Getting your baby to sleep can be one of the most perplexing challenges you face as a parent. As the clock ticks, you feel exhausted and anxious and often find yourself engaged in a delicate dance with your baby who seems determined to resist going to bed!
While this may seem frustrating, there are several scientific and developmental reasons behind why babies fight sleep.
We’ll get into some of the reasons why babies resist going to sleep and what you can do to help them get their rest (and yours too!)
The Top Reasons Why We See Babies Fighting Sleep as Sleep Consultants
Babies grow and develop at an astonishing rate during their early years. As they acquire new skills like rolling over, crawling, or even saying their first words, these milestones can affect their sleep patterns. When babies are on the verge of mastering a new skill, their brains can become overstimulated and cause them to resist sleep. It's almost as if they're too excited to rest and become obsessed with practicing their new skills. You’ll want to be sure to practice your babies’ new skills with them A LOT during the day, so that by the time they get into their crib, they are not only tired enough, but have also been rolling, crawling, or walking so much during the day that they won’t feel the need to practice constantly in their crib.
Wondering if your baby is in a regression? Read up on the most popular ages baby can regress with their sleep.
Inconsistent or Inappropriate Daytime Schedule
An inconsistent sleep schedule or one that is not appropriately based off your babies age can cause them to fight sleep at night (and for naps). You will want to make sure that your baby is taking the appropriate number of naps for the correct amount of time. This may mean capping or dropping naps sometimes!
Check out the Naps section on our blog for several articles that relate to babies’ naps.
Babies form strong emotional bonds with their caregivers, usually their parents. Separation anxiety can start as early as six to eight months and peaks around the first birthday due to babies learning about object permanence. Object permanence in this scenario means your baby is aware that you still exist when out of sight. This can lead to babies resisting sleep because they feel uneasy when separated from their primary caregivers. As they realize that sleep involves being apart from their parent, they may cry to cling to you to stay close. Be sure to always reassure your baby that you will be back when you leave. You can practice by telling your baby you are leaving the room and will be right back – then actually come back! Attachment with your child is founded within the continuous returns after periods of separation. After 12 months, you can Introduce a transitional object such as a lovey or soft toy to help ease separations if you wish. It can be very beneficial to your child’s self-soothing when they have a comfort item to attach to.
Over-tiredness or Under-tiredness
Counterintuitive as it may seem, over-tiredness can make it difficult for babies to fall asleep. When babies become overtired, their bodies release stress hormones like cortisol that can lead to restlessness and difficulty calming down. This overtired state can result from a missed nap or not being put to bed at the right time. The longer a baby stays awake past their optimal sleep window, the harder it can be for them to settle down. You can manage this by making sure your baby is following the appropriate wake windows during the day, in turn preventing over-tiredness at bedtime. Similarly, if your baby is not tired enough, it will be more difficult for them to fall asleep at night. We encourage as much outdoor time as possible as it stimulates the production of melatonin. Following the appropriate daytime schedule will also ensure that your baby reaches his or her “sweet spot” bedtime based off wake windows or clock times depending on age. Wondering if your baby is on a wake time or clock-based schedule? Find out here.
Sleep Associations/Sleep Props
Babies, like adults, develop associations with sleep cues. If a baby becomes accustomed to falling asleep while being rocked, nursed, or with a pacifier, they might struggle to fall asleep without these associations. When they wake up in the middle of the night, they might seek out these same associations to help them fall back asleep, causing disruptions in their sleep cycle. We encourage the use of sustainable sleep associations such as white noise & a sleep sack. These are tools that cue your baby’s brain that sleep is on the way. It’s also easy to recreate these sleep associations when traveling and in the middle of the night. Unlike other sleep associations, using white noise and a sleep sack, do not require constant attention from you such as re-rocking a baby to sleep or replacing the pacifier. Find out what a bedtime routine looks like without sleep props!
Disrupted Circadian Rhythms
Babies are not born with a fully developed circadian rhythm, which regulates their sleep-wake cycles. It takes time for their internal clock to sync with the day-night cycle. Factors like exposure to natural light during the day and establishing a consistent bedtime routine play a crucial role in regulating their sleep patterns in the newborn days. Find out how to support your newborn to sleep via our comprehensive newborn sleep guide.
Until their circadian rhythms mature around 4 months old, babies might have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at consistent times. This is developmentally normal! The earliest we recommend sleep training is 4 months old. That is because around 16 weeks of age is when a baby’s circadian rhythm is closer to that of an adult and their bodies are better able to adapt to a new routine and schedule.
Teething and Discomfort
Physical discomfort, like teething pain, illness or a wet or soiled diaper can make it challenging for babies to settle into sleep. Babies might resist sleeping because they're uncomfortable or in pain. It's important for parents to address these discomforts promptly to create a more conducive sleep environment. We recommend using a nighttime diaper for bedtime (or sizing up in the diaper) to try and avoid wakeups from an overly full or leaking diaper. We also suggest offering cold teethers throughout the day to aid in comforting teething pain. Watch your baby’s temperament throughout the day. If they appear irritable due to teething, you may want to ask your pediatrician about giving your baby a dose of pain reliever before bed. At night, cortisol levels drop which means those aches and pains are now more substantial.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
Believe it or not, babies experience a version of FOMO too. Babies are naturally curious beings, and they become more alert and active during the day as they absorb the sights, sounds, and experiences around them. When it comes to sleep, they might resist because they don't want to miss out on any new stimuli. Perhaps they were having fun playing, but it’s now naptime and they don’t want to stop playing even though they are tired! Babies can be sensitive to changes in their environment, and they may not want to close their eyes and potentially miss something exciting happening around them. This is why it’s important to implement consistent routines and transitions around sleep times. This will help your baby smoothly transition into sleep time because they recognize the steps prior. It’s okay if your baby anticipates the transition and cries a little. It’s hard to separate, but it’s very important that your baby gets the rest they need.
Additional Thoughts on Why Your Baby may be Fighting Sleep
The nightly struggle of getting a baby to sleep can be a challenging experience for parents, but it's important to remember that there are valid reasons behind this behavior. Understanding these factors can help parents navigate these phases with patience and empathy. As babies continue to grow and develop, their sleep patterns will evolve. It’s naïve to think that your baby’s routine for sleep won’t evolve and change as they do.
If you’re struggling, please remember that you are not alone in your journey, and we are here to help you and your family get the rest you need and deserve. Whether your baby or twins are fighting sleep due to any of the above factors, we will certainly be able to tackle the issues and come up with a plan that works and will get everyone sleeping. Even if the broken sleep has to do with milestones, scheduling concerns, discomfort, sleep associations and much more, we will have a solution for your baby! Our greatest joy is helping families feel confident in their sleep routines so that they know the entire family can get the rest they need!
Stellina Ferri is the author of this article. Stellina is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and mom of three.
She supports families through the journey of better sleep as a consultant with Tweet Dreamzz Sleep Consulting. She lives in the Boston, MA area with her family.
Learn more about Stellina!