2 Ways Illness Affects Your Baby or Toddler’s Sleep (And Sleep Training)

How Illness Affects Baby Toddler Sleep
I LOVE fall. Pretty leaves! Hot cider! Chilly temps! Pumpkin-flavored EVERYTHING!! But I have to admit, there’s one thing I definitely don’t like about fall — the start of cold and flu season. While cold and flu season officially peaks in January and February, it starts in early October. I’ve had one nasty cold already — and given that I have three children under the age of 7 living in my home, I’m sure it won’t be my last! 🙁

And guess what? As much as we parents will try our hardest to prevent it, our babies and toddlers are probably going to come down with a few viruses this season, too. And this raises an important question: how will these inevitable illnesses affect our babies’ and toddlers’ sleep?

Fortunately for you, that’s exactly what we’re talking about today! So read on, parents, and find out what you can expect, sleep-wise, this cold and flu season.

2 Ways That Illness Will Likely Affect Your Baby or Toddler’s Sleep

Most parents find that illness affects their babies’ and toddlers’ sleep in these two ways:

  1. Your baby or toddler’s overall sleep amounts increase. This isn’t surprising, right? Illness affects us adults in the same way. And it’s no wonder — fighting off infection is hard work! That’s why fatigue is a symptom of just about every illness there is. In fact, fatigue and fever (which is your body’s way of fighting illness) often go hand-in-hand. Here’s a little aside: remember that fever itself is actually a sign that your child’s body is fighting infection. So no need to treat the fever unless it gets too high (over 104) or unless your child seems to be in pain. Sometimes, it’s best to let the fever run its course without medication.

    When your baby or toddler comes down with a virus, don’t be surprised if she naps more than usual, or if she seems ready for bed quite early (or sleeps in quite late.) This is perfectly normal. The best thing you can do is to let your baby or toddler sleep as much as she wants to (I know — so tough, right? 😉 ) Honestly, this is one of the upsides to your little one’s illness (if illness can have an upside) — you will end up with a lot more downtime than you normally have! So soak it up while you have it. I usually use my kids’ sick days to catch up on chores, work ahead on my writing, and read as much as I can of whatever book I happen to be devouring at the moment. 🙂

    Of course, if your baby or toddler’s extra-sleepy state lasts for longer than you feel is normal (longer than, say, 5-7 days), or if you become at all concerned that something more serious than a simple cold or flu may be happening, don’t hesitate to contact a healthcare provider.

  2. Your baby or toddler may wake more often than normal. Just when you thought it was all ‘more naps’ sunshine and ‘earlier bedtime’ roses…here comes the bad news. While it’s true that your baby or toddler will probably sleep more, overall, than he usually does, he will probably also wake more often than usual (particularly if he takes really long naps, or if he is sleeping through the night). For instance, a baby who normally sleeps through the night may wake a few times and need comfort. (This is especially true for stomach viruses — if your baby or toddler gets a stomach bug, prepare for some middle-of-the-night vomiting and/or diarrhea!)

    Same is true for naps. You might find that your normally-great napper takes shorter naps than usual, because he wakes from each nap early, out of discomfort. Instead of taking his usual long naps, your little one may take a series of shorter naps. Again, overall napping amounts will probably be greater, but you may not get those long stretches of sleep that you’re used to.

    I have found that my kids usually wake often at night, or wake early from naps, in the first 48 hours of an illness. After that, their symptoms (usually) calm down, and they start to gradually return to their normal sleeping habits.

Illness and Sleep Training: What Should You Do?

What if your little one falls ill in the midst of sleep training? What do you do then? Do you power through and keep coaching through the illness? Or do you ‘press pause’ and wait until your baby or toddler is healthy before resuming your sleep training?

Here’s our advice: if your baby or toddler is flat-out miserable, stop what you are doing, sleep-training wise, and focus on nursing your little one back to health. This may mean you end up taking a few steps back — you may need to rock/feed/swing to sleep again, for instance. But this is okay – it’s just a short-term solution to a short-term problem. But remember, to guard against short-term coddling becoming long-term sleep struggles, be sure you get back to your normal routine as soon as your baby or toddler is on the upswing. Wait too long, and it can feel like you’re starting all over with sleep training!

However, if your child is sick with a little sniffle, and seems to feel okay, you can continue on with your sleep training as normal. Basically, use your judgment, and treat your baby or toddler the way you would want to be treated in the same situation. Not many of us would drag ourselves into work if we were vomiting and had a 103 fever, right? So don’t ‘push through’ something like that with your little one! On the flip side, though, I’m sure all of us have gone on with our lives as normal when we had mild colds; your baby or toddler can probably do the same.

Sleep Training in Sickness and in Health!

Sleep “speed bumps” like illness, teething, and sleep regressions may slow down your sleep coaching progress, but they certainly don’t have to undo all of your sleep coaching progress! If you need more detailed tips on sleep coaching during illness without undoing everything, be sure to check out our article in our VIP Members Area, an extension of your village of sleep support. Or, if you are tired of reading, why not connect with one of our expert sleep consultants, and get professional help in navigating your little one’s sleep speed bumps? Your consultant will craft a Personalized Sleep Plan™ just for you that outlines exactly how you can navigate a speed bump like illness.

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20 thoughts on “2 Ways Illness Affects Your Baby or Toddler’s Sleep (And Sleep Training)”

  1. Hang in there @ Tiffany!! It sounds like you are back on the right track, and things are progressing nicely! Thank you for writing back and we hope that things continue to go well!

  2. Yes setbacks are disappointing and exhausting! The night after I wrote on here he did sleep fine getting up only once close to his normal time before the fever (4-5am) to eat. From this point on I’m just trying to let him make sounds or cry it out if he wakes up before 3 or 4 am depending on what time he goes to bed and it’s been working. He usually falls back to sleep after a few minutes. Though I can’t help but wait anxiously for the day when he don’t have to take 3 naps a day and a nap and bed time are consistent! Thanks for responding!

  3. @ Cat — okay, I see. Thanks for the clarification.

    A few things: first, don’t waste a minute feeling bad about co-sleeping. It doesn’t have to be scary or dangerous, provided you do it safely. And while some families co-sleep intentionally, and for philosophical reasons, LOTS of families do just what you’re doing. They never planned to co-sleep, but they do it for a season. Nothing wrong with that, until you decide that you’re over it and ready to go back to normal – and it sounds like you’re close to that point. 😉

    Here’s what I’d suggest – once you feel ready to sleep train your son again, move him temporarily into your bedroom. Do your usual bedtime routine, but then put your daughter down in her crib and your son down in your room (in a portable crib, maybe). This will give you greater freedom in working with him to re-teach how to self-soothe, because you won’t have to swoop in to grab him at the first sounds – you’ll have more flexibility to allow for a little bit of limited crying.

    Does that make sense? Hopefully, it won’t take long for him to re-learn how to self-soothe, and then you can move him back into the nursery and go back to business as usual at bedtime.

    Hope this is helpful, Cat! Keep us posted on what happens. 🙂 And thanks for commenting!

  4. Thank you so much for addressing my comment! (I find it amazing!)

    Currently, I’ve been doing bottles and books in the twins’ nursery, as usual, put my daughter in her crib, and (unsuccessfully) attempt to put my son in his. As soon as he begins to kick and/or whimper, I wisk him away out of the room. (But I keep up the attempt, so possibly, on some level, he might realize that it’s my expectation that he sleeps in his crib in his room (?)). Then, I lie down with him in my bed. I know– co sleeping is scary–and I swore I’d never be like “one of those hippie moms,” but then I had a colicky baby, and it literally solved the problem. But we don’t have a spare room, and he settles pretty quickly. Then, later in the night, I either sneak him back into his crib, or when he wakes for his 2am bottle/ diaper change, I put him (still awake!) in his crib and he goes down, no problem.
    So we’re surviving, and making it work. Although I don’t love 7:00 as a bedtime for ME, and my house desperately misses my cleaning that I used to get done after the twins went to sleep. I just hope sleep training my son again soon won’t be too painful and won’t ruin my daughter’s good work in that area!

    Thanks again

  5. @ Christina — absolutely! Happy to have helped. 🙂

    @ Cat — oy, this sounds tough, especially considering you’re doing it solo much of the time! That has to be so, so hard.

    One suggestion, off the top of my head – have you tried sleeping your son in a different room? Like maybe in a pack-n-play in your room, or in a spare room (if you have one)? Or even in the living room, or something? Sound’s like he’s the nighttime ‘offender’ for the most part; if you removed him from the situation, and knew he couldn’t wake your daughter, would you feel better about not having to race to him every time he starts to cry?

    If you do that, then you could gradually begin sleep coaching your son again (in a manner that doesn’t induce barfing, of course!)

    What do you think of that idea?

  6. About a month ago, my twin son and daughter were sleep trained champs! We’d do baths, brush teeth, bottles, books; they’d hit the deck in their cribs, and I could actually do some cleaning, work, or even (gasp!) watch a whole tv show. But. Then my son got sick, and became very needy. His sleep training went out the window, although my daughter stayed the course. When he was feeling better, but had some lingering mucus, we went back to the normal bedtime routine. But he would cry so hard and work himself up until he vomited–(all within 5 minutes of me leaving the room!). That, of course, needed tending to, so it would wake my daughter (they share the nursery in our small but wonderful home.). This happened for three nights, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d try putting them down as usual, but when he started to cry, I’d run in to grab him, (fearing the seemingly inevitable barfing situation,) which, all of the sudden now she’d wake too. Now, at 16 months, it’s as if we’re at square one with sleep training. My husband works a lot of nights, so I’m often on my own with this issue, and big toddler twins who I can no longer lift easily with one arm make easing into the crib nearly impossible! Looking for ANY advice…

  7. @ Christina — I’d say yes. When you start, you want everything to be as normal as possible. Ideally, you’d have two full weeks of normal (no schedule surprises, no illnesses, no teething, etc.) But that’s not always possible, of course, since you can’t control those circumstances. However, you can control your sleep coaching start date, so yes, I’d say push it back until she seems healthy again. 🙂

    Good question, Christina! Thanks for commenting.

    @ Tiffany — oooh, this is tough! Been there (unfortunately!!) It’s amazing how one little setback and undo so much progress, isn’t it?

    In terms of how to deal with this — if he seems 100% fine again, then you could be right – he could be reverting to old habits (i.e. crying for you every time he wakes). However, it sounds like you don’t feel comfortable doing a ‘cold turkey’ approach, and just leaving him to work it out on his own. (Which is FINE, by the way – perfectly understandable!) You could try to slowly step things back to where they were by comforting him when he cries, but gradually increasing the amount of time you leave him on his own. Maybe check in 10 minutes after he starts crying, and then a few days later, make it 15 or 20, etc. etc. That’s one approach, anyway.

    Do keep us posted on what happens, Tiffany – and thanks for commenting! 🙂

  8. My son (6 mos. old) had a fever that came and went with medicine from sat.-wed. Not 100% sure, but think it was from teething. He already got his bottom 2 teeth in and it went the same way with the fever a week before I noticed the teeth. Anyway, before he came down with this last fever I’d just put him in his own room (in his playpen)to sleep from our bedroom and he was finally sleeping about 7 hours straight! (before that nights were a nightmare with him constantly waking up anywhere from 1-3 hours all night long!) Then once he started not feeling well all that went out the window! Very frustrating! Wed. night he was fever free, but still woke up after only a couple hours of sleep. When last night came I thought for sure he should be able to sleep longer, but the crying began again after only a couple hours of sleep. I tried to let him go for about 20 minutes to see if he would stop, but he didn’t and I caved (changed him and nursed him). If he should wake up again tonight do you think it’s just because he’s used to getting up and getting my attention like during his illness? And should I just let him cry? Please help! Thank you!

  9. Would it be wise to say if my daughters cold is waking her more then normal and we were going to start sleep training tomorrow to just start when she’s 100%? She’s 6m old today. Thanks!

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