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Why Does My Baby Fight Sleep?

Feeling baffled and worn out because your little one fights sleep, even when they’re clearly tired? You’re in good company. Many parents face this puzzling situation, wondering, “Why does my baby fight sleep  when they need it most!”

Here’s something reassuring: babies are born with the ability to sleep but learning how to settle down is a skill they develop over time. Settling into sleep requires a sense of security and relaxation that isn’t always easy for infants, especially during the day when the natural sleep aids like melatonin and the circadian rhythm aren’t as strong as they are at night. Factors like learning new skills or changes in their routine can also keep them too stimulated to sleep.

This blog is here to help you understand why this happens and to share strategies to gently guide your baby from resisting sleep to welcoming it, making bedtime a smoother experience for both of you.

“Remember how your newborn could sleep just about anywhere, unfazed by noise or movement?”

The 4 Month Sleep Regression

From birth, your little one’s brain is on an incredible growth trajectory, especially pronounced during the first three years. This brain growth is hungry for sleep, but as your baby becomes more aware of their environment, they might resist this need. The maturation of the circadian rhythm, which kicks into noticeable gear around the infamous 4-month sleep regression, marks a significant shift. This internal clock starts its calibration even before birth but really shows its colors as your baby approaches that 4-month milestone, changing their sleep patterns to more closely resemble that of adults.

Unlike the newborn phase, where sleep was a simple alternation between active and quiet states, after the 4-month regression, babies start to experience the full range of sleep stages that adults do. This transition is accompanied by a more sophisticated regulation of melatonin and cortisol, hormones responsible for sleep and wakefulness, respectively. These hormonal changes are increasingly influenced by environmental cues, such as light and temperature, nudging their sleep patterns towards more nighttime sleep and establishing a more predictable bedtime routine.

However, even with these developments, young infants still require relatively short wake windows and depend on multiple naps throughout the day—typically 4-5. As they grow, their ability to stay awake for longer stretches improves, gradually consolidating more sleep at night and reducing the need for daytime naps. This evolution continues until around age 3-5, when most children phase out napping entirely.

My Baby used to Sleep So Easily. What Happened?

Remember how your newborn could sleep just about anywhere, unfazed by noise or movement? This superpower stems from their initial phase of adjusting to life outside the womb, a time of immense brain development that demands a lot of sleep. In these early weeks, seamlessly drifting from being cuddled in your arms to resting in a bassinet is the norm. But as they start “waking up” to the world around them, everything begins to change.

Waking Up to the World

As your little one’s awareness grows, so does their fascination with everything around them—sights, sounds, even the subtle shift from your arms to the bassinet becomes a big deal. This heightened sensitivity and budding preference for your closeness over solitary sleep spaces can lead to what we often refer to as the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).

Interestingly, this resistance to sleep isn’t just about not wanting to miss out. It’s also about how our bodies react to sleep cues. Just like adults might ignore the urge to sleep by scrolling through their phones, babies can push past their sleepiness, especially during the day when melatonin levels are lower. If they skip that initial sleep signal, the body switches gears, pumping out adrenaline and cortisol to keep them awake. While they might seem energized, this hormonal boost actually makes settling down even tougher, increasing heart rate and body temperature—both of which are not conducive to sleep.

This dance between needing sleep and the body’s alertness mechanisms can be tricky. But understanding this interplay gives us clues on how to better support your little one as they learn to embrace rest, even amidst the excitement of their rapidly expanding world.

Signs Your Little One is Resisting Sleep

Wondering if your little one is fighting sleep? Look out for these telltale signs:

  • Despite showing signs of tiredness, they resist settling down when it’s time for bed.
  • They easily fall asleep in your arms but wake up the moment they’re placed in their crib.
  • They startle and wake up just as they’re about to drift off to sleep.
  • There’s a lot of fussing and crying when trying to put them down in their crib, even if they seemed ready for sleep moments before.
  • They seem to only stay asleep when you’re right beside them, waking immediately once you try to sneak away.

For any parent longing for a good night’s rest (and let’s be honest, during the day too), watching your baby resist sleep can be bewildering and exhausting. You’re not alone in wishing for a peaceful night or wanting to catch a break during the day. We understand the struggle of trying to soothe a baby who seems to have turned sleep into a battleground.

Understanding Why Your Baby Fights Sleep

Struggling to figure out why your baby won’t easily drift off? Here are the key reasons, some of which we’ve touched on earlier:

  • The fear of Missing Out (FOMO): Babies’ newfound awareness makes everything fascinating, far beyond the allure of sleep. Their desire to engage with the world around them can significantly impede their willingness to settle down for sleep.
  • Recognition of sleep routines: As mentioned earlier, your baby’s growing familiarity with pre-sleep activities might lead to resistance. They understand that bedtime means parting from you and the exciting world, which can cause fussiness. This behavior, though challenging, is a sign of their trust in you and the consistency of your routine.
  • Not Tired Enough: As we covered earlier, babies need increasingly longer wake windows as they grow. If they’re not showing readiness for sleep, it might be because they haven’t built up enough sleep pressure. Adjusting their wake windows can help align their sleepiness with bedtime.
  • Too Tired: On the flip side, missing the ideal sleep time can lead to overtiredness. Keeping a baby up too long in hopes of better sleep can backfire, as an overtired baby may find it harder to settle due to increased stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
  • Sleep Associations: Dependence on specific conditions to fall asleep, such as being held, fed, or rocked, can make it challenging for your baby to settle to sleep in more independent ways. Establishing a variety of soothing techniques can help mitigate this dependency.

“Be sure your baby’s wake windows give them enough time to build up sleep pressure.”

Strategies to Combat Sleep Resistance

  • Optimize Wake Windows: Be sure your baby’s wake windows give them enough time to build up sleep pressure. If you put your baby down too soon they might fight settling to sleep. If you find your little one has been fighting bedtime or their naps for a few days it may be time to look at their schedule and adjust it to allow for more awake time. Too much daytime sleep can sometimes impact bedtime, so be sure you are tracking how much day sleep they are getting and adjust accordingly.
  • Slow Down Pre-Sleep Routines: If you miss your baby’s ideal wake window and they are now “wired and tired” know that it may take some more time for them to settle down. If your little one blew through their usual nap time and is now climbing the walls because they are so tired you may be tempted to get through their sleep routine more quickly. Our advice is to actually slow down! Take some time to let your little one blow off some steam either with a warm bath or mellow music and play in their room before you start their bedtime routine.
  • Maintain Consistency: Be consistent in what you do before you help your kiddo settle in at bedtime and for naps. They may not like it but the predictability will help them recognize the pattern which is less confusing than if you keep switching up what you do. It can be tempting to try all kinds of things to get your kiddo to sleep. You might get some well meaning suggestions from friends and family or other parents. Just know that switching up your strategy too frequently can work against you as your child is now not sure what’s coming next and may be confused. They may become more riled up if you are trying too many new things all at once. Make a plan for how you are going to help your little one settle in and be clear and intentional about it. Give it a week and then reassess.
  • Allow for Energy Release: Give your child time to have that last burst of energy before they settle in for sleep. It may not look like they will settle but with a little time and space to move around most kiddos will wind down and let go. If you have been doing all the work to get your child to settle it may be time to do less. As your child gets older they may need more time to move before they can sleep. If you are rocking them and they are squirming in your arms it may be time to let them do that squirming in their crib instead!
  • Encourage Self-Soothing: Try to find ways to help your child settle that are sustainable for you. Give your child some time to work on soothing themselves before you step in so they learn what helps them settle in to sleep. (This does not mean leaving your child to cry it out). As we talked about in the beginning, settling to sleep is a learned process. It may be time to give your child a chance to work on those skills. You can still give them the support they need, but more time working on what they can do to settle builds a lifelong skill.
  • Positive Room Associations: Spend time in your childs room hanging out at other times than just for sleep. Infuse their space with positive experiences. If all you do in your little one’s room is change their diaper and put them down for sleep it might be time to do other things there so that they have other associations with their space. They may still resist sleep, but knowing that you will spend time with them before they settle can help with the transition.
  • Stay calm and Patient: Don’t be in a hurry to get your kiddo to sleep. They will pick up on your energy and may resist sleep even more. That said don’t linger. Be clear, calm and intentional about what you are doing. If you are feeling anxious about putting your child down at bedtime or for a nap your little one may be picking up on that. Before you start your sleep routine, be clear in your mind about what you are going to do and convey that to your child. Even if they are too young to understand all you are saying, talking to them can help you stay calm.
  • Take a Break if Needed: If possible, switch places with a spouse or partner if you find yourself losing your cool. If you don’t have anyone to tag team with then it’s ok to step away for a few minutes if you need to. Put your baby down in a safe place and let them know you will be back. It can feel super frustrating if your child fights sleep. Pushing through your frustration usually doesn’t result in them letting go and it can feel really awful to get into a power struggle with your child around sleep. It’s better to take a breather if you need to rather than rage rock your little one to sleep.

“Resisting sleep is just a temporary phase, often linked to developmental progress.”

Embracing the Journey with Patience and Support

It’s important to remember that for many infants, resisting sleep is just a temporary phase, often linked to their rapid developmental progress. Whether your baby is mastering the art of crawling, or simply more aware of the world around them, these milestones can disrupt their usual sleep patterns. However, this phase is both common and natural, reflecting your little one’s growth and curiosity.

Patience and understanding are your best allies during this time. With the right approach and adjustments to their sleep routine, most babies gradually return to more predictable sleeping habits. But if sleep resistance persists, and you find yourself in need of guidance, our program is designed to offer the support you need. Together, we can work towards establishing healthier sleep patterns for your child, ensuring that everyone in the family enjoys the restful nights they deserve.

This article was written by Batelle – team of sleep experts, lactation consultants, therapists, doulas, and early education specialists.

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