Science of baby sleep
Common reasons why babies fight going to sleep
Science of baby sleep
Common reasons why babies fight going to sleep
While every baby is different, your baby probably shares one similarity with the majority of infants: sometimes, they fight or struggle with going to sleep.
It’s extremely common for babies to struggle with sleep—which is of course why there are dozens of books and thousands of websites about this topic, notes Nicole Johnson, lead sleep consultant of The Baby Sleep Site.
And when you think about it, it’s perfectly understandable: Your baby spent 9 months in the warm comfort of your womb, with the constant rocking motion of your day-to-day movements and the sweet sound of your reassuring voice, before being thrust into a new reality that excludes that 24/7 closeness.
It’s little wonder that most babies have a hard time adjusting, especially when it comes to going to sleep.
If your baby seems to struggle with sleep, you should first know that you are far from alone. The good news is that most babies want to sleep, they simply don’t know how yet.
Why do babies fight or struggle with sleep?
While most babies struggle with sleep at least sometimes, there’s a wide range of reasons why they might do so. Here, experts break down the most common.
One of the most common reasons why a baby has trouble settling down to sleep is due to hunger.
“Newborns have small stomachs, and they need to eat frequently,” says Carlie Gasia, a sleep expert and Certified Sleep Science Coach at Sleepopolis. “It’s important to make sure that your baby is getting enough to eat during the day and before bed to help them feel full and satisfied.”
During the newborn stage, babies tend to be able to fall asleep anywhere, with anything going on. However, this changes once they get to 4-5 months old.
“As babies get older and their awareness of their environment increases, it becomes harder for them to stop paying attention to everything else and let their bodies go to sleep,” explains Patti Read, certified pediatric sleep consultant and owner of Goldilocks Sleep Solutions. “Many parents aren’t aware of this and become frustrated that their young baby who once had no trouble falling asleep in a bright, noisy room, can no longer do that.”
They have a dirty diaper
Some babies are more sensitive to a dirty diaper than others, so it’s a good idea to figure out if yours is bothered by a wet diaper. If so, try to rule out a wet or dirty diaper ahead of the nap or bedtime routine so that you know they’re not uncomfortable.
They’re going through a developmental change
Also known as “leaps,” developmental shifts and changes, such as learning to roll over or sit up, can also impact a baby’s sleep.
“These changes can be exciting for babies, but they may also disrupt their sleep patterns,” says Gasia. “If your baby is struggling with sleep due to developmental changes, try to offer extra support and reassurance during this time.”
Believe it or not, when your baby is short on sleep, it actually becomes more difficult for them to fall asleep—and the same is often true for us adults.
“When we are overtired our bodies release cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn, makes it even harder for us to fall asleep,” says Read. “The same goes for babies, so if they are overtired and their cortisol levels are up, it’s harder for their bodies to relax and transition to sleep.”
There’s an underlying medical issue
A final struggle that could be getting in the way of a baby falling asleep is any underlying medical issues that your baby might be dealing with, according to Read.
“If your baby struggles with reflux or any ear infections, as you try to lay them down, they might become very uncomfortable making it harder for them to go to sleep,” she says. “If you are aware of any conditions that your baby is currently struggling with, ask your pediatrician what steps should be taken to help your baby fall asleep.”
How to get your baby to sleep well
No matter the reason your baby has trouble with sleep, you’re probably desperate for a solution, stat. We turned to sleep experts to get their best advice for how to help a baby who struggles with sleep.
Create an ideal sleep environment
Babies are very sensitive to light, sound and temperature, so it’s helpful to make sure that their nursery or your bedroom, wherever they’re sleeping, is an optimal sleep environment for them.
Read suggests making the room as cave-like as possible—cool, dark, and quiet.
“Blackout curtains and shades are a great tool to keep your baby’s room as dark as possible, especially for those tough-to-get-right naps,” she says. “A white noise machine is another tool I love to help block out any uncontrollable outside noises that could distract your baby while falling asleep or wake your baby if they are already asleep.”
She also suggests making sure that the room temperature is between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
Establish a consistent bedtime routine
A consistent bedtime routine can help your baby recognize when it’s time to go to sleep, notes Gasia.
“This routine could include a bath, a story, and a lullaby, but just try to make sure you’re sticking to the same routine every night, as this can help signal to your baby that it’s time for bed,” she says.
Keep an eye out for your baby’s sleep cues
Sleep cues are the actions your baby makes that show you that they are tired—examples include yawning, rubbing their eyes, and becoming more irritable.
Jessica Bryant, an internationally recognized pediatric sleep consultant with 25 years of experience working with young children and their parents in the home, suggests jotting down the time of day when your baby typically displays these sleep cues so that you can get them into a sleep routine that puts them to sleep ahead of them becoming overtired.
Move bedtime up a notch
If you’ve been putting your baby to bed at 8 pm only to face a struggle every night, try sliding it back to 7:30 to see how they do with an earlier bedtime.
This can help rule out the potential that your baby is overtired. “By offering an earlier sleep time, hopefully you will be able to catch them before their cortisol levels increase and therefore it would be easier for them to fall asleep,” says Read.
“I recommend logging your baby’s sleep so that you can see if there are trends in which bedtime is too late and your baby is fighting sleep and at what time does it become easier for your baby to fall asleep.”
Put your baby in their crib drowsy but awake
If you’re soothing your baby to sleep by breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, or simply rocking them, but then have trouble transferring them to the crib, it might be time to reassess how you put them to sleep.
“This may be a signal to work on building your baby’s confidence in going into their crib and putting themselves to sleep so when they wake in the night and do not need a feed, they are more comfortable soothing themselves back to sleep,” says Bryant.
“Put your baby down in the crib when they are drowsy, but still awake to help them get comfortable with how it feels to be in the crib awake and discover how to calm their body.”