Helping Your Sick Child Sleep
It’s official…flu season is in full swing and this year’s season has been one of the worst. It hit my family of 4 in early October and took us all down for a solid 2 weeks! And it’s not just the flu going around. Stomach viruses, strep throat, allergies and more have been abundant this fall and winter. When your health suffers, inevitably so does your sleep. This is true for adults and children alike, but for children it often seems that this regression in sleep lasts far beyond the sickness.
I want to give you some tips for handling sickness so that you don’t permanently derail all of your child’s good sleeping habits. You can expect your child’s sleep to suffer when they are not feeling well, but in order for this sleep regression to be a temporary one, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind.
The first is your baby is going to wake in the night. When you aren’t feeling well, you probably don’t sleep as well either. You can expect the same for your child. It is realistic for your child to have two, five, even more nighttime wake-ups during the night, even if they normally sleep through the night. How you handle those wake-ups will make a big difference.
The biggest mistake parents make is that they start to intervene in their child’s sleep skills, and ultimately confuse their baby’s expectations around sleep. Usually this means parents recognize that their child is having a hard time falling asleep, so they try to do it for them by rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep, laying with their child, etc. In many cases, this means parents are reverting back to old habits they had previously worked hard to break.
I understand why people do that because you want to comfort your child when she is sick, and I am not saying you shouldn’t comfort her. You can absolutely go in to check on your child. Have a short cuddle, wipe her nose, give her a drink of water or some medicine, whatever you need to do to offer some comfort, but you do not want to interfere with her sleep skills.
This means you want to avoid rocking her back to sleep, feeding her back to sleep or doing anything that will confuse your child’s expectations around sleep. For families who have worked hard to break negative sleep associations or promote independent sleep skills, suddenly reverting back to old habits can quickly undo all your hard work. Children do best with clear and predictable boundaries. She is not going to understand that the only reason you reverted back to old habits is because she was sick. All she learns is that the boundaries are flexible, so she will likely start to expect you to do these same things even after the sickness has passed.
If your baby normally goes all night without feeding, then you want to maintain that even when sick. The only time you would ever go back to a nighttime feed, obviously, is if your doctor or pediatrician recommends it. If she has had a high fever for several days, she might need some extra fluids through the night. In this case, you can offer a feeding at night, but do your best to keep her awake during that feeding so she can put herself back to sleep after the feeding.
If you start feeding in the middle of the night due to sickness, you want to make sure that those feedings only happen for a few nights. Three nights is my rule of thumb. If anything happens for more than three nights, then there is the danger that the baby is going to now expect this and start waking up looking for feeds even when she is well again.
Another big mistake parents make is that they bring their baby into bed with them. Again, I understand it. I had a son who suffered from terrible acid reflux and chronic ear infections for the first year of his life. I understand where that desire comes from. You want to comfort your sick child, and sometimes keep an eye on him. If you are really concerned about your child through the night, it is much better for you to go to him than to bring him to you.
It is ok to throw down an air mattress and spend a night or two in your child’s room to keep an eye on him. Again, remembering my rule of threes, try not to do it for any longer than three nights or you might find yourself six months later still sleeping beside his bed.
If everything falls apart, cut yourself a bit of slack. Sometimes it happens. Know that as soon as your child is well again, you can get right back on track with the routines and boundaries you had around sleep before she was sick. If your child used to sleep well and independently before she got sick, then you know she is perfectly capable of it, so you just need to remind her how to use her own skills. With consistency, your child will fall right back into her usual good sleeping patterns soon.
If your child didn’t sleep well before he was a sick and things have just gone from bad to worse, use the link below to book a FREE evaluation call with Dream Factory Sleep Solutions to learn how to establish healthy sleep habits for quality sleep all the time.