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Sleep and Sick Season: What’s a Parent to Do?

Posted on . Last updated .

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Cara Dumaplin

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So you’ve set your baby up for sleep success (or you’re desperately trying to), and now your sweet little one is sick!

What now???

First, when babies are sick, they need lots of love. They DON’T need to “tough it out” or “learn how to sleep in all circumstances” as some may think. Sick babies need YOU.

Sleep is disrupted for many of us when we get sick. Most sick babies actually sleep more overall, but they often wake up more frequently during naps and nighttime. Don’t let this convince you that your baby will never sleep again! If you had a good sleeper, you will get her back once she’s well. If you didn’t have a solid sleeper before, well, help is available AFTER this illness passes.

Insider info: Research shows that when we get adequate sleep, our bodies have a boosted immune system to fight off infections. That means helping your little one sleep is a VITAL part of preventing AND fighting illnesses!

So how do you help your baby with that vital sleep when he or she is struggling with sickness??

1) Maintain your normal bedtime and nap-time routine.

Those familiar cues that sleep is coming are so important in helping your little one get the best sleep she can in order to recover.

2) Allow naps to be a bit longer than normal.

(Remember, sleep is GREAT medicine.) Typically, for babies who are taking more than one nap, we cap each nap at about 2 hours. While sick, you can allow a bit more sleep, but keep in mind that awake time, hydration, and calories are important too. Trust your gut, but consider waking your little one if it has been longer than 2.5-3 hours for any given nap. Try to get in some good awake time before you put your baby down for sleep again.

3) If you're wanting to be closer to your baby while she's sick, consider camping out on a mattress in her room, rather than bringing her into yours.

I know some parents pull baby into their room during sick times. I know that’s what I did! I wanted them close to me so I could hear their every breath. I must admit, this created so much havoc in our home. Once the babies were better, it was difficult to get them back in their own crib.

By the time my 4th baby was born, I found a way to be close yet not disrupt his sleeping environment. Here’s the secret: take a mattress into your baby’s room and sleep on his floor so that his sleeping environment remains unchanged. This will help maintain consistency during the illness, yet fulfill your heart's desire to watch his every move. (This is the mattress I used.)

Don’t we all sleep better in our own bed? Babies do too!

4) If your baby is struggling with sleep while sick, you may need to give him a little extra help.

Sickness and discomfort can make it more difficult for babies to fall asleep and stay asleep independently. If your baby needs more help, this could mean rubbing his back, picking him up, or even rocking him to sleep.

5) If she isn’t eating well during the day or is struggling with vomiting or diarrhea, you may need to offer the breast or bottle during the night.

Yes, this can still apply even if she has been previously weaned of night feedings. Maintaining hydration is so important.

6) Provide comfort and a healthy environment for the fastest recovery time:

- Offer Tylenol or Motrin for pain relief (as instructed by your doctor).

- For congestion/stuffiness, use saline drops and a Nose Frida to suction out that icky-cold snot.

- For coughing, run a cool-mist humidifier in your baby’s room and/or consider sitting in a steamy bathroom with your baby.

- Discuss with your pediatrician whether to add in Pedialyte for electrolytes if your baby has diarrhea or a high fever.

- Give your baby lots of patience and snuggling.

- Wash your hands frequently.

Insider info: The #1 way to prevent the spread of cold and flu is to wash hands frequently and well. That means you aren’t crazy or silly if you ask people to wash hands before touching your baby: you’re smart!

If my baby is congested, should I allow him to sleep in an elevated position to help him breathe better?

Unless your doctor has specifically told you to do this, it is NOT recommend. I know that this may be helpful for adults, but it's simply not safe for babies. Safe sleep is still our number one priority for babies even when they aren’t feeling well.

Swings, car seats, strollers, positional pillows, and other elevated products are never intended for unsupervised sleep. Elevating the head of the crib is also NOT recommended. All of these practices can put babies in a compromised position making it more difficult to breathe.

Research tells us that unless you are awake and holding your baby- a firm, flat surface (in a crib, bassinet, or play yard) is safest for a sleeping baby even during an illness.

How do you get your baby back on track after an illness??

First, make sure your little one is back to 100%. The best way to do this is to check in with your doctor. If you get the all clear, it's time to go back to your more normal sleep routine.

If you’ve implemented the ABCs of Sleep, just go back to your plan. Your great little sleeper should return in 3-5 nights. If you’ve never had a great sleeper, The ABCs of Sleep will give you a plan to restful nights if your baby is 5 months or older. 

Perhaps you have a newborn, and sleep has been derailed by sickness. Will I Ever Sleep Again? is a cry-free method for teaching foundational sleep skills to newborn babies. If you’ve already taken this class but your little one is now waking every 2-3 hours after an illness, don’t worry! Those long stretches of sleep do not have to be completely ruined by illness. Start right where you are and use the tips to get back on track. It may take time; that’s okay. Give yourself and your sweet baby lots of patience and grace.

Remember, you’re not alone. Sick babies are hard, but you can do this!

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