You see the signs: you put your baby down in the crib for her nap and walk out of the nursery. You’re watching on the monitor for a few seconds as her mouth opens wide for a big yawn. Her hands then ball into fists to rub her sleepy eyes, and here it is – she starts doing that special cry reserved for the dreaded battle to fall asleep. You hope and pray that this time she will finally GO. TO. SLEEP. You know she's tired, you know she needs rest, but she can’t seem to get herself to sleep. Why?!
We have been there and we know the exhaustion and frustration that comes from trying to help your baby sleep, only to face resistance. The good news is that you’re not alone! Let’s take a look at why babies seem to fight sleep when they need it most, and then let’s talk about how to fix it.
Why Does Your Baby Fight Sleep When You Know They’re Tired?
Because adult sleep seems relatively simple and straightforward to us, many new parents are surprised to learn that baby sleep is quite complex. Getting baby the right amount of sleep in the right intervals is a delicate balance!
Overtiredness, undertiredness, over-stimulation, hunger, and lack of independent sleep skills can all contribute to those disastrous bad sleep days and disrupted sleepless nights. The line we must walk to provide the ideal amount of sleep for our children is a tightrope, and it doesn’t always happen even when we make plenty of time for our little ones to get the rest we know they need.
Now that we have a list of reasons your baby might be fighting sleep, let’s dig into the details.
Reason #1: Your Baby May Be Overtired
Whenever we work with clients whose babies are struggling to fall asleep (both at nap time and bedtime), the first thing we look at is wake windows. As a baby’s body produces melatonin, there is a narrow window of time when the body expects to be going to sleep. We call this optimal time a wake window, and they change as your little one gets older and is able to spend longer periods of time awake.
Once a child surpasses their optimal wake window, they have likely entered into overtiredness territory. When a baby stays awake too long, their body secretes the stress hormone cortisol, which is (unfortunately for sleep’s sake) a stimulating hormone and produced in times of stress to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system. This often manifests as a big burst of energy right before bedtime. You know what we’re talking about – your little one goes from normal to wired in the blink of an eye. Instead of drifting peacefully off to sleep, baby appears to “fight” sleep. In reality, your baby is overtired and unable to get to sleep, which must be a very frustrating experience for them.
Another way overtiredness may be causing your baby to fight sleep is if they are not meeting their daily sleep needs. For example, if your 4 month old baby takes chronically short naps (45 minutes or less), they are likely getting overtired as the day goes on because they aren’t getting the 3-4 hours of daytime sleep needed at their age. By the end of the day, their body is flooded with cortisol and they’ll have an even more difficult time falling asleep.
If your primary struggle is chronically short naps, this detailed 12 Step Guide to Getting Rid of Crap Naps for Good is for you. The guide will help you troubleshoot all the factors playing into your child’s chronic short nap cycle and direct you to make the necessary changes that lead to your baby getting the daytime sleep their body needs for healthy growth and development.
Reason #2: Your Baby May Be Undertired
Just as staying awake for too long makes it difficult to fall asleep, not being awake for long enough will also make it difficult for your baby to fall asleep. This phenomenon is known in the sleep world as undertiredness.
Babies need a certain amount of time awake between sleep periods in order to build up enough “sleep pressure” to fall asleep smoothly. If they are put down too early, their sleep need is not high enough, and they will be unable to drift off to sleep. As you might imagine, this is a very frustrating experience for babies!
Reason #3 Your Baby May Be Overstimulated
According to this article from Healthline, babies can become overstimulated very easily. Common causes of overstimulation are too much activity, excessive screen use, and new environments. When you know you have an activity planned for your little one that may be over-stimulating, try to build in quiet, restful time before and after. Keep an eye on your baby’s cues, they will tell you when they are overwhelmed!
Another way your baby may be getting over-stimulated is through the way a caregiver is trying to “coax” them to sleep. Over time, parents “helping” in the form of rocking, bouncing, singing and touching becomes more stimulating than soothing, and makes it even more difficult for a baby to calm their body down and fall into sleep.
Reason #4 Your Baby May Be Hungry
A question we get asked frequently is “what if my baby is hungry again before nap or bedtime?”. During the day, babies over 3 months need to eat every 3-4 hours. If your baby had a nice, full feed when they woke from their previous sleep period, they are likely fine to go down for their next sleep without another feed. The exception to this is when your baby’s wake windows are 3 hours or more, and your baby ate at the beginning of the wake window. Offering a “top off” feed in the form of milk or a solids meal at least 45 minutes before going down for a nap is a great way to fill a baby’s belly and ensure they aren’t hungry going into a nap. We do not recommend feeding directly before a nap for reasons explained in the next section.
Reason #5 Your Baby May Not Have the Skills to Fall Asleep Independently
If your child struggles to fall asleep without assistance in the form of feeding to sleep, rocking, bouncing, holding, co-sleeping, cuddling, stroller or car movement, or other infant sleep aids, they have not yet learned the skill of sleep independence. Your baby might be fighting sleep simply because the external “help” being provided is more stimulating than soothing, and baby is frustrated because she can’t get to sleep even though they’re tired.
Another crucial element of helping your child fall asleep easier is to remove the feed to sleep association. A great way to break this connection is to focus on an eat-play-sleep cadence for all daytime feeds and naps. Feeding once your baby wakes from a nap allows them to get a full feed and sets them up for independent sleep skills, because baby will not be relying on feeding to be able to fall asleep.
What if it’s None of The Above?
It is important to note that if you’re worried your baby is fighting sleep due to pain or illness, that is a separate matter! Always reach out to your child’s healthcare provider if you suspect there’s something physical going on that requires medical attention.
What Can You Do To Help Your Baby Stop Fighting Sleep
So now that we know all the reasons why a baby may be fighting sleep, what can we do as parents to stop this vicious cycle?
Help Baby Stop Fighting Sleep By Adhering to Wake Windows
This scientific study explains that babies need to spend the majority of their time asleep because of the intense growth and change their brains and bodies undergo during those first few months. So let’s look at how we can help your baby sleep and support all the development they have to do!
Follow the appropriate wake windows for your child’s age to make sure they are not overtired or undertired when you put them down to sleep. If you are unsure of the wake windows for your baby, head over here and we’ll email them to you!
Help Baby Stop Fighting Sleep By Creating the Ideal Sleep Environment
Once you have mastered your baby’s optimal wake windows, the next step is to create an ideal sleep environment for your little one. There are several components that make up an ideal sleep environment.
First, your baby should be sleeping in a quiet room away from noise and stimulation. At The Sleeper Teachers, we recommend using a white noise machine (we like this one) to help drown out or mask any noises that come from inside or outside of your home during the day. This also allows you to do more during the day (hello chores, Netflix and brewing more coffee!) instead of having to tiptoe around the house while your baby sleeps.
Next, ensure your child’s room is dark enough, as darkness encourages melatonin production. Melatonin is important because it is the hormone which makes us feel sleepy. A dark room also reduces stimulation, which will help your baby relax and focus on sleep. If you feel like your child’s room needs to be darker, check out these black out shades.
Help Baby Stop Fighting Sleep By Teaching Them to Sleep Independently
Teaching your baby how to go from fully awake to asleep without external assistance is a critical skill that ensures your little one is able to fall asleep peacefully and stop fighting sleep.
There are many ways to teach your child to sleep independently, but they all begin with putting baby in her sleep space entirely awake instead of drowsy or asleep. Once your child is placed in her sleep space awake, we need to provide time to practice the skill of self soothing. Although it is instinctual for parents to run to soothe their child immediately if she cries out, keep in mind that protesting is the only way your baby knows how to communicate that she dislikes something. Because you’ve just made a big change to her sleep process and laid her down awake instead of drowsy or asleep, she is communicating to you that she isn’t a big fan of the change. This is okay! It is a natural response. Allowing her some time and space to self soothe is exactly what she needs to be able to develop the skill of falling asleep on her own.
The more a child practices self soothing, the better she will get at it. It may take a few nights, but try to avoid interfering with the learning process too often. We recommend committing to teaching independent sleep and sticking it out. Offering comfort to your child is encouraged, but returning to the old sleep habits and doing the work by putting your child to sleep will only end up confusing her and making the situation worse.
Most Importantly, Stay Consistent!
The final piece of the puzzle is consistency. None of this works if you react differently to every situation that arises. Your baby craves routine and consistency, and you will love it too! Start by keeping your child’s sleep environment the same for every sleep period (dark, white noise, swaddle/sleep sack, and in the proper wake window). Next, make sure your sleep routines are the same so that your baby knows what to expect. A confused baby protests far more than a baby who knows exactly what to expect every time they are put down for a nap or bedtime. This consistency will pay off!
Have you Tried Everything, and Your Baby Still Fights Sleep?
Follow the guidelines in this article to get rid of those sleep time battles and get your baby the rest he or she needs! By making sure your child has optimal sleep pressure, the ideal sleep environment, and the skill of sleep independence, you can do away with sleep time battles.
If 1-on-1 guidance with a fully customized sleep plan, shared digital sleep log for tracking data and trends, and daily accountability and support is something that you could benefit from, please reach out to us here for a free introductory call with one of our consultants. And if you’re still not sure, head over to our wall of love to read testimonials about how impactful teaching independent sleep was for our past clients. Lives change when everyone in a family gets the rest they deserve!