Why do babies fight sleep? All your questions answered by experts


*Dr. Elizabeth Cilenti contributed to Priscilla Blossom’s care.com article, published on April 30, 2024

We spoke to experts to get the scoop on why babies fight sleep, along with a few tips to finally get little ones back to slumberland.

Few hurdles are more challenging for a new parent than dealing with a baby who just won’t sleep. Watching your baby rub their eyes repeatedly, yawn and fuss when all you want is a nap yourself can become demoralizing pretty quickly. And once those overtired tears get going? Forget about it. As exhausted parents, it’s almost unfathomable to think anyone would shirk sleep. But babies don’t exactly know the value of this simple, restorative act. Why do babies fight sleep anyway?

“Babies need a lot of sleep, at least 12 hours a day,” says Dr. Victoria Regan, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. “And once they get off schedule, they are fussier and have difficulty falling asleep.”

So, what can weary parents do to encourage good sleep in their littles and finally end the insomnia cycle? We spoke to some experts to get the full story along with a few tips to finally get our littles ones back to slumberland.

Here’s why babies fight sleep

Much like adults struggle to sleep due to things ranging from work stress to chronic pain, babies also have a slew of reasons why they might fight sleep ranging from physical discomfort to being overly tired — or even not tired enough. Here, the most common reasons why babies fight sleep.

They’re overstimulated and overtired

Overstimulation — stemming from just about anything from a missed nap to having visitors that day — is the most common reason that babies fight sleep, says Regan.

Much like parents can become “touched out,” a baby being passed from loved one to loved one may also end up feeling overstimulated. They might also experience this if they’ve undergone a switch-up in their routine, like going on a family vacation or if their primary caregiver changes overall, says Regan.

They’re not tired enough

“Under-tired babies may struggle to fall asleep as easily as those without sleep debt,” says Ana Vega, parenting coach and a former Vice President at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). “Maybe they napped for short periods during the day, so they might resist all settling attempts to go to sleep.”

Even if they do fall asleep while you attempt to get them to bed, they’ll likely wake up just a few minutes later because they simply haven’t spent enough time awake before their nap, says Vega.

A poor sleep environment

Going back to the overstimulation factor, a baby might fight sleep if their sleep environment isn’t ideal (though this varies on a case-by-case basis). While some babies will adapt to an environment in which there is more noise or light, others will fight sleep as a result of these factors, points out Dr. Wendi DeFrank, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Say you’re trying to get your baby to sleep while there are people talking just outside their room or in a room where you have a TV still on — some are more likely to struggle to nod off.

Even benign-seeming things can alter a baby’s sleep environment. “Night lights can actually disturb sleep rhythm by stimulating the pineal gland in the brain,” says DeFrank.

Vega adds, “Some kids are so sensitive that parents have to be extremely careful so they don’t make any loud noises. Many use white noise machines every night and during every nap.” This is especially the case with infants. “They normally cannot get used to the noises until much later, maybe when they turn 2, 3 or 4,” she says.

Again, every baby is different, but it’s worth taking inventory of your baby’s sleeping area for anything that might disturb their sleep.

“Under-tired babies may struggle to fall asleep as easily as those without sleep debt. Maybe they napped for short periods during the day, so they might resist all settling attempts to go to sleep.”

— Ana Vega, parenting coach and a former Vice President at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Separation anxiety

It’s hard enough to leave a baby behind for work or even the elusive date night, but it’s even tougher when separation anxiety comes into play to mess with their sleep. While this might not be much of a factor for newborns and infants, it can come into play with older babies.

“At 9 months, babies begin to recognize the difference between familiar parental faces and unknown ones, a normal development in their attachment system,” says Vega. “This recognition propels 1-year-olds to explore the world independently, but they also feel more secure knowing their parents will rescue them if needed.”

That said, if a sitter or other loved one is putting the baby down for sleep, they might end up fighting sleep, either due to the separation anxiety, the change in routine or both.

Physical discomfort

Gassiness, sickness, teething or other forms of pain, like ear infections or a too-tight onesie, can also cause a baby to struggle with sleep, as can something as simple as feeling too hot, points out Vega.

“These situations are normal and should not be overly stressed,” she adds, though parents should, of course, work to minimize their baby’s discomfort to help them sleep better.

Parental stress

While it may be frustrating to hear, it’s important to try and stay calm when your baby is fighting sleep as stressing might make it worse.

If you are stressed or anxious about bedtime or naps, your baby will 100% pick up on this, says Vega. “Babies not only pick up on their (parent’s) stress, but they also show corresponding physiological changes, like signs of increased physiological cardiac stress,” she notes.

If you notice your stress levels are interfering with your parenting (or your baby’s ability to sleep), consider reaching out to your child’s pediatrician for help. And if you’re having trouble managing your stress on the whole, try and set aside some time to take care of your mental health. A counselor, therapist, trusted friend, or even your general practitioner might be able to assist you with additional support.

How can you help your baby get to sleep when they’re fighting it?

If you’re currently dealing with a baby that’s fighting sleep, there’s still plenty you can do to help, from sticking to sleep routines, to making adjustments to their sleep habits as they grow, and more.

Pay attention to signs of wakefulness and sleepiness

You’ll do well to be mindful of signs that your baby is more wakeful and more tired, so you can set their daily routines up around these natural periods of time, explains Dr. Elizabeth Cilenti, a pediatrician at North Virginia Family Practice in Arlington, Virginia.

“Babies have what we call ‘wake windows,’ which are how long they can be awake before they need to sleep,” says Clienti. “For young infants under three or four months old, it usually takes 30 to 60 minutes, and as kids age, it can take a few hours. [For example], when kids are two, they can usually handle four to six hours or even more of awake time.”

Stick to a sleep routine

All experts we spoke to recommended creating and sticking to a consistent sleep routine that will settle the baby into rest. “Try to keep a set bedtime and allow the infant time to transition to sleep,” says DeFrank.” A regular routine such as bath, book, nursing or bottle, then bed is a good start.”

Follow safe sleep guidelines

Making sure you’re following the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)’s safe sleep guidelines is always helpful in promoting restfulness by reducing issues that might cause babies to fight sleep.

“Remember to always put the baby to sleep on their back,” says Regan. “It is OK if they roll over in their sleep.” That’s because once babies learn to roll over, their brains have developed enough to alert them of any breathing problems.

It’s also preferable to place your baby in the crib when they are sleepy rather than after they’ve fallen asleep, adds Regan.

Additionally, take note that some newborns and infants prefer swaddling, which can help in making them calm and help promote sleep. Just be sure to swaddle safely, making sure the hips are loose and the blanket isn’t too tight, always placing them down on their back in the crib, and checking in from time to time. “Once they begin to roll over, you should not swaddle,” she says. That’s because the risk of SIDS can increase as they will struggle to roll back over.

Avoid overstimulation, especially in the sleep environment

“We usually recommend putting the baby to sleep in a dark, quiet environment, but we all know that that can be difficult to do if you’re traveling or on vacation,” says Cilenti. She and Vega both recommend using black out curtains and white noise machines to block ambient noise and reduce stimulation overall.

While a night light might be preferable for things like quick check-ins, DeFrank warns against storing  cell phones, tables, TVs and computer screens near baby’s sleep space, because they emit blue light, which impacts the circadian rhythm.

“If you must have a light, make sure it is in the red end of the spectrum,” she says.

This is because red light does not disturb the circadian rhythm, which can help increase production of melatonin, and improve overall sleep. Choosing a nightlight with a red bulb or even amber is best.

“Babies have what we call ‘wake windows,’ which are how long they can be awake before they need to sleep. For young infants under three or four months old, it usually takes 30 to 60 minutes, and as kids age, it can take a few hours.”

— Dr. Elizabeth Cilenti, a pediatrician at North Family Practice in Arlington, Virginia

Pay attention to when your baby is ready to change their sleep routines

Over time, your baby’s  sleep needs will shift, and the routine they (and you) were originally accustomed to will need to shift as well in order to avoid them fighting sleep.

“As babies get older, they may no longer need multiple naps a day and may be ready to consolidate into one or two longer naps,” says Cilenti. “However, if your baby goes from taking a morning nap to only one afternoon nap, the timing may need to be adjusted slightly.”

You might need to make the afternoon nap a little earlier or only do an afternoon nap if they start skipping their morning naps, she explains. “You may need to shift bedtime a little earlier so they are lining up with the wake window,” she adds.

When your baby begins to enter toddlerhood, for example, they’ll need 10-12 hours of sleep at night, plus another one to two hours of naptime. You’ll want to adjust their sleep schedule accordingly based on their — and your family’s — needs.

Try not to interfere too much when they wake up

When babies who struggle with sleep wake up, try to avoid interfering as little as possible, explains Regan. This means avoiding things like turning on lights, being too chatty, or even trying to rock them back to sleep.

“Sometimes they may cry, but they often settle down on their own within 5-10 minutes,” says Dr. Regan. “If your baby is still crying after 15 minutes, go check on her/him, but do not turn the lights all the way on. Try not to pick them up, but consider gently touching them for a minute or two.”

If this sounds a bit like sleep training, that’s because it’s a somewhat modified version of the Ferber method. Depending on your child’s temperament, employing these methods can potentially be helpful in getting your baby accustomed to their sleep routine and learning to self-soothe.

When to talk to your pediatrician about your baby fighting sleep

If your baby continues to fight sleep for more than two days in a row, and/or if there are any obvious health reasons that may be affecting sleep, such as fever, a decrease in appetite, cough or congestion, contact your pediatrician, advises Regan. You’ll also do well to talk to your pediatrician if you’re feeling stressed about caring for your baby, she points out.

Your health care provider will also check to see if anything is occurring with your baby’s development that could be contributing to them fighting sleep, notes Clienti. “Sometimes, when we see kids who are going through a developmental transition and learning new developmental milestones, it can be a sign that the baby is more interested in practicing these new skills than they are sleeping.”

Getting this input will not only put your mind at ease, it’ll no doubt lead to a better night’s rest for both you and baby — who wouldn’t want that?


Previous Post
Northern Virginia Family Practice Open House
Next Post
Beyond blame: Treating obesity as a complex chronic condition