How illness can affect your baby’s sleep
Tips to help your baby settle when they’re sick
22 January 2024
No matter how much we care for our babies and protect them as best we can, unfortunately at some stage they all get sick. As well as any specific symptoms of the illness, being unwell can also affect their sleep and feeding routines.
Ternity Group’s Nourish Baby Health Writer, Jane Barry gives us some tips for helping babies to settle when they’re sick, and the importance of self-care for parents and carers.
What can I expect when my baby is unwell?
Every baby is different and how they respond to being sick varies from baby to baby. Some babies become more vocal and cry more than usual while others become (unusually) quiet. But in general, you can expect a baby who’s feeling unwell to:
- Need more sleep. Sleeping helps to support their recovery and healing so following your baby’s tired cues is even more important when they’re sick.
- Wake more. Even if they’re usually sleeping through the night, they tend to wake more when they’re unwell (especially if they have a stuffy nose).
- Take more time to settle. Your baby may want to be fed or cuddled to sleep so you may have to put any settling ‘progress’ on the back burner until they’re feeling better.
How can I support my baby’s settling?
It’s important to be flexible with your baby’s routine when they’re sick. Even if they’re normally predictable, don’t expect them to follow the same pattern when they’re unwell. You can help your baby to settle by:
- Putting them first. They need you to be physically and emotionally available to support them when they’re sick.
- Offering them extra sleep. Even short naps can help them to recover so extra sleeps during the day can be helpful (especially if they’ve had a restless night).
- Giving them a relaxing bath. Give your baby a bath and massage to help calm and settle them before they go to sleep.
- Keeping a close eye on them. Think about moving your baby’s cot into your room (don’t forget to follow safe sleeping recommendations).
- Following correct dosages. If your baby is having medication, always follow your GP’s advice and check the manufacturer’s guidelines for dosage and frequency.
- Clearing their nasal passages. If your baby has a congested nose then saline drops and small ‘sucker’ devices can help them to breathe easier. Your GP or pharmacist can give you advice.
- Enhancing their sleeping environment. Small things can make a big difference to your baby’s sleep – clean cot sheets, a well-ventilated room, and calm and relaxing surroundings.
- Being flexible with their feeding. They may want to feed more frequently so follow your baby’s hunger cues (and expect more wakeups!).
- Keeping them hydrated. A fever or vomiting, with or without diarrhoea, can increase the risk of dehydration. Six or more, pale, wet nappies in a 24-hour period, moist eyes and mouth and being alert are all signs that your baby is well hydrated.
- Being consistent (where you can!). If your baby uses a sleeping bag or has a story or feed before bedtime, stick with these settling associations to maintain their routine as much as possible.
Don’t forget about self-care
Don’t underestimate the emotional and physical exhaustion you may feel when your baby is sick. Make some time each day to care for yourself and, if possible, have a break to re-energise. It’s important to remember:
- It’s not your fault. All babies (and adults) get sick and often it’s unavoidable so don’t feel guilty if your baby isn’t well.
- It won’t last forever. Colds, ear infections and tummy upsets in babies usually clear after a few days (even if it feels like forever at the time!).
- Not to juggle too much. Cancel non-urgent activities, apply for carer’s leave from (paid) work and just plan for a few quiet days at home if you can.
- To rest when you can. Sleep or at least relax when you can (tidying can wait!) and ease back into your everyday routines gently when your baby is feeling better.
- To practice mindfulness. Use the time when you’re sitting and holding your baby to reduce stress, improve your sleep and support your mental health.
- To accept (helpful!) offers of support. It’s hard when babies are sick (especially when they’re little and can’t communicate) so accept help from friends and family.
See a doctor if you’re worried
Even though sleep can be healing and help support their recovery, too much sleep can sometimes be a sign that’s something wrong. It’s important to see a doctor if your baby:
- is becoming less alert or less active
- has a high fever
- isn’t feeding, eating or drinking
- isn’t passing urine
- is vomiting a lot
- has a bad headache
- has a rash that doesn’t disappear if you press a glass against it
- has difficulty breathing, bluish or very pale skin.
You know your baby best so listen to your gut feeling and if you think their illness is getting worse, see your doctor.
Colds in kids & teens: how to treat them | Raising Children Network
Looking after a sick child - symptoms, care, illnesses | healthdirect
Colds and flu in babies and children | Pregnancy Birth and Baby
Ternity Group supports Teachers Health members through the New Families Program.
Nourish Baby Health Writer Jane Barry 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.