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4 reasons why your baby is fighting sleep (and what to do about it)

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Has your baby been fighting sleep at naps and bedtime lately? As a mother of two and a baby sleep coach, I know how frustrating it can be when you need a break to get things done and your baby seems to be refusing to go to sleep! So, I wrote this post to share with you 4 possible reasons why they are fighting sleep as well as related tips to help you navigate this challenging situation. Let's dive right in!

Reason #1: Baby is under or overtired

To understand why under/overtiredness can lead to baby fighting sleep, it may be helpful to explain the concept of sleep pressure. Sleep pressure is what drives us to sleep. It increases the longer we are awake, and it builds up faster in babies and children than in adults. When your baby has a nap, the sleep pressure wears off a bit and will allow your baby to stay awake for another stretch of time. If not enough sleep pressure has built up when you are trying to get baby to sleep, then baby will have a harder time going to sleep and will appear to be fighting sleep. Similarly, if too much sleep pressure has built up, then baby may have a harder time falling asleep due to the build-up of cortisol (stress hormone).

What to do? You could spend a few days logging your baby’s nap times and bedtime, keeping note of when they become tired and when they fall asleep. This will give you a rough idea of their “wake window”, which is the amount of time they can be awake before becoming overtired. Another suggestion is to determine your baby’s unique tired cues, which are changes in their behaviour or specific actions that indicate it is time for them to sleep. Some examples are glossy eyes, pulling ears or hair, and wanting to be picked up. For more information on this topic as well as tables to help you track your baby’s sleep times, click on the following link for a free download.

Reason #2: Baby may not be calm enough to fall asleep

In order for babies to feel secure enough to enter into sleep, they need to be in a relaxed state. Furthermore, it is important to note that babies are not capable of calming themselves from an elevated level of stress. They require the assistance of a caregiver to do so.

What to do? It is important to tune into what your baby finds soothing and make use of this at sleep time. For example, sucking is typically an action most babies find soothing so you could ensure their hands are free to allow them to suck on their fingers, use bottle/breastfeeding or a pacifier. (Whatever works best for you and baby!) Another aspect to tune into is which kind of movements help soothe baby to sleep. Typically, repetitive, rhythmic movements help provide calming vestibular input to babies’ nervous system. For example, bouncing them on an exercise ball, using a rocking chair, swaying in arms, are all great ways of helping them calm down to go to sleep. It is completely normal that babies require parental assistance to go to sleep so do not worry about setting up bad habits. With relation to babies needing their caregivers to help them calm down from a heightened level of stress, it is important to try to remain as calm as possible while helping your baby go to sleep. If you are feeling frustrated during the routine, it is best to take a break and try again later as baby may pick up on this stress and therefore, resist going to sleep. Another suggestion is to try to incorporate aspects into the routine that you also find calming such as a particular type of music or dim lighting in the room where baby will be sleeping.

Reason #3: Baby is uncomfortable

Some possible reasons are: baby is too hot or too cold, they are gassy or experiencing teething pain. All these things could lead to them “fighting sleep” as similar to us, it is hard for them to fall asleep when they are not comfortable. To determine if your baby is too hot or too cold, the best way is to feel the back of the neck. Some signs that baby is too cold include moving around the crib, preferring tummy position, tucking hands into body and waking often wanting to be held. Some signs that baby is too hot include being sweaty and hot around neck and back, breathing too fast or shallow, and having flushed, red skin. Signs that baby is gassy include squirming as though they are uncomfortable, pulling legs up to their chest and being difficult to console. Signs that baby is experiencing teething pain include being fussier than usual, drooling, refusing milk, and gum appearing sore and red where the tooth is coming through.

What to do? Once you have determined potential cause, you can try out different strategies to ease their discomfort. For example, if baby is too hot, you could remove a layer of clothing and/or adjust the room temperature. (Note: Ideally, room temperature should be between 20 to 22 degrees Celsius (68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit). If you have determined that baby is gassy, you could try laying them on their back and pedaling their legs with your hands to help them expel gas. (Note: if excess gas is an ongoing issue, it is something you should talk to your doctor/naturopath/lactation consultant about as it could be due to a food sensitivity or an undiagnosed tongue tie). If you have determined that baby is experiencing teething pain, you could let them chew on a cold object such as a clean, cool washcloth; rub their gums with a clean finger and/or breastfeed if possible as it contains natural pain-relieving substances.

Reason #4: Baby is going through a sleep progression

Sleep progressions are periods where your baby is going through intense growth and development, which can lead to them sleeping less than usual and fighting sleep. We call them "sleep progressions" instead of "regressions" in the Baby-Led Sleep approach as it can help us focus on the fact that our baby is thriving and growing as they are meant to. These progressions happen at various stages but most commonly at 4 months, 6 months, 8-10 months, 1 year, 18 months and 2 years.

What to do? The specific strategies differ somewhat depending on the particular progression baby is going through, but in general, I would suggest trying to have as much patience and flexibility during these times. For example, try different strategies to get them to sleep such as using a carrier or going for a walk in the stroller. Also, many of these progressions relate to baby learning new skills, such as pulling up to stand, sitting unassisted, walking, etc. Therefore, giving them lots of time throughout the day to work on these skills could help so they aren’t wanting to practice at sleep times! Furthermore, some of the progressions such as 8-10 months and 1 year progression are marked by peaks in separation anxiety, so ensuring you are spending connected, one-on-one time with your baby throughout the day and particularly before sleep times could go a long way to help them feel more secure.

I hope that by reading this post, you were able to find the explanation you were looking for as to why your baby is fighting sleep. Let me know in the comments below if you found this helpful and if you have any other questions about this topic!

Written by: Aileen Dunbar, Founder of Connected Slumber Baby/Toddler Sleep Support.

Looking for 1:1 support? Click here to see my different available packages based on your particular sleep situation with your baby or toddler.

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