How to Help a Sick Baby Sleep – Paediatrician Advice

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November 02, 2021
5 min read

Updated on 26 June 2024.

When I consult an older child or baby with poor sleep, their parents commonly remark that their once ‘excellent sleeper’ has struggled to sleep ever since an episode of sickness, which threw everything off kilter. 

It’s incredibly common. 

Beyond the stress of having a child who is sick (however mild it may turn out to be), your hard-earned sleep routine can suddenly evaporate as they require closer attention and TLC. 

In this blog we’ll work through how to manage sleep training and routines when your child is sick, how to help your sick baby sleep and how to re-introduce routines and settling techniques when your child is well. 

Never Sleep Train a Sick Baby

The routines in my baby and toddler sleep programs have a strong caveat throughout, everything goes out the window if your child is sick: never sleep train or attempt to re-settle a sick baby.

The key things you will focus on while they are sick are:

  1. Rest
  2. Hydration
  3. Comfort 

Remember – if your baby was capable of an excellent day/night routine prior to falling sick, they are equally capable of returning to it, once they fully recover.  

Those with strong sleep hygiene and consistent routines will find it easier to return to normal.  If your baby or child didn’t have these strong foundations prior to getting sick it can be a little trickier getting them back to a good baseline – but not impossible.

What to focus on when your baby is sick

As a general caveat, when a baby or child is sick – if in doubt always seek medical attention. 

Any fever in a baby less than 3 months needs to be reviewed immediately.

The 2 things I’m most concerned if your baby is sick (beyond a medical emergency) are:

  1. Hydration: whether it’s a gastro, and upper respiratory infection, sore throat or fever etc. the associated dehydration is what can quickly land you and your child in hospital. Whether you’re breastfeeding, bottle feeding, hydration is one of your primary focuses as a parent.  There are lots of signs to look out for but the number of wet diapers or nappies is what I like parents to monitor most.
  2. Congestion or stuffy noses in babies should be a big focus for parents. Babies are obligate nose breathers until around 12 months, so if their runny nose is blocked or congested they will have trouble feeding and breathing … two very essential functions! Clearing their nasal passages is key.

read our blog on baby congestion

Sleep is an incredibly important part of your baby’s recovery.

If your baby or child is sick, allow them time to rest and recover. This means reduced activities, stimulation and play. Sleep boosts recovery so allow longer day naps if they are happening. 

Always ensure your baby is not sleeping due to lethargy and severe illness, if in doubt, consult your doctor immediately. 

Some sick babies won’t sleep unless held – assisted naps to help them stay asleep are absolutely allowed if your child is unwell – see my sleep programs for a comprehensive guide on how to effectively and safely use assisted naps.

shop dr golly sleep program

An elevated sleeping position is often recommended to help sick babies sleep i.e. placing a rolled-up towel or blanket under the head of their mattress to create a slight incline – this recommendation is highly contentious and NOT recommended for any unsupervised sleep. While elevation does help with congestion as a National Red Nose/Safe Sleep Ambassador, I’m more than aware this creates an unsafe sleeping situation as it creates an environment where your baby can roll into unsafe positions.  This should only be used if your baby is being monitored for the entire sleep.

How to help a sick baby sleep and return to normal sleep after sickness

Tip 1: Try to maintain a similar routine with familiar steps 

  • These can still fit into the themes of rest, hydration and comfort – things like regular night sleep routines with a warm bath time or reading stories 

Tip 2: Try to minimise the change to routines or patterns where possible 

  • An example is moving your mattress into your baby’s room when they’re unwell, as opposed to bringing them into yours, we all sleep better in our own beds.

Tip 3: Focus on comfort – hydration and minimising congestion: 

  • For big babies and older children focus on hydration and don’t stress if their solids intake drops momentarily –  adding water or rehydration solutions/icy-poles are sometimes required to maintain fluid intake and good number of wet nappies or toilet trips
  • For smaller babies increase breastfeeds or bottles, talk to your doctor or paediatrician about adding oral rehydration solutions between feeds
  • A blocked nose for little babies will stop them feeding and can cause difficulty breathing – so clearing the congestion is key
  • If your sick baby waking every 20 minutes it may be a sign that fever or aches is preventing them from sleeping, talk to your doctor about using paracetamol or ibuprofen  

Tip 4: Give them some extra sleep support

  • Sickness and general discomfort can make it harder for babies and children to fall asleep
  • While we try to avoid a lot of these things when establishing great independent sleepers when they are sick you may rub their back until they fall asleep, picking them up for extra cuddles, or even feed/rock them to sleep

FAQ: Won’t my baby get addicted to these extra sleep comforts and sleep supports?

Don’t let the fear of them getting addicted to these extra comforts stop you – if they were great independent sleepers before they got sick, they will be again – comfort is OK and encouraged when they are sick, they will recover faster if they sleep more. 

mom caring for sick baby mom holding baby

Focus on the parents

We often underestimate how exhausting it is having sick kids – this is amplified if one or both parents also get sick at the same time.  If there’s ever time to ask for help or lean on food or delivery services this is it.  A sick agitated parent will struggle to calm and soothe a baby, so ensuring you’re doing everything you possibly can to keep yourself well and level headed will do wonders for the entire family. Sleeping, staying hydrated and eating well are the basics beyond this I want to shift our mindset that self care isn’t an indulgence – it’s an essential part of parenting.

 mom holding sick baby

Once your baby has fully recovered, rapidly return to normal sleep routines

If they were a great sleeper prior to falling ill you can expect them to adjust back to their previous routine within 2-3 days. If they were problematic sleepers prior to falling ill this can take a little longer.  

If you initially used elongated sleep training methods to support your baby’s sleep, you will not have to start from square one; you can quickly return to the previous normal.

See my baby and toddler sleep programs for more information on age appropriate routines and settling techniques and everything you need to know about your baby and child’s sleep.   

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