Parenting is magical, blissful, life-changing, and exhausting. When you have a baby, you can expect to sleep very little in the early days. They’ve recently left the womb, which was warm, quiet, and rhythmically comforting and need to learn to sleep in the chaotic world. Usually, babies begin to lengthen their sleep cycle as they grow, but sometimes they struggle to develop good sleep habits. You might find yourself asking, why does my baby fight sleep? Often it can feel like just as soon as you’ve established a season of good sleep, your baby will enter a new stage and leave you back at square one.
Every baby is their own unique little person, and each will hit sleep milestones at different ages. If your neighbor brags that her baby started sleeping through the night at two weeks, she’s probably lying. Even if she’s not, it can feel frustrating when your baby is fighting sleep and you aren’t sure why. While there is no guaranteed way to make a baby sleep, there are some things you can do to increase the likelihood of everyone in your home sleeping a bit more soundly.
If you’re bleary-eyed and wondering why your baby fights sleep, keep reading for some tips from the experts so you can catch a few more zzz’s.
Reasons why your baby fights sleep
“Often the environment is too exciting, interesting, irregular or chaotic for the baby's brain to calm down and follow normal sleep patterns,” says Elizabeth Gurnee, a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant who specializes in postpartum care. “Even holding eye contact with a baby is like a shot of espresso to the brain.”
Another reason babies fight sleep is because their parents are trying to change the way they sleep. Dr. Sarah Mitchell, a chiropractor and infant sleep consultant for Parent Lab, says “If you have a baby that normally falls asleep while being fed and then you try and put them down without it, they will cry and have trouble settling because you've changed the way they fall asleep. The drive to sleep is biological, the way we sleep is a learned habit. If you take away the known habit, your baby will fight sleep.”
Babies who are overtired or just need more comfort than usual also fight sleep. Just like adults, says Gurnee, sometimes babies just need some extra love and reassurance. They could be ill or feeling pain, or even just picking up on your energy. Every parent wants those calm moments after bedtime to binge some TV, but if your baby senses you are rushed at bedtime, they might fight sleep.
How to tell when your baby is fighting sleep
Is the amount of time it takes your baby to fall asleep normal, or is your baby fighting sleep? Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, tells Romper that babies who take 30-60 minutes to fall asleep are out of the range of normal, and are considered to be “fighting sleep.”
Night waking is not necessarily fighting sleep, though. Many parents have unrealistic expectations of how long a baby can sleep. Gurnee shared the most common sleep patterns for babies, and they are shorter than what you might expect. Newborns should eat every two to four hours – even overnight. Sleeping through the night for a breastfed newborn is five hours and six for a formula fed baby. “A secure attachment to their caregiver is more important at this stage than a ‘good sleeper,’” she adds.
Tips to get your baby to stop fighting sleep
Dr. Karp says that timing sleep just right is key. If bedtime is too early or too late, you’re either fighting a baby who isn’t tired yet or one that is overly tired. Adjusting bedtime in 15 minute increments until your baby seems more willing to drift off to sleep is his recommendation.
The timing is key, echoes Dr. Mitchell. It is the main thing that will help your baby stop fighting sleep. “One simple thing you can do to help your baby fight sleep is using proper awake times by age. Awake times are based on a child's metabolism and observation, which are helpful guidelines to when they should be put down for a nap. For example, a 5-month-old can usually stay awake for about 2 hours. If you surpass that time substantially he/she may be overtired and fight sleep.”
It’s also key to set the scene to feel like the womb. “Offer your baby the sleep cues they’re accustomed to. White noise will encourage them to calm down and sleep better. Start the sound quietly in the background during your sleepy-time routine to get your baby ready to glide into dreamland. If your baby’s upset, however, make the white noise louder so that it’s a rough, rumbly whoosh noise that’s as loud as their crying. This’ll turn on their innate calming reflex, which is nature’s ‘off switch’ to fussing.” Swaddling is crucial as well to recreating that snug womb feeling.
Rocking, says Dr. Karp, feels like the “jiggly” life inside the womb. Slow rocking is best for a calm baby, while a short, fast rocking motion is more likely to calm a baby who is upset. Make sure to use a well-supported hold and not move more than an inch back and forth when rocking fast. Do not let your baby sleep in a swing, as this is unsafe.
A consistent evening routine will benefit your baby, too, says Gurnee. This helps cue your baby that it is time to sleep. Turning down screens and lights will trigger their body to produce melatonin, the hormone that causes sleepiness. Calming music, quiet playtime, or a warm bath are all great options. “Try to avoid making plans in the evening, things like going grocery shopping or to visit friends are very stimulating to a baby.”
As your baby grows, they will need less and less sleep support. By six months old their brain has doubled in size and they are mature enough to regulate themselves better. Keep those well-developed routines and sleep associations in place, particularly during periods of sleep regression, and hopefully you won’t find yourself asking “why does my baby fight sleep?” in the future.
Elizabeth Gurnee, RN and certified lactation consultant
Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block
Dr. Sarah Mitchell, Parent Lab chiropractor specializing in infant sleep.