With all the happy memories and busy times this time of year brings, it also brings illnesses and sometimes injuries. There are colds, stomach bugs, bacterial infections, viruses, the flu, etc. And depending on the age of your child, you might have teething and/or developmental milestones (ie learning how to roll, sit up, crawl, walk, jump, talk, etc) to deal with too. All of these things can cause your child’s sleep to become disturbed or be completely changed by the time they’re feeling better. This is when parents become distressed and they either start looking to sleep train (or re-sleep train) on their own, or they call a sleep consultant like me to get things back on track. It’s super frustrating as a parent to comfort and support your sick, injured, or otherwise miserable kid, only to be repaid with sleep deprivation when they now won’t sleep well. So what’s a parent to do? Here are some things to keep in mind during these trying times…
Illness & Teething:
If your child is sick or teething, they’re likely cranky, tired, and miserable. It wouldn’t be so bad if that only happened during the day, but unfortunately it usually spills over into the nights. When it’s 2am and your baby is teething or your 4 year old is sick, it can be difficult to “stick to the plan”. Before this illness, your child may have rarely or never woken up at night so of course you’re going to rush right in and see what’s wrong. Many parents make the mistake though of not only treating the symptoms, but throwing everything they usually do out the window.
As you stumble down the hall and into your child’s room, the only thing you’re thinking about is comforting them and putting them back to sleep as quickly as possible. For many parents that means that they’re feeding, patting, rocking, or otherwise putting their baby to sleep or laying with or bringing their preschooler to bed with them. It might not be what you intended to do, but it’s the path of least resistance in the middle of the night. Several nights might go by and your child is thankfully feeling better, yet they’re still waking in the night. Why? Well, unfortunately your good deeds of giving extra love and snuggles in the middle of the night have now given you a child who doesn’t want to do things the “old way”. Nope, they’re liking this new routine and are likely to fight you going back to their old routine where they were a good sleeper.
In order to avoid this scenario from happening to you (or again), next time they’re sick or teething try this: treat the symptoms and keep the expectations. That means that you would still check on your child, give them some medicine for pain or fever (if need be), wipe their nose, change their sheets if they vomited, and give some cuddles. The difference is that you give the cuddles, treat the symptoms, and then return the child back to their crib or bed so that they can go back to sleep on their own. Oftentimes, children aren’t fully awake when they’re crying or calling for you; they just know they’re not comfortable or are in pain. We assume they need us to do more than what I mentioned, but usually a good sleeper will take the medicine, the snuggles, the acknowledgment, and then turn over and go right back to sleep. That’s the goal! If they’re still upset, then give snuggles until the medicine starts to work or until they’ve calmed down, and then return them to their crib/bed. Take away here is to try not to create new habits you don’t want to continue moving forward. It can just take a day or two for your child to decide they like “option B” better!
If your child has learned a new skill (like rolling, walking, talking), they might want to try out those new skills during the time they spend in their crib. Oftentimes, the first time parents notice these nighttime disruptions is when their child has learned to roll. They will usually roll one way only, get stuck, and cry because they don’t like it. It can be a very long night of turning your child back over time and time again! Next you might notice they’ve discovered how to sit up in their crib, then pull themselves up at the bars, and finally maybe some jumping, walking, and talking. While we celebrate all of these things during the day, most of us don’t appreciate their practicing all night long!
The best way to handle these nighttime disturbances is to deal with them during the day. Let baby practice those new skills all day long! For instance, your baby might have recently figured out how to roll to her belly, so practice rolling her from her belly to her back during the day. If baby learned how to pull himself up but cannot get back down, then practice that during the day. The more practice they have during daytime hours, the quicker they will figure out how to do these things on their own at night. It might be a week or so though until things are back to normal, so in the meantime try to stay the course and not to change your nighttime expectations.
Injuries can quickly turn a good sleeper into a not-so-good sleeper! It could be a fall, bump, bruise, or even a splinter that can have your child filled with angst and anxiety about the whole incident. Of course, you’re going to comfort and take care of your child during their time of need. They might be fine throughout the day, only to realize come bedtime that now they’re upset or scared about it. Some kids will want to talk about these things when they happen or soon afterwards, and others will hold it in until bedtime approaches. It can seem like a stall tactic, but some children are honestly just “nighttime worriers”, as I call them. I have one of those kids myself! You never want to dismiss their feelings or fears, but you do want to be careful to not be too overindulgent in your support. While the concern might start out to be a legitimate one, a smart older child will quickly figure out that it’s working in their favor!
I was recently reminded last week how injuries can disrupt sleep for one or more family members, when one of my 7 year old twins fell at school during recess and broke her arm. She ended up needing to spend a night in the hospital and have surgery early Thanksgiving morning. It was a difficult time for her, her twin sister who was with us, and me, as she was in pain, her sister seemed to be in just as much pain as she was (through empathy), and I felt helpless. When it came to sleeping the night she would need to stay over at the hospital, we made the decision to have my husband spend the night with her so that I could finally go home after a long day at the hospital and get the other kids settled. I also needed to start Thanksgiving dinner early the next morning so that we could still have it later that day (crazy, I know)!
This sleepover meant that my little girl would have to sleep in a strange place with funny sounds, flashes of light, a splinted left arm, an IV in her right arm, and constant interruptions. She didn’t have her sister in her room like she was used, but she did have her favorite stuffed animals. Things were clearly different for her, and also for her twin sister who was heartbroken to not have her roommate back at home. I ended up having to leave the door all the way open for her that night, something that I don’t normally do. This injury had our family scrambling, visiting the hospital, and adjusting to the crazy schedule for a long 24hr period that was supposed to be a joyous holiday time. It was certainly stressful on everyone, and because of that I needed to be flexible for all of my kids’ sakes. As parents, we do what we need to do when something goes wrong. You want your child or children to feel comfortable and soothed, so we make changes as needed.
That being said, I tried not to change too much for my other kids. My injured little one was more than happy to be home in her own bed after a terrible, scary experience. She was exhausted, emotional, and a little drugged up yet on Thanksgiving, which helped her get right back to her normal routine that night. When she cried in her sleep 2 hours later, I knew it was a mix of night terrors (from the sleep deprivation) and pain. I treated her symptoms with Motrin, repositioned her, and left. She never even remembered it the next morning (neither of them did)! She didn’t need for me to do anything more than I did. Again, be flexible with an injury but not so much so that you’re creating a new set of habits that span over several days or more. It can be very difficult to go back to normal after all that extra comforting!
I wrote this blog because I can’t tell you how many times I have parents call me saying that they don’t know what happened. They’ll say, “Everything was great up until a few weeks ago. Now my child is waking up 2-4 times a night!” Then I’ll ask them what happened around that time (ie were they sick, teething, on vacation, new daycare, etc) and 90% of the time they’ll say that the child was sick or teething. Now, I’m not saying that it was the illness or teething that was the problem. Nope, it was what the parents did in response to that illness or teething wake up that was the beginning of the sleep issue. Sorry but yes it’s usually our fault as parents! I don’t tell you that to make you feel bad, but to make you recognize how quickly our positive reactions can yield negative results. But no need to worry about the roads we inadvertently travel down, because we can always make a few turns and get back to heading in the right direction!
*If you have dealt with any of this yourself, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below about your situation and how you handled it!
**If you need help getting your child back on track, I can help! Contact me today to set up your free 15min phone call! Also, feel free to join my Facebook group, Gentle Parenting Solutions, where we talk about all kind of parenting related topics!