How to Help Your Sick Baby Sleep Best and When to Resume Sleep Training

Last Updated May 18, 2018.

As if it doesn’t take so much time and courage to finally get a sleep training plan going, it seems illness threatens to put a wrench in your plans and progress! Since it can take so much motivation to start sleep training in the first place, illness often stops the process short, and parents struggle to resume training again. Or perhaps you have only recently “completed” sleep training and are at a loss for how to care for your sick child while still maintaining good sleep habits.

First of all, evaluate where you are in the sleep training process. If it’s in the middle of the first night of training when you discover your son has a fever, I would suggest abandoning all sleep training plans until your child is totally healthy (meaning symptom free for 24-48 hours). If, however, you are to the point in sleep training where your child has made substantial progress, then it would make sense to tend to your child as much as and often as is needed, but continue to focus on them falling asleep unassisted whenever safely possible.

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Keeping up Good Sleep Habits for your Sick Baby

When your child is ill, whether or not they are sleep trained, it’s vital to attend to every need they have associated with the illness. If the pediatrician approves fever-reducing medicine, use that to comfort your child. If your child has a fever and is dehydrated, address that with a feeding (while making sure to try to keep baby awake while being fed). Whatever your child needs, fulfill that need! Just remember to try to avoid facilitating your child falling asleep. Falling asleep needs to be done totally unassisted, and being ill does not preclude a child from being able to fall asleep on their own. To the extent safely possible, focus on caring for them, but not helping them fall asleep – caring for a child in this way during illness is a sure fire way to maintain whatever progress your child has made in their sleep training journey.

Many families are accustomed to bed sharing during illness. Instead of bringing your sick child into your bed (and thus helping them fall asleep), keep them in their crib in their room, and simply share the room with them. Sleep on an air mattress, bed or couch, and be right there in case they need you all night long (and even for naps, if you wish). If you feel that your presence is keeping your child from being able to fall asleep, consider stepping out of the room and watching them on the monitor to make sure they are safe, and as soon as their eyes close and they fall asleep, go in and sleep near them so that you are there for whatever they may need as they wake through the night. And after a night waking, leave the room again while they fall back asleep, and return once they are asleep again if it is safe to do so.

When to Resume Sleep Training after Illness?

There are a number of other “best practices” for your sleep trained, sick child — don’t worry about how often they want to sleep or for how long – sleep is what their body needs to heal (besides other doctor-prescribed treatments there may be) — so let their bodies dictate how much sleep they get and when, for both daytime and nighttime sleep. It’s not necessary to maintain a schedule during illness. When your child is back to 100% health, you can resume their usual sleep schedule. Sick babies and toddlers also tend to want more physical contact and really beg for your presence around the clock – and who can blame them? Be the parent you want to be and console, hold, rock, love, and care for your babies while they are awake, just focus on making sure they fall asleep unassisted if you wish to preserve your sleep training efforts. And know that if for any reason you do choose to help your sleep trained baby fall asleep while they are sick, you can and should re-start sleep training over again once they are well. I’m often asked, “Have I ruined my sleep trained baby by doing x, y or z when they were sick?” And the answer is absolutely not. It’s always possible to retrain.

If you’ve only just begun sleep training, you’ll know it’s safe to resume your sleep training plans when your child is 100% healthy (no fever, vomiting, or other signs of illness) for at least 24–48 hours. It is also highly advisable that you take your child into the pediatrician to verify that they’re totally healthy before jumping back into any serious sleep training.

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