When Your Baby or Toddler's Sleep Derails: How to get sleep back on track
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
Has your baby or toddler been sleeping well for a while, and then, either all of a sudden or gradually over time, sleep has become fragmented again? You have come to the right place if this rings a bell.
Many things can derail sleep. The main culprits are illness, acute teething, developmental leaps, travel, a new sibling, starting daycare, or a new nanny, moving to a new house, and the transition from a crib to a toddler bed. Given how many changes are part of daily life for babies and toddlers, it’s a wonder they sleep at all!
Sleep is not a static event. It is normal for there to be sleep disruptions as your child grows. It can be particularly challenging when you have started sleeping better to have sleep fall apart again. It is natural to feel frustrated and worried. But know that it’s part of the process for sleep to occasionally backslide. It does not mean there is something wrong. It means you need to adjust your expectations and know that sleep will get back on track with some time and encouragement.
Let’s go through each of these issues so I can give you my perspective and suggestions based on many years working as a sleep consultant and early parenting educator:
Having a sick kiddo is no fun. They often can’t tell you what hurts, and they can’t blow their nose. All they know is that they don’t feel well. Offering more support when your child is sick makes sense. They need you to be more involved when they wake during the night. Helping your baby or toddler during this time is ok. You just have to shift your expectations around sleep and sleep training until your little one feels better.
Once your baby or toddler no longer has a fever, and their congestion has improved, you want to get back to sleep basics. Your child may protest, which is to be expected. You want to reintroduce sleep training/learning gradually. Little by little they will get back to sleeping better.
If you have been helping your sick child get to sleep, go back to implementing your sleep time routine, and put your baby or toddler down awake so they have time to work on settling themselves. You can certainly offer support if needed, but by giving your child a chance to work on self-soothing, they will get back to sleeping better.
Teething is one of those issues that crop up continuously from about 6 months to 3 years. For some babies and toddlers, teeth come through without much issue. But for others, it is an ordeal that feels like it will last forever.
Since teeth can start their migration up to the surface at any time, it can be challenging to figure out when your child is struggling with teething pain, and when they are showing signs of teething, but not in too much discomfort.
Drooling, chewing, and hands in the mouth are all signs of teething, but not necessarily a sign of teething pain. In my experience, teething pain usually occurs when the teeth are just about to break through the gums. This is what I call acute teething. It is often associated with more restless sleep, and bursts of crying that sound different than other kinds of crying. It often occurs in the middle of the night when there are fewer distractions for your baby or toddler.
Offering pain relief is something to discuss with your child’s pediatrician. You want to be sure you are giving the correct dose, and not overusing pain medication.
Offering more comfort while your baby is going through this stage is often needed, as they are in pain and need more support until the pain subsides. The trick is knowing when it is teething pain, or restless sleep for other reasons. Looking in your baby or toddler’s mouth is no easy task, but will help you determine if there are teeth just about to erupt.
Once the tooth has come through the gums, the pain decreases, and that’s when you want to get back to sleep basics. Wait a little longer when your child wakes in the middle of the night to give them a chance to try to settle themselves. You can offer reassurance, but you want to slowly do less to help your little one get back to sleep, and give them a chance to do more to get there themselves.
Babies and toddlers are acquiring new skills at an incredibly rapid rate! In the first 12-18 months your baby goes from reflexive movements to reaching, rolling, sitting, crawling, standing, and walking! As well, they are learning to use their voice and to understand language. Soon after, they begin to form words. It’s an astounding amount of growth in a relatively short period.
Each developmental step can be accompanied by more restless sleep. As your child is learning new skills, they often want to practice them in the middle of the night! You might find your baby up on their hands and knees in their crib, crying as they are compelled to try to crawl. The same can happen with standing and walking. They are up on their feet before they are fully awake!
Developmental milestones are a normal part of your baby or toddler’s experience, which means that sleep may become choppy until this new skill is no longer new. Giving your baby or toddler time to work on these skills is important. You can’t keep your baby from rolling, and you can’t keep your toddler from standing. These are necessary skills to be mastered.
When you notice your little one awake in their bed, rolling or standing, don’t rush in right away, especially if they are not upset. If your kiddo is awake and practicing, but not unhappy, you can just let them be. They will either settle back to sleep on their own, or will become upset, and signal that they need help getting back to sleep. Waiting before you respond gives your little one a chance to work on these new skills so they can get back to sleeping better.
If your baby is upset that they have rolled onto their tummy, give them a minute or two, and then go in and pat their back first to let them know they are ok. Then slowly roll them back to their back before you pick them up so they can feel what to do to get off their tummy.
If your toddler is standing and crying in their crib, give them a few minutes before you go in to see if they might sit back down on their own. Then go in and help them bend their knees, and let go so they can feel how to sit back down.
Travel often derails sleep. Being in a new environment can make it hard for your child to settle to sleep. And if you change time zones that can throw their circadian rhythm off.
Bring what you can from home that is familiar so you can replicate your sleep time routine as best you can. Bring your own crib or pack and play sheet so it smells familiar to your baby or toddler.
Naps might be on the go when you are traveling, but try to stick to your bedtime routine, and time as much as possible. If you are changing time zones, spend as much time as you can outside to help set your little one’s circadian rhythm to the new time.
If your baby or toddler is super restless and you end up sleeping together, be sure you are following safe sleep guidelines. Once you get home you want to get back on track by sticking to your sleep time routines, and giving your child time to settle themselves for naps and bedtime, and when they wake in the middle of the night.
A new sibling, a change in daycare, a new nanny, or a new house:
All of these changes can make sleep more challenging for your kiddo. Any kind of change can take a while to integrate and adjust to, so know that disrupted sleep may be a part of this transition.
Offering lots of reassurance is important so your baby or toddler knows that you understand their upset. Talk to your child about what is happening in clear, short statements. Don’t overexplain. You want your child to hear your calm, steady voice, so they know that you can hold the space for their feelings even if they are struggling.
If your child is starting at daycare, or with a new nanny, resist the temptation to sneak away without saying goodbye. You want your child to know when it’s time to say goodbye, even if they get upset. You build trust when you are upfront with your child about when you are leaving. Even if your baby is too young to understand what you are saying, they will hear your calm voice, and it will help them with the separation. Be sure you let your little one know that you will be back. Reassure them that you will always come back.
If your toddler has a new sibling, try to spend time with your older child without the baby in your arms. Try to stick to routines as best you can, and let your child know that there is plenty of love in your family for everyone.
If you have moved, try to spend time in your child’s new room doing other things besides sleep, so they develop a positive association with their room. Hold steady on your sleep time routines, and know that you might need to go in to reassure your child for the first few nights.
Transition to a toddler bed:
Here is the link to another blog post that covers this sleep change:
It can be challenging and exhausting when your baby or toddler’s sleep backslides. You might feel a bit panicked that it will never be good again. Take heart! Sleep disruptions are a normal part of life with a little one, and with some time and effort, your baby or toddler will get back on track. If you are struggling with any kind of sleep disruption, reach out for support. I’d be happy to help you find your way back to better sleep! You can reach me here.
Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.