Sick babies often won’t sleep. When your baby is sick, all of those good sleeping habits seem to go out the window. Even babies that have been sleeping through the night for months suddenly have trouble falling asleep or wake up periodically at night. It’s especially frustrating for the parents, because we know our little one is suffering but feel powerless to help.
In this article we’ll talk about how being sick disrupts a baby’s sleep habits, and what you can do about it.
1. How to tell when your baby is sick
2. Why sick babies won’t sleep
3. Help a sick baby sleep
Most of the symptoms of a sick baby are pretty obvious, but it’s a bit harder because they can’t communicate with you. Here are the signs that your baby is falling ill:
- Runny nose. This is the classic symptom, the one you often notice first. Keep lots of tissues handy and wipe whenever you can. The moistened Boogie Wipes are good for this.
- Coughing and sneezing. This is another symptom, and one that can linger long after your child has otherwise recovered. Fair warning: infants have absolutely no concept of covering the mouth or turning away. They will literally cough into your open mouth if you’re not careful!
- Congestion. You notice this primarily in two ways. First, you hear it when they breathe. Second, you notice that they have to spit out the bottle or pacifier to breathe because their nasal passages are clogged.
- Fever. The most measurable and definitive symptom that your baby is sick is a consistent fever above 100.3 degrees (F). It’s tough to measure a baby’s temperature accurately using crappy little baby thermometers, so I highly recommend one of the no-touch infrared thermometers; they cost around $30.
The reasons babies have trouble sleeping are similar to the problems that we grown-ups encounter, with some additions:
- Trouble breathing. This is mostly due to congestion, and it gets in the way of keeping the pacifier in.
- Can’t eat enough. A sore throat, irritability, loss of appetite, or all three keeps the baby from eating enough.
- Coughing. This can wake the baby up or prevent him or her from falling asleep.
- Fatigue. You’d think this would help the baby sleep, and sometimes it does. Other times they’re overtired and too fussy to go to sleep.
You’re going to need a well-stocked baby medicine cabinet with an arsenal of things to make your baby more comfortable. Stock up now, before the symptoms hit, and you’ll be glad that you did. Here are some specific things to help make your baby more comfortable when sick.
I don’t recommend the blue bulb syringes for trying to clear out baby’s nose. It’s hard to know how deep to push these in, and most of the time you just end up irritating the nose even more. Our pediatrician recommended instead using infant saline drops (such as Little Noses) several times a day: two drops in each nostril before they eat and before they go to sleep. You don’t have to use a syringe to clear it out and the drops won’t sting. We also came to appreciate Boogie Wipes, soft little moistened tissues for gently rubbing the crusties away.
With saline drops you can provide your baby some relief, but let’s be honest, it’s not equivalent to adult blowing his or her nose. Some congestion will remain. It’s time to ask yourself: how far are you willing to go to help your sick baby?
There’s another, more direct option for getting the snot out. Something that has 800+ reviews on Amazon, most of which give it 5 stars. I’m talking about the Nosefrida Snotsucker Nasal Aspirator.
This is a Swedish device that you can use to physically clear out your baby’s nose, not unlike a bulb syringe except you (the parent) provide the suction. In that way it seems a bit safer than other snot-suckers.
Now, this idea probably grosses you out. But is it any worse than being peed, pooped, or spit-up on by your little one? You’ve undoubtedly been through that. So bite the bullet and order this.
The dry, stale air indoors in winter time is a major culprit for breathing problems. You can minimize the problem with a humidifier for the babies’ room. Humidifiers now-a-days come in two forms: warm and cool. I don’t know much about the differences between them, only that cool-air is the newer thing and these tend to be a bit more expensive.
We chose a cool-air humidifier for safety reasons, not just for the babies but for their two-year-old sister. Crane makes a series of small, quiet cool-air humidifiers for children shaped like a penguin, frog, cow, puppy, or half a dozen other animals. They’re cute and have over 3,000 reviews on Amazon, usually a good sign.
Cool Air Humidifier
Even if your baby has a fever, you want to dress him or her warm enough (especially for bedtime). Usually a clean diaper, long-sleeve pajamas, and a swaddle or sleep sacket is the winning combination. For a complete guide, see our article on what a newborn should sleep in.
Second, we elevated one side of the bed so that our babies’ heads were higher than their feet. This helps keep their airways clear of mucous, which is loosened by the saline drops. You can do this the “right” way, by lowering the setting at the foot of the bed (assuming that the crib is already at its highest setting), or you can do this the “easy” way by putting a couple of books or similar sturdy, flat objects under the head of the mattress.
Don’t use baby sleep positioners, ramps, or other after-market products that go in the baby’s crib. They’re not safe, especially for infants! See our article on the myth of baby sleep positioners.
You can often tell that your baby has a fever when you pick him or her up, because feverish babies feel unusually warm. It’s best to know if and when your baby has a fever, and just what that fever could be (your pediatrician will probably ask). Taking an unhappy baby’s temperature is an exercise in frustration, particularly when using those crappy little thermometers they give you in the hospital.
Fortunately, there are now reasonably priced infrared baby thermometers that take temperatures quite accurately in just a few seconds. Well worth the investment!
If your baby has a fever, he’s probably uncomfortable even with a clear nose. And you should be checking for fever on a regular basis. I wouldn’t bother with the cheap plastic digital thermometers… they’re inaccurate, even when you get them to work.
If your pediatrician gives the OK, you can treat your baby’s fever with a number of over-the-counter pain reliever / fever reducer products. These are usually acetaminophen- or ibuprofen-based, in liquid form, often flavored to make your infant take them. Follow the dosage instructions carefully, as these medicines tend to vary in concentration. It goes better if your infant is partly or fully inclined, and somewhat calm. Administering medicine helps if you do it a little bit at the time so that your baby can swallow it. Make sure that you wash the dropper after each dose!
You should also look into the Cold and Flu Season section of Amazon.com. They have everything you could possibly need!
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