How to help my sick baby sleep well without derailing their great sleep habits?

How to help my sick baby sleep well without derailing their great sleep habits?

Witnessing our little ones grapple with a cold or flu for the first time can be heart-breaking. While the experience becomes more manageable as they grow, and we witness their immune systems strengthening, it's never nice to see them struggle, especially when it affects their sleep.

The encouraging news is that if you've instilled independent sleep skills in your child, minor illnesses won't necessarily disrupt their sleep routine. This is because even after a little cough temporarily wakes them they’re likely to just roll over get comfy again and go back to sleep without having to fully wake too much. Which is great as sleep itself is healing!

A recent client shared this reassuring message: "Zayne is still unwell, but thankfully he is sleeping like a king. Thank you again for all your help and advice these past two weeks. Your approach was so lovely and perfect for both Zayne and me—supportive and comforting for both of us."

If your child still heavily relies on assistance to fall asleep though, any illness is likely going to impact them a lot more, so be prepared for some extra sleepless nights. This is because a baby can wake much more often, disturbed by a runny nose or their own cough, and as soon as they find themselves awake they’ll need to call for your assistance to get them back to sleep.

And occasionally, illness can disrupt sleep for even the most confident sleepers. And when that happens, here are some tips to help them sleep well without it escalating into a full-blown sleep regression.

Please note, there are big variations in illness. So always seek medical advice for your little one’s specific situation. Health always comes first!

How to ease your baby’s discomfort to help promote better sleep

Managing pain and discomfort day and night will help ensure your baby sleeps more soundly through illness.

For extra comfort while sick, consider adding the following to your bedtime routine or throughout the day as needed:

  • Sitting in a steamy bathroom to loosen mucus
  • Administering saline nose drops and using a nasal aspirator
  • Running a cool-mist humidifier in your baby’s room–add a few drops of Eucalyptus radiata (Eucalyptus globulus is not safe for babies) to ease congestion
  • Baby massage for pain relief
  • Administering baby Panadol or Nurofen to relieve pain or fever before sleep
  • A warm bath or shower before bed
  • For babies over 12 months, you can offer a spoon of honey to help manage an irritating cough

How to dress your baby appropriately for sleep when they’re sick

Keep your baby’s room cool and dark, and dress them in breathable fabrics like cotton and bamboo, ensuring they don’t overheat. Babies regulate their temperature mainly through their heads and faces. So, it’s crucial that you keep their cot free from pillows, loose blankets, and underlays and that they sleep on a firm flat mattress to reduce risks of overheating (never raise your baby’s mattress on an incline as this increases the risks of SIDS and sleeping accidents).

If your home starts off quite warm but tends to cool down in the early hours, consider dressing your baby in a lightweight sleeping bag for the first part of the night. After a night feed, you can then switch them into a warmer sleeping bag.

If your baby is under three months and has a fever–or, at any age, is having difficulty with breathing or feeding–take them to a hospital emergency department immediately.

If your baby is older than three months and presents with a fever, see your local GP for advice and a check-up as soon as possible.

Keep them well-hydrated day and night

During the day offer extra milk feedings and extra water if over 6 months. While unwell, even if your baby is weaned from night feedings, they may temporarily need the breast or bottle at night to stay adequately hydrated.

Some babies will continue to wake for a milk feed overnight even once well again, but you can just slowly wean this again once they’re feeling better. Or, if they typically don't feed overnight anymore and are not significantly unwell, you can offer them water for any wakes during the night instead.

Babies become dehydrated more quickly than adults because of their small size. Wet diapers are an effective indicator of hydration. If your baby has fewer than six wet diapers in 24 hours; they’re dry for a period of over 2 hours; or their urine appears darker, they are likely dehydrated. Always call your GP for advice.

Should I let my baby sleep longer during the day when they’re sick?

Clients frequently ask us whether to let their baby sleep more during the day than usual when they’re sick, and as a general rule, yes. If your baby has a cold or virus and is sleepy, you can let them sleep a little longer for naps. If you’re following the Baby Sleep Code nap and feeding routines you would put them down a little earlier than typical or let them sleep longer than usual.

But keep in mind that even when sick, babies will still only need a certain amount of sleep over a rough 24 hour period. You still want to allow sleep pressure to build over the day, so they get the restorative night sleep critical to their recovery as well. If they max out on sleep during the day, they may not get the evening rest they need. Adequate sleep boosts our immune systems and will help your little one recover more quickly.

Should I assist my baby to sleep when they’re sick?

Offer some extra cuddles and extend their wind-down routine before sleep. You might need to bring bedtime about 30 minutes earlier to prevent them from going to bed overtired. If your little one typically falls asleep independently and you want to maintain that routine, always try letting them continue to do so first— they’ll often surprise you.

If they're really struggling, still encourage them to fall asleep in their crib, but stay with them longer and provide some hands-on comfort to help keep them calm. It’s still good to encourage them to fall asleep in their crib as it will reduce the likelihood of them waking shortly after, wondering where you've gone, which can happen if they initially fell asleep on you.

If you're worried about your baby's well-being overnight, instead of bringing them into your bed (which increases the risk of SIDS and sleeping accidents), place a mattress in their room. This way, you can keep a close eye on them throughout the night while ensuring they continue to sleep in a safe sleep environment.

Make sure to take turns with another parent or caregiver if your baby needs to be held upright for sleep through the night, as the risk of SIDS is 50 times higher for babies if you fall asleep on a sofa or armchair with them.

Comforting during night wakes without causing a big regression

For independent sleepers, the key to avoiding a longer-term regression is being there to help soothe them and ensure they’re as comfortable as possible, BUT try to let them continue to initiate sleep when feasible.

So this might mean offering water or a feed for any night wakes, but then placing them back in their crib once they’re calm to fall asleep again. If they wake up and won’t settle back in their crib even after water or a feed, try offering infant paracetamol or ibuprofen and once calm try the crib again with some hands on support.

But if all that fails, please don’t feel you must either force your child to tough it out or undo good sleep habits, do whatever works (as long as you can do so safely) and then look to get sleep on track when they’re up to it again.

PS. Struggling with a post illness regression? Book a Free 15 min chat to see how we can help you get sleep happening again.