When your baby is not sleeping, one of the most difficult things to determine is whether or not your baby is in pain or if something else is wrong. There are many reasons for disrupted sleep and many parents aren’t sure whether they should start sleep training or not.
Could it be an ear infection? How does that impact your baby’s sleep?
Symptoms of a Baby Ear Infection
Unfortunately, babies are unable to say “Mommy/Daddy, my ear hurts.” So how can you know if your baby is in pain with an ear infection? Here are the primary signs to look for (in no particular order):
- Ear Tugging or batting at the ears for younger babies
- Waking a lot or having trouble sleeping (that’s out of the ordinary!)
- Fussier than normal
- Fever over 100 degrees (though not all babies get one!)
Symptoms alone aren’t enough to diagnose an ear infection yourself, of course. These symptoms can be caused by other things, too, such as illness or teething. Babies can be so confusing!
Impact on a Baby’s Sleep
Ear infections can be very disruptive to your baby’s sleep at the height of pain, though it may take you a few days to figure it out. After all, when we are in pain, it’s difficult for any of us to sleep! Unfortunately, some symptoms of ear infections in babies are also symptoms of other problems. For example, tugging at ears can often also be an overtired sign. And your young baby’s under-developed coordination can sometimes account for what looks like “batting” at the ears, as well.
In addition, your baby being fussier than normal is one of the ear infection symptoms. But, being overtired, too warm, belly issues or teething can also cause babies to be fussier. The difference with ear infections is that the fussiness is almost non-stop. If your baby is simply overtired, he or she may be happy at least for an hour after each nap or several hours a day. Not so much with an ear infection. A pain reliever can allow temporary relief for both teething and ear infection pain, but of course, that doesn’t help you identify which it is at the moment!
The biggest impact baby ear infections have on sleep is waking up a lot at night, taking super-short naps, struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep, and waking too early in the morning. Basically, your baby is miserable and so are you! While waking every 1-3 hours at night is commonly caused by sleep associations, when your baby has an ear infection, we often see even shorter sleep durations, if you can believe that. Your baby may take a 15-20-minute nap or wake every 20-30 minutes all night long. In other words, sleep is even more disrupted than usual and it may feel even more that nothing works to keep your baby asleep. Many parents we’ve worked with have often reported their babies will only sleep while being held or on their chests – we know this from personal experience, too.
Ear Infection Treatments
Some ear infections clear up on their own, but some do not and require antibiotics. You may want to incline your baby’s bed or crib to help keep the pressure pain at bay and help with drainage if you suspect lying flat is an issue. Some parents give over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or Tylenol to manage the pain or homeopathic earache drops. Just check in with your baby’s physician to be sure this is okay for your little one first.
If it’s been several days, the pain seems to be getting worse, or you see pus or fluid draining from the ear, your best course of action is to have your baby’s doctor or healthcare provider look in the ears and discuss options with you. Although rare, untreated ear infections can cause more severe complications such as hearing loss. For some babies who get recurring ear infections, it may be suggested to get ear tubes inserted.
The #1 Thing to Consider With Ear Infections
I’ve seen it many times in my many years working with families. A baby or toddler is diagnosed with an ear infection, is given medication, and parents administer the medication as instructed. The ear infection will go away, right? Wrong! Well, yes, most of the time, everything clears up perfectly as expected. However, for some babies and young children, we have heard time and again that the ear infection did NOT go away and sleep is still horrible. If your child is still not feeling like him or herself even during the day playing, be sure to visit the healthcare provider again and make sure the infection cleared up. I’ve heard from some families needing to give a different medication or multiple doses.
What to do if there isn’t an ear infection and sleep is still terrible
If your baby has been cleared of the infection and the doctor hasn’t given you any indication your baby is likely in pain from fluid in the ear or another medical reason, then your sleep issue is likely due to another reason. You might be interested in The Top 15 Reasons Your Baby Wakes at Night to help you troubleshoot.
We hope that this helps, should you be concerned about your little one’s possible ear infection and impact on sleep!