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Why Do Babies Fight Sleep?

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Cara Dumaplin

RN, BSN, Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant

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Baby fighting sleep and crying on mom's shoulder while she gives him a kiss

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Do you have a baby who fights sleep? Maybe your baby or toddler is taking a long time to fall asleep at bedtime, your little one is crying as soon as it’s time to sleep, or maybe your newborn is awake for hours during the night. I know this is so hard. Let’s talk about why your newborn, baby, or toddler is fighting sleep and how to help. 

Why do newborns fight sleep? anchor

These are some of the common culprits for why a newborn (0-4 months) fights sleep: 

Day-Night Confusion: When a newborn is very sleepy all day, they simply may not be tired enough to fall asleep at bedtime or stay asleep during the night. We call this day-night confusion. Essentially, your newborn has their days and nights flipped.

Overtired: Newborns can get overtired quickly which often results in fighting sleep. Following your newborn’s sleepy cues and wake windows can help you find the sweet spot to prevent overtiredness. If your newborn is overtired, it’s okay to provide extra support to help them get the sleep they need. 

Overstimulated: It doesn’t take much for a newborn to become overstimulated. The world is such an exciting and busy place compared to what they were used to in the womb. If your newborn is overstimulated and fighting sleep, try swaddling them, moving to a dark room, and turning on the sound machine. 

Hunger: New babies can often be very sleepy eaters, which may prevent full feedings. As your newborn baby grows and becomes more aware of the world around them, you may also notice an increase in distracted eating. Both sleepy eating and distracted eating can result in a hungry baby who fights sleep.

Physical Discomfort: As your newborn’s body is learning how to eat and digest, gas can sometimes make it hard to relax. Burping during and after feedings and using a pacifier can help. Food intolerances and reflux symptoms can also cause discomfort. If it feels like your baby is never calm or is always difficult to settle, I want you to talk with your pediatrician.

Illness: Sleep can be harder for a newborn when they’re sick. If your newborn is sick, provide the support needed to get your newborn to sleep. (Note: safety is still the priority when your newborn is sick). 

Expert Tip: If your newborn is fighting sleep, I can help. My no-cry, First Five Months Bundle, is full of strategies that will help you confidently navigate newborn sleep no matter why your baby is fighting sleep. Let me walk you through a plan to lay a healthy sleep foundation so that you can love the newborn stage.

Why do babies fight sleep? anchor

Here are some of the common reasons why your baby (5-24 months) may be fighting sleep: 

Overtired: Babies can become overtired when naps are short or wake windows are too long. And when your baby is overtired, they often have a surge of cortisol and adrenaline, making it more likely that your baby will fight sleep. 

Not tired enough: If wake windows are not long enough or your baby didn’t get much active awake time, they may not be tired enough to fall asleep or stay asleep. If your baby is fighting sleep and doesn’t seem tired at nap time or bedtime, consider if it’s time to extend wake windows or drop a nap.  

Separation anxiety: Your baby may experience peaks of separation anxiety beginning around six months (and on and off for several years). A baby experiencing separation anxiety may also fight sleep.

Developmental progression: Your baby may fight sleep as they are achieving new milestones or going through a sleep regression. You may see that your baby is awake more during the night or waking earlier in the morning. 

Illness: Being able to fall asleep and stay asleep can be harder when your baby is sick. We always want to be sure your baby is healthy before trying to troubleshoot sleep. If your baby is sick, take the pressure off and provide the support needed to get them to sleep. 

Expert Tip: If you have a baby who is fighting sleep, I can help. My 5-24 Month Collection will give you the tools you need to end the constant fighting-sleep struggle. Let me walk you through an emotionally-connected and fully-customizable plan to peaceful nights and restful naps.

Why do toddlers fight sleep? anchor

Here are some of the common reasons why you may be experiencing your toddler (2-4 years old) fighting sleep:

Overtired: As toddlers get older, nap protests and refusals become more common, which can lead to overtiredness. Overtired toddlers often get a second wind or go into meltdown mode, making it more likely that they will fight sleep.

Not tired enough: If your toddler didn’t get enough active awake time, they may not be tired enough to fall asleep or stay asleep. If your toddler is fighting sleep and doesn’t seem tired at nap time or bedtime, consider if it’s time to shorten or drop their nap. 

Separation anxiety: Your toddler may experience peaks of separation anxiety throughout their toddler years. Separation anxiety can be a reason your toddler is fighting sleep, which may look like getting upset at nap time or stalling at bedtime.

Developmental progression: Reaching new milestones or going through a sleep regression can be a culprit of fighting sleep. Imagination also begins to bloom during the toddler years, so a newly developed fear of the dark may be another reason your toddler is fighting sleep.

Big changes: Major transitions that often happen during the toddler years, like starting a new school or daycare, moving, or expecting a new sibling, can impact sleep. It’s normal for a toddler to fight sleep during a big change in their routine. 

Illness: If your toddler is experiencing physical discomfort from illness, it can be harder to settle to fall asleep or get back to sleep. We always want to be sure your toddler is healthy before trying to troubleshoot sleep. If your toddler is sick, take the pressure off and provide the support needed.

Expert Tip: If your toddler is fighting sleep, I can help. My Toddler Sleep Training class will help you restore the peace around sleep. It’s a holistic and fully-customizable plan to set your days and nights up for success while keeping you emotionally connected to your little one.

How to get your baby/toddler to stop fighting sleep:anchor

1. Follow age-appropriate wake windows. anchor

A wake window is the time your little one spends awake between naps, starting from when they come out of the crib or bed and ending when they’re laid down again for a nap or bedtime. 

Following age-appropriate wake windows helps set your days and nights up for success. Wake windows that are too long can lead to your little one being overtired. On the other hand, wake windows that are too short can mean your baby or toddler isn’t tired enough to sleep well. 

Expert Tip: What you do during these wake windows is nearly as important as the length of your wake windows. Know that a baby or toddler is more likely to sleep well if they get enough mental stimulation and physical activity during awake time.  

2. Create an environment for sleep success.anchor

A cool, dark, and calm environment can make a difference when your baby or toddler is fighting sleep. Moving to a space with minimal stimulation helps calm your baby (and you too!). That same environment also helps with getting back to sleep during a nap or the night. 

Here are my recommendations for setting up a healthy sleep environment: 

  • Be sure it’s safe: Be sure your baby or toddler’s room is safe for sleep. We want the room to be free of any hazards. I have checklists for you whether you have a baby in a crib or a toddler in a bed

  • Get the room dark: I mean, really dark. Light is stimulating to our brains and can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Turn off those night lights, and cover the windows.

  • Use a sound machine: Silence is actually unusual to your baby or toddler. A sound machine creates a familiar and comforting sound, while also blocking out extraneous noise. 

  • Make it comfortable: A cool environment promotes our natural instinct to sleep. Just like adults, being too hot or too cold can make it harder for a baby or toddler to sleep. Dress your little one comfortably for sleep then assess them and adjust accordingly. 

3. Follow a pre-sleep routine. anchor

A consistent routine before a nap or bedtime prepares your baby or toddler’s brain and body for sleep. A calming routine can minimize struggles for little ones fighting sleep at nap time or bedtime. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Aim to follow the same simple steps. Here’s an example: diaper change, sleep sack, song, sound machine on, room dark, lay in the crib awake. Find what works for you and do it before each sleep.

Toddler Tip: Having a bedtime routine chart makes your routine predictable and can minimize bedtime battles.

4. Have a plan. anchor

If your baby or toddler is fighting sleep at bedtime and naps, I can help. In my classes, I'll teach you how to stop the defeating cycle of sleep battles. You and your baby both deserve a more peaceful bedtime and more restful sleep.

Let me show you how to meet your newborn (0-4 months), baby (5-24 months), or toddler (2-4 years) where they are developmentally. I'll give you a step-by-step, customizable plan to get your little one sleeping and help your family thrive. 

Are you ready to have a great little sleeper?

If you're overwhelmed, exhausted, or just not sure where to start. I was there too. Let me show you everything you need to confidently handle sleep so your whole family can thrive!

Select your child's age to get started:

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