How illness can impact your baby’s sleep

Key Points:

  1. Be flexible with your baby's routine when they're sick and understand their unique responses.
  2. Maintain settling and soothing practices learned, adapting as needed based on your baby's age and development.
  3. Prioritise your baby's comfort and recovery through extra sleep, cuddles, and keeping them close.
  4. Support your baby's health by ensuring proper hydration, following medication guidelines, and maintaining a calm, comfortable environment for sleep.

It’s true to say that at some stage, all babies get sick. No matter how much loving care and protection they receive, there are times when they become unwell. Apart from needing to manage their symptoms, there are often changes in a baby’s sleep, feeding and awake routine when they’re sick. It can help to know what to do and how best to cope when they’re just not themselves. Whilst there are resources available such as our Baby Sleep Guide, this article covers the basics.

Be very flexible in your expectations around your baby’s routine when they’re sick. Even if they’re normally the most predictable of little people, don’t expect them to follow the same patterns as when they’re well.

Remember that your little baby is a unique individual. How they respond and behave when they’re sick may be very different to other babies of the same age. Some babies become more vocal when they’re sick and cry more than they usually do, others become (unusually) quiet and just seem to retreat into themselves.

Oh no, we’re going back to square one!

It’s common for parents to worry that all their good work with settling their baby has gone forever. But the truth is that once they’ve recovered, most babies go back to where they were before they became unwell. Sometimes this takes a little persuasion and a few gentle days (and nights) of reminding. But the beauty for parents in learning settling skills, is that these can be applied no matter what stage their baby may be.  Sometimes there needs to be a few adaptations depending on a baby’s age and development, but the principles of settling and soothing remain fairly consistent.

When they’re sick, expect your baby to:

  1. Need more sleep. Sleeping helps to support recovery and healing and importantly, for the immune system to work effectively. Following your baby’s-tired cues is important most of the time, but when they’re sick, this will become even more valuable.
  2. Need more cuddles and want to be nursed to sleep, even if you’ve been trying a few settling changes. The priority when your baby is sick is to support their recovery and to help them feel better.
  3. Wake more frequently, especially overnight, even if they’re been ‘sleeping through’. Babies tend to breathe through their nose and if they have a stuffy nose, they’re likely to be unsettled.
  4. Perhaps need more sleep to ‘catch up’ in the day if they’ve had a wakeful night.

Top 10 settling tips when your baby is sick

  1. Make time to prioritise your baby’s cares. They’ll need you to be physically and emotionally available to support them when they’re sick.
  2. Consider offering your baby extra sleeps during the day. Even short naps can help to support recovery.
  3. Give your baby relaxing baths and a massage before settling them to sleep. Just as bathing helps us to calm and settle before going to bed, babies also benefit from having their comfort and hygiene needs met.
  4. Be open to moving your baby’s cot into your room or close by so you can keep a close eye on them. Always follow the safe sleeping recommendations.
  5. If your baby is having medication, always follow the prescriber and manufacturer’s recommendations on dosage and frequency. Pain and fever relieving medications can cause sleepiness and incorrect dosing can lead to overdosage.
  6. If your baby has a congested nose, speak with your GP or Child Health Nurse about ways to clear their nasal passages. Saline drops, which help to liquify nasal secretions and small ‘sucker’ devices are available from pharmacies which both help breathing to become easier.
  7. Consider your baby’s comfort when they settle to sleep – small things can make a big difference. Clean cot sheets, a well-ventilated room and a calm and relaxed environment for sleeping will all help your baby to relax and ‘switch off’ and calm.
  8. Expect changes in your baby’s usual feeding routine. Breastfed babies often want to feed more frequently and comfort suck when they’re sick. Likewise, formula fed babies may want to ‘snack’ feed more often and not tolerate their usual volume of milk. Follow your baby’s hunger cues when they’re sick.  Even if it’s been a while since your baby has wanted overnight feeds, expect more wakeups and need for feeding.
  9. Be mindful of your baby’s hydration – if they have a fever or are vomiting, with or without diarrhoea, they will be at risk of becoming dehydrated. Six or more, pale, wet nappies in a 24-hour period, moist eyes and mouth and being alert are all signs of good hydration.
  10. Where possible, follow your baby’s usual routines for settling and bedtime. If your baby always uses a sleeping bag, has a story before settling or a feed just before going down, stick with these settling associations.  That way you’ll feel as if you are retaining some of their usual routines.

Tips to help you get through those times when your baby is sick

  1. Avoid blaming yourself or feeling guilty if your baby isn’t well. All babies (and adults) have times when they’re sick and often, this is unavoidable.
  2. Remind yourself that colds, ear infections and tummy upsets in babies usually clear after a few days though at the time, it can seem like forever.
  3. If possible, make time to just be available for your baby in whatever way they need you. Cancel non-urgent activities, apply for carer’s leave from (paid) work and just plan for a few quiet days at home.
  4. Rest when you can and once your baby is well, ease back into your everyday routines.

Always follow your ‘gut feeling’ about when to have your baby checked. You know them better than anyone else – it’s always useful to do what feels right.

  1. Practice some mindfulness in those hours when you just need to hold your baby close. You will look back on these times and be glad you prioritised them and their needs.  
  2. Accept all reasonable offers of support. It can be really hard to cope when our children are sick, especially when they’re little and can’t communicate what’s wrong. Don’t underestimate the emotional and physical exhaustion you’re likely to feel when your baby is sick. Make some time each day to care for yourself and if possible, have a break just to re-energise.

One more thing …

Even though sleep can be restorative and help support recovery, too much sleep can sometimes be concerning. If your baby is sleeping for long periods of time, not waking for feeds or is difficult to rouse, have them checked by a doctor as soon as possible.

About the Author:

Written for Nourish Baby by Jane Barry. Jane has qualifications in general, paediatric, immunisation, midwifery and child health nursing. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Nursing) and has almost 35 years specialist experience in child health nursing. She is a member of a number of professionally affiliated organisations including AHPRA, The Australasian Medical Writer’s Association and Australian College of Children and Young People’s Nurses.


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