every 1-2 months. This can include such a stomach virus, ear infection, fever, or the common cold.  Sometimes, your little one might come down with something more serious, such as a high fever, croup, the flu, or hand-foot-in-mouth.  And it’s perfectly reasonable to want a game plan for how to approach these situations when they happen. 

The good news is that I’ve got answers for you!

In this blog post, I’ll discuss my expert advice on managing sleep when your child is under the weather. We’ll delve into practical strategies on how to help a sick baby or child sleep, as well as how to maintain healthy sleep habits even when you have a sick infant.

The Challenge of Sleep During Illness

When sickness strikes, a child’s sleep patterns can be greatly affected. The discomfort from symptoms such as fever, congestion, and coughing can make it difficult for them to settle and sleep. As parents, it’s crucial to strike a balance between providing comfort and maintaining healthy sleep habits. 

Top sleep tips to help your sick baby sleep

1. Prioritize rest.  When your child is sick, they often need extra sleep than usual to aid their recovery. Consider adjusting their bedtime as well as shortening your baby’s awake times to provide them with the additional rest their body requires.  If your little one appears exhausted and it’s much earlier than he usually goes to sleep, put your little one to bed earlier anyways.

2. Maintain your normal routine:  Sick days don’t mean abandoning your child’s established bedtime routine. Consistency can provide comfort during a time of uncertainty, helping them feel secure even when they’re unwell.  You might need to expedite this routine if your little one is especially tired and ready for bed.  

3Address specific needs:  Take note of their specific symptoms—fever, congestion, pain—and address them appropriately. This might mean: 

  • offering infant acetaminophen for fever or pain; 
  • giving extra fluids if there are signs of dehydration
  • using saline drops, a cool-mist humidifier (like this one) or a nasal aspirator (like this one) if they have a stuffy nose. They’re gross, but MAN do they work.
  • changing their sheets and clothes if they vomited 
  • offering extra snuggles if they’re having a hard time sleeping

4. Put any sleep training plans you have on hold.  Definitely wait until your little one is back to his normal self before beginning to sleep training.  And always check with your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.

The reality is that sick babies usually have more needs at bedtime at nighttime.  As exhausting at it is, always address these needs so that they can go back to sleep quickly.  A well-rested child is better equipped to fight off illness.

Do I put my sick baby or child down awake for bedtime or naptime?

There’s a common belief saying that when your baby is sick, ALL the ” sleep rules” go out the window and that you should simply help your baby fall asleep.

My thoughts?  I’d say that’s a half-truth, at best.  Rather, my approach here is to try to stick to your routine as a default, within reason. And only veer from these routines when needed.  Your goal is to respond to your little one’s needs while attempting to maintain your little one’s independent sleep skills.  

This is because babies and young children get sick ALL THE TIME.  And the last thing you need is to find yourself needing to re-sleep train your little one over and over again.

The first question to ask yourself about your baby’s illness

How to approach your little one’s sleep skills when they’re sick really comes down to how sick they are to begin with.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s divide baby and child illnesses into three categories:  mild (i.e. low grade fever, cold, stomach flu), moderate (i.e. croup, high temperature, hand foot and mouth, flu), and severe (i.e. basically anything that requires hospitalization).

When your otherwise sleep trained baby or child is mildly ill, your default assumption should be that she can be placed into her crib or bed awake and fall asleep on her own.  If she needs extra help or support, respond by offering her those snuggles before placing her back into the crib again.  Only resort to old sleep props if she’s REALLY not having it and clearly needs extra help to fall asleep.  

Now, when your otherwise sleep trained baby or child is moderately ill, I would still assume that he can be placed into his crib or bed wide awake and fall asleep on his own.  But I would also assume that it won’t be a smooth process and that he’ll need some extra help.  You may need to temporarily throw some of the ” sleep rules” out the window, especially if your little one is falling asleep in your arms before you even have the chance to place him in his crib  That’s alright!

Of course, if your little one is dealing with a severe illness, do whatever you need to do to attend to his needs while you seek out medical attention.   

How I dealt with JJ’s sleep when he had croup

I’m sharing this personal anecdote of how I addressed JJ’s sleep when he was 9 months-old and became pretty sick with a bad case of croup.   I want to demonstrate a real-life example of how to balance the needs of your sick baby with the desire to maintain healthy sleep habits.

Now, it’s important for me to note that JJ was a GREAT sleeper leading up to this illness.  I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprised- after all, he has ME as his mother 🙂  I had him sleeping 8 hour stretches from the time he was 6 weeks-old, and he was sleeping 11-12 hours uninterrupted at night without any feeds by 8 months of age.  The last thing I wanted to do was to have those good sleep habits disappear and have to go through the sleep training process again from scratch.

Getting JJ to sleep at bedtime

I’d classify JJ’s case of croup as a “moderate”.  He was breathing very loudly, coughing up a long with a barking-like cough, was running a fever, and eventually needed steroids.  But most importantly, he was MISERABLE.

It was tempting to simply rock him to sleep and not even bother trying to put him in his crib.  

But I didn’t do that.

Instead, I thought to myself “What the heck- let me complete his bedtime routine and try putting him into his crib.  And I’ll see how it goes?”  

And you know what happened?  He cried.  So I picked him up, held him upright to help him cough, snuggled him a bit, then tried to put him down again.  Same thing happened.  But on the third try, he fell asleep!  I was SO relieved that I didn’t introduce new sleep associations unnecessarily.

That being said, if JJ clearly wasn’t going to fall asleep on his own after a few good attempts, I absolutely would have picked him up, headed to my rocking chair, and rocked the poor guy to sleep.

How I address JJ’s nightwakings when he had croup

The night before JJ went on steroids for his croup, he woke up 3 times (the first time he had ever woken up so frequently since he was a newborn).  And each time, I responded by addressing what he needed.  

In those cases, he needed some Tylonel for his fever.  He needed some small night feeds.  And he needed to be held upright so he could cough.  And when he was more relaxed and calm after about 20 minutes, I placed him back into the crib awake and he immediately put himself back to sleep. 

Once JJ was properly medicated on steroids for his croup and he was able to breath properly again, he went right back to sleeping like a champ!  The main reason he was able to quickly resort to his previous sleep habits was because I never introduced any new habits to begin with.

 I can’t tell you how often I work with families who find themselves back at square 1 every time their little one gets mildly sick.  It’s exhausting!  It means you’re CONSTANTLY re-sleep training your baby. And it’s just not necessary!  

The most important thing here is that, when you have a fairly sick baby on your hands, don’t automatically underestimate what they can do in the sleep department simply because they’re not feeling well.  

Try sticking with your regular bedtime routine and continue to put your little one down awake.  Only veer from your routine if necessary and reintroduce sleep crutches when it appears your little one needs them.

Should you bring your baby or child into your bed if they’re sick?

If we’re discussing a baby or child who is mildly sick, I strongly recommend putting them to sleep in their crib or own bed.  This advice is assuming that a) you haven’t been bedsharing; and b) you don’t WANT to start bedsharing.  

Now, if we’re discussing a child who is moderately or more seriously ill, I understand why you’re asking this question!  You’re too afraid to leave your little one to sleep alone in case they need you, given how sick they’ve been.  I get it.

In fact, when JJ was sick with croup, he was still sleeping in our room. And I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with him sleeping alone given his condition.

That being said, I’d suggest that YOU sleep in the child’s room under these circumstances instead of the other way around.  This is because it’s much easier for you to remove yourself from your little one’s room when they’re all better than it is to lovingly evict for your little one from your bed when he got used to sleeping in there.

How to help your baby get their sleep back on track after they’ve been sick

Take some deep breaths- it’s okay, I promise.  Help your sick baby sleep if need be. As your child’s health improves, quickly transition them back to their normal sleep routine. This is the best way to prevent any lingering sleep issues that might have arisen during their illness.  This often means using a sleep training strategy you’re comfortable with and stick to it like glue.

And then you’ll get your good sleeper back!  

A quick word about my free Facebook community group

Come join my FREE Facebook community group where you can get your questions answered about your baby’s sleep by me, get access to free sleep tips and regular Q&As, and where you can connect with other sleep-loving parents of little ones! Can’t wait to personally connect with you there 🙂

My go-to items for sick babies

Check out the following products I recommend for when your little one is sick:

*I may earn a commission from links on this page at no additional cost to you, but I only recommend products I love.

Other sleep resources

6 month-old sleep schedules and wake windows
Nap training guide: How to sleep train your baby for naps
The truth about your teething baby and their sleep
How to teach a toddler to sleep without mom
How to get your little one sleeping in later in the morning

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