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Six Secrets to Save Sleep When Sick

I can’t tell you how many times parents reach out to me telling me how wonderfully their child slept, and then she got sick. She got an ear infection, she got a cold, she got a stomach bug, she got sick, and then she stopped sleeping. She started needing to sleep with mom, or nurse constantly, or a million other things. Any parent knows that illness definitely affects sleep. And it’s what we do when our child gets sick that decides what sleep will look like after your child gets healthy.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and none of the information in this guide should be used to diagnose or treat any illness. Any sleep suggestions found here should be approved by your pediatrician to make sure it is safe for your child and his or her specific ailment. This guide has been written for the child who, before becoming ill, was falling asleep on his own or in other words was sleep trained.

This story starts with a perfectly healthy baby, who is sleeping as well as any baby can be expected to sleep. Naps are a healthy length and happening regularly. Your baby is only waking at night to eat as often as your pediatrician recommends. And then your child gets sick: maybe it’s an ear infection, maybe a cold, or perhaps the 24-hour stomach bug. Either way you and I both know your baby’s sleep is going to be affected.

A baby who is sick may have a harder time falling asleep, may wake more frequently throughout the night, may take shorter or longer naps, and may take more naps than normal and subsequently fall asleep outside of her bed. All of these are perfectly normal responses to an illness. What I often see from parents with sick babies is an effort to reduce the baby’s discomfort so much that the parents end up providing too much comfort and soothing that they help the baby fall asleep instead of comforting the baby to help her feel better. Then when your baby starts to feel better, and not need your help and comfort, she will want it anyway! She will expect help falling asleep when she is completely healthy and was even doing it before.

In order to help your baby sleep well after she gets sick, I have outlined 6 tips to emerge from sickness with your baby’s sleep on track! These tips are in no particular order, but I do hope they help you manage sickness and sleep in your home!

  1. Comfort Your Child. Comfort and soothing to sleep are two very different things! When your child is sick, it is 100% appropriate to go to your child when sleep is disturbed. However, comforting your child is very different than soothing your child to sleep. Your child already knows how to fall asleep without you. He is not asking you to help him fall asleep; he is asking you to help him feel better. This could mean rocking, cuddling, a drink of water, a song, some medicine, almost anything! But it also means that once your child has been comforted, you lay him back down in his bed to fall asleep on his own.

  2. Fussing Is Okay. Your baby is sick. Being sick is not fun. It makes sense that he would wake more often at night. However, it is important to remember that more frequent wakings during the night does not mean you have to jump up and help your baby. Yes, maybe your baby is waking up more, and maybe this is because he is uncomfortable. However, a baby who knows how to sleep on his own will often cry out, roll over, and fall back asleep within 10-15 minutes. By allowing your baby the time and freedom to soothe back to sleep, you are preventing the possibility of a future sleep aid. Fussing doesn’t always mean your baby needs assistance. Sometimes it just means that he is figuring it out. Ten to fifteen minutes is an appropriate amount of time to see if he is figuring it out or if he needs you. Often times babies and toddlers will scream out; even though this is a stronger cry, I would encourage you to wait and see what happens. Does it continue? Does it de-escalate? Often times when a child screams out, he will go almost right back to sleep, as long as the parent doesn’t intervene in this process.

  3. Loosen Your Schedule. When a baby isn’t feeling well, he may sleep more, or he may sleep less. Be flexible with his needs. Let him sleep in, go to bed early, take an extra nap, take a long nap, etc. Our bodies need the extra sleep to recover.

  4. 3 Day Rule. Sometimes nothing is working and you will either end up soothing your baby to sleep, or perhaps your baby will need so much sleep he will fall asleep while nursing, being held, or even playing. This is ok! If you do end up soothing your baby to sleep, use the 3-day rule to get back on track. Make sure you are only soothing your baby for a total of two days in a row. On the third day, make sure your baby falls asleep on his own. This will help your baby maintain the positive sleep habits both you and he worked so hard to build!

  5. Expect Resistance. As soon as your child is feeling better, like within two seconds of feeling better, you want to return to your regular sleep routines. It is likely that your child will resist this. Trust me, having someone else helping you do something you are completely capable of is great, so expect a fight here! Once your baby starts to feel better, he may continue to wake at night, just like he did when he was sick. If you know he is feeling better, be consistent in responding the same way you did before he got sick. I can promise you that the sooner you return to your regular ways, the easier it will be for your child to adjust because he can easily remember sleeping before he was sick. If you wait too long, it will feel like sleep training all over again.

  6. Follow Your Gut. One of the hardest parts of parenthood for me is trying to distinguish between what my anxiety is telling me and what my gut is telling me. My anxiety is usually destructive and lives off of lies and insecurities. My gut, however, is rooted in intuition and truth. Do everything you can in your power to identify what your gut is telling you and follow it. Above all else: Follow your gut.

Now you are armed to not only comfort your sick baby but also to allow your baby to emerge from an illness with sleep habits intact. Sleep is so important to our health. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. Don’t let a short-term illness ruin long term sleep for you and your family!

If you are on the other end, and have already lost great sleep due to an illness, do not despair! Once a great sleeper, always a great sleeper, right? Contact me today to discuss my Return to Great Sleep Package. A good night's rest may just be one click away.


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