Sickness, Teething & The Effects on Sleep

How To Deal With Sickness or Teething and Your Little One’s Sleep…

This is a popular question all year round but particularly in the winter months when colds and sickness bugs seem more common.

A large number of people seek my help for their child’s sleep following sickness or teething because it has disrupted their usual sleep routines or left a lasting problem with the child’s sleep. So why does this happen and what can we do about it?

When our children are unwell, it is our job, our duty and our instinct to comfort them and try to cure them. First off, I would like to state that I fully support that. If you can do that without lasting damage to your little one’s ability to sleep independently, well, that is the ultimate goal and it’s what we are going to look at right here…

Some people face sleep challenges related to teething or sickness with a child who usually sleeps very well and independently. Some people run into these challenges right in the middle of sleep training or newly made progress with the sleep. Others find these challenges just add to the ongoing challenges they have been facing with their little one’s sleep for some time already.

Wherever you are when sickness strikes or teething turns up, will make a difference to how you might handle it.

If your child’s sleep is something that you usually just muddle through, being unwell or teething will just mean more muddling through. If your little one doesn’t usually settle himself to sleep but rather is rocked, fed, cuddled or held to sleep, it will make little difference what you do around sleep during this poorly patch.

Those that tend to worry most are parents who have worked hard on enabling their child to get the sleep he needs, to be able to happily self settle and sleep soundly. We fear that being unwell or teething is going to undo the hard work and our child will forget how to self settle or become reliant on your help to get to sleep.

It is a justified concern because settling oneself to sleep is a learned skill. It can be forgotten and it can be relearnt. So first of all, rest assured that if you taught your child how to do it once, you will be able to teach your child how to do it again and it will probably be much easier second time around.

You can also try to prevent any ‘skill loss’ or forgetting how to self settle, by carefully considering how you handle the situation.

When babies and young children (who do have the ability and usually self settle) become unable to settle to sleep directly because of teething, having a cold or being unwell, it is important to identify what is hindering the settling.

For example, with a cold it could be the inability to breath properly. An ear infection can cause such intense pain that this wakes them. Similarly teething pain or any kind of pain can disturb sleep. Itchiness from rashes, allergies or skin conditions can wake us. The urge to vomit or any urgency with D&V will also wake us up.

The most common ones are teething and colds so I am going to focus on those but these principles apply to most sleep disturbances caused by short term illnesses.

Step One: Identify the cause of sleep disturbance.
The cause of the sleep disturbance will be related to the problem as outlined above and it is important that we recognise this. Of course your child might find it easier to get to sleep in a different location or with lots more assistance from you than usual, but these are ‘solutions’ not causes. These changes may aid the sleep but they were not the reason behind the sleep disturbance or inability to get to sleep.

Step Two: Alleviate the cause as much as you can.
It is important to follow safety guidelines at all times. Before trying any of these tips, ensure you read all product warnings and get your doctors approval.

if you can safely elevate one end of the cot a little, this can help breathing with congestion from a cold. Also humidifiers and other vapour release products can help to clear congestion.

There are many teething relievers on the market and different ones work better for different babies. Also teething rings/toys can help to relieve the pressure in the gums.

Sucking draws blood to the gums and increases the pain. Biting down relieves the pressure and eases the pain. If your baby doesn’t want to feed, it could be because the suckling makes the pain worse. Sometimes babies want something in their mouths to relieve the pain but if that is a pacifier or something to suck on, it will likely make it worse.

Alleviating the cause may mean medication so seek advice from your doctor and only ever give your child medication if you have consulted with the relevant specialist.

Step Three: Soothe and reassure your child.
Your little one probably feels pretty rotten or perhaps frightened or confused about what is going on with them. It is natural for us to seek comfort and reassurance when we don’t feel good. If your little one usually self settles quite happily and independently, she may show more desire to keep you close by.

Step Four: Don’t Overcompensate.
Try not to overcompensate which we usually do purely to make ourselves feel better and feel like we are doing something when we feel helpless. Extra soothing and reassurance is fine. Breaking your usual routine and self made ‘rules’ is also fine, if these things are actually helping your child. Don’t continue to practice these ‘out of routine’ things any longer than absolutely necessary. The longer it carries on, the harder it will be to get back to your normal routine. Your little one might like the things you were doing while she was unwell and, even though she doesn’t ‘need’ those things, she might hold out for them after she is well again. (see the example below)

Step Five: Hang in there.
When you find yourself up and down all night with a sick child, remember, this isn’t life as you know it for the next five years. It is merely a blip and it will soon pass. Looking after poorly children is exhausting and worrying for parents/caregivers but you know you are doing your best.
Remember, you have the knowledge and the tools to help your little one get back to being the great little sleeper that she was.

Step Six: Back to business as usual.
As soon as the worst is over and your little one is on the road to recovery, try to get back to your usual routine and practices that previously worked well for you. Don’t leave this too long as it will become harder to achieve.

Real Life Example:

4 year old who has never once slept in parents bed, usually fit and well, happily self settles to sleep and stays in bed throughout the night. Suddenly one night she has terrible pain that wakes her from sleep. Despite her best efforts to get back to sleep, the pain keeps waking her.

She needs her mummy or daddy. It’s the middle of the night and other than pain relief medicine, there is little the parents can do but comfort her.

She spends nearly 3 hours unable to get back to sleep for more than a few minutes even with mummy there the entire time. Holding her, cuddling her, laying with her, having her in parents bed (for first time ever), nothing made it better.

Eventually she falls asleep on mummy’s chest and is transferred to laying side by side where she sleeps the rest of the night through.

By morning she seems happy and well. A visit to the doctor confirms an ear infection and antibiotics are prescribed but no further episodes of pain occur.
For the next two nights, when she wakes in the night (which we all do 3-6 times on average), she wanders to mummy and asks to go into their bed. It only took one time for her to ask for this again despite being a long-term established independent sleeper. This only lasted two attempts because she was returned to bed both times and not allowed to join the parent’s bed.

Now, This is not to say that co-sleeping is wrong or allowing your children to join you in your bed is a bad choice. Some are happy to do this whether it works for them or not. Others are not happy to do this or find it serves no purpose. What I am pointing out here is how easy it is for a ‘one-off’ to pose a challenge when you don’t want to allow it again and again.

For this 4 year old, it was easy enough to comprehend after a couple of attempts but for younger ones, they don’t know why you let them do something one time or ‘sometimes’ and not other times. This is why consistency is key and keeping things black and white so they know what to expect.

So when your little one is unwell or teething and you feel like consistency and routine have gone out of the window, take a breath, consider how you are helping your child and work your way back to your usual practices as soon as suitable.

If you were just making headway with her sleep or she had just mastered some excellent sleeping ability, you may need to go back and revisit some of the techniques you used.

If your little one never slept well in the first place, you probably won’t find it too different when she is unwell. If you decide she is ready and you’d like to encourage her to be sleeping to the best of her ability, wait until she is fit and well before you begin.

Wishing you health and happiness.

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