Whether it’s the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, seasonal cold and flu, strep throat, or RSV – right now it seems like everyone is sick. And if you find yourself with a sick kiddo at home – fear not! I can’t make their icky bug go away, but I can help you all feel better rested – which is often an important line of defense against that bug!
Below I’ve provided a few tips to help you navigate sleep when your baby or child is ill. I recommend you always seek your pediatrician’s advice for medical concerns, as this article is not intended to be a substitute for a visit to your child’s doctor if they are sick.
Why sleep suffers when your child is sick
Illness pretty much takes the cake for winning the list of “All the ways sleep can get off track.”
When your child is sick, they will tire more easily. At the same time, it’s likely that their quality of sleep will decrease during an illness. If you’ve ever had a cold, you know what it’s like – it’s hard to get comfortable, you wake up more often overnight, and you don’t sleep as deeply when you’re congested. A fever also complicates things – you may sweat or have the chills.
This is what your sick child goes through, but with minimal options for relief (most cold relief products are not OK for babies and young children). It’s no surprise that a sleep debt can build quickly, even if your child only has a cold!
How to handle sleep when your child is sick
The goal during any illness (besides getting better) should be for your family to stay as rested as possible. Your child needs quality sleep to get well – and you need sleep, too, to stay well. Remember that old saying about putting your own oxygen mask on first, before helping others? The same holds true when your house gets hit with the flu! As hard as it may be, try to prioritize sleep for everyone (including yourself).
Let them sleep as much as they need
When your child first gets sick, they’ll likely be very tired as their body tries to fight off the infection. However, it’s also common for your baby or child to wake earlier from naps. In any event, you should relax your child’s normal sleep schedule during an illness. Now is not the time to limit the length of naps or wake them up in the morning. You may need to offer extra nap opportunities for young babies. Your older child who has given up napping, may need a nap. Let your child sleep for as long and as much as they want!
You’ll also want to keep bedtime extra early. Your child sleeps most deeply in the first part of the night, and that extra deep sleep may help them recover faster. Even if your child napped extra-long that day, they may still need an earlier bedtime. Remember, sleep quality isn’t as good during sickness so your baby or child may not be able to stay awake as long as they do when they are healthy.
Your child may have a harder time making it through a sleep cycle, especially if they have a fever. You may hear them stirring, fussing, or even crying briefly. It’s wise to give them a chance to resettle – don’t rush in! – because they may still be asleep, and going in could wake them. When my son recently had the flu (and a fairly high fever), he would briefly cry out about 30 minutes into his nap. He ended up sleeping almost another 2 hours that day – and didn’t remember crying at all.
(Mostly) Stick to your sleep rules
The most common question I get from parents is how they should respond at night when their child is sick. Let me be clear here…you should always meet your sick child’s needs promptly overnight. They may need their nose suctioned, extra fluids, or fever relief in the middle of the night. They also just might need some extra comfort or reassurance. And it goes without saying that now is not the ideal time to start sleep training. That being said, if you have an independent sleeper…
Your sick baby or child should continue to sleep in their own crib or bed. They should also continue to fall asleep on their own – for naps, at bedtime, and in the middle of the night. They’ll sleep better this way – and so will you. Remember, the goal is to maximize rest for everyone. It’s always OK to offer extra comfort to your child when they’re sick – but they can and should continue to do the job of falling asleep on their own. In fact, your independent sleeper may prefer their own sleep space even when sick.
If you decide to stay near your child overnight when they’re sick, do so in their room – don’t bring them into your bed or room. You can set up your own sleep space on the floor or a recliner. Please always follow safe sleep guidelines when your child is sick – check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep guidelines here. To avoid creating new habits you’ll need to undo later, try to limit room-sharing with your sick child to 1 to 2 nights or until the most serious phase of illness is past.
Get back on track quickly
Despite your best efforts, your baby or child may become overtired while sick. In fact, I often hear from parents that night waking, early rising, and nap strikes peak right after an illness. The best way to repay any lingering sleep debt is to continue to offer early bedtimes for a few days after your child begins to feel better. Go back to your normal sleep schedule but be mindful your child may still need their morning or afternoon nap a little earlier than usual.
You may also need to resume your sleep training method, especially if your child needed a lot of extra comfort while sick. The good news is that, if your child was sleeping independently before they got sick, they will quickly remember what’s expected of them.
The bottom line: Prioritize Sleep When Your Child is Sick
Whether it’s the flu, a cold, COVID-19 or RSV, even a minor illness can take a toll on your little one’s sleep.
To help keep sleep on track, let your child sleep as much as they want when they are sick – disregard your regular sleep schedule. Your child should continue to sleep in their own crib or bed when they are sick. They should fall asleep independently at bedtime and overnight. It’s OK to offer extra comfort at night and you should meet any needs promptly. Keep bedtime on the early side during illness and for a few days after your child begins to feel better. You might need to reinforce your sleep expectations once your child has recovered.
Do you have a question about your child’s sleep during illness? Leave a comment below!