Unwell babies or toddlers can still get a good night’s rest. In fact, they need it more! Here’s how to help your child sleep when sick.
At one point, my family got hit hard and fast by the stomach flu. It was not pretty and took a while for us all to get back on our feet. Most of our normal rules and expectations went out the window.
TV was limitless, we ate cereal for dinner, and our sleep was all over the place.
Bedtime was earlier some days, late on others. Naps were longer on some days, and on others, they happened multiple times per day. With a lot of little ones, we usually stick to a pretty strict schedule that keeps everyone well-rested and happy. But this was not the week to worry about schedules.
Because when you’re sick, rest is the goal
Sickness is one of those major wrenches that get thrown into a good sleep plan. Here is one of the most common questions I get.
“What do I do when she gets sick?”
I’m giving my best wisdom here to help navigate these tricky times.
Evaluate what level of sickness you’re dealing with.
This is obvious, but not all sickness is the same. A minor cold really shouldn’t throw much of a wrench into your normal sleep routine. On the other hand, a major flu or surgery most definitely will.
This is especially the case when, for instance, you need to administer medication throughout the night. Or your child needs to be held upright for comfort and ease of breathing.
Ear infections do tend to affect sleep a lot because laying down puts pressure on the ears, so if you have a child suddenly waking up screaming in pain at night, definitely get them to the doctor. Once, my son was waking up at 5:30 in the morning for several mornings (very unlike him) and – lo and behold – double ear infection.
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Start with the least amount of intervention.
Even a very sick child may sometimes surprise you and continue to sleep through the night without assistance. This is especially true for a child who already has all the skills to sleep independently.
So, try not to go right to rocking them to sleep. If they need some assistance, try first patting them or shushing without holding. Of course, if you end up needing to rock them, don’t worry about it – just enjoy the snuggles – and know you can get back on track as soon as they’re feeling better.
If you haven’t done so already, start instilling those healthy sleep habits that will carry him through his early years with adequate rest. Not only will everyone’s immune systems be better able to fight off these nasty bugs, but you’ll recover more quickly, too!
Many moms – many – find themselves in trouble with sleep habits after a sickness or bout with illness. They threw the normal sleep routines out the window and created new more hands on habits that their little ones loved. Of course. But these habits then went on for weeks or months afterwards and must be broken.
Best to avoid starting those unless necessary. Children who can already sleep independently can usually do so through sleep with some pain and symptom management so they are comfy.
Try a dream dose.
Of course, we have to balance helping our child sleep when sick with also making sure they are getting the treatment they need to get better. Similar to a dream feed, you can try giving them their next dose of medication without waking them up. Just put the syringe to their lips and see if you can trigger their sucking reflex.
If needed, sit them up right a little bit, but try not to wake them fully. Keep lights as low as possible and don’t interact too much.
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Allow for extra sleep – but not too much.
Again, this depends on the severity of their illness – for our family, my kids fell asleep whenever and where ever they needed – but they still surprisingly stayed mostly on schedule.
Even though it’s tempting to let your baby sleep in late or take 4-hour naps, you still might end up with a situation where they are fighting bedtime or waking up really early.
My rule of thumb is to let them sleep a half hour longer than usual – in the morning or for naps – but generally cap the naps and aim for early bedtime, as this is when they’ll get their most restorative sleep.
Make sure your child is already a great sleeper.
A kid that is already sleep trained, not overtired, and used to sleeping independently, will bounce back quite fast from an illness, even if all the sleep rules had to be thrown out the window.
However, if you start with a baby or toddler who already had some sleep crutches (i.e. needing to be fed or rocked to sleep), an illness can send you down a slippery slope that has you rocking him back to sleep all night like he’s a newborn again.
Another great thing about already having a great sleeper is that because their norm is sleeping all night, you know something is really wrong if they’re suddenly waking up screaming.
Sleep Training Checklist
Ready for everyone to start sleeping better? Use this checklist to help you get there.
If your previously great sleeper has developed some bad sleep habits again, just go back to ground zero. We may throw things out the window to help our child sleep when sick. But, we should go back to our healthy sleep habits as soon as our little ones are healthy.
Once she’s sufficiently recovered, go back to your previous habits cold turkey. It should go much faster than the first time around, and she’ll get right back in her groove.