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Why Do Babies Fight Sleep? And What You Can Do About It

Newborns are often so sleepy you can’t keep them awake, but eventually things change and your baby will probably begin “fighting” sleep. In this piece, I’ll share with you what fighting sleep means, why it happens, and what you can do to ease the fighting!

First, what do we mean by fighting sleep? 

Let’s get clear on what that might look like for you. It may be that your baby seems wide awake when it’s time to sleep, or that they cry and cry when they’re tired but won’t settle. Or perhaps it’s that they wake up crying after 30-minute naps and have trouble connecting sleep cycles, night and day. The hardest fights are the middle of the night wakings where your baby just won’t go back to sleep easily no matter what you do, or when they suddenly go from sleeping longer stretches to waking every hour or so. All of these things are fighting sleep.

baby wide awake fighting sleep

5 Reasons Your Baby is Fighting Sleep

Here are the top five reasons why your baby fights sleep.

1. Your baby doesn’t know HOW to sleep

The number one reason babies fight sleep is because they don’t know HOW to sleep independently and are reliant on your help. As a newborn, it’s natural to feed and rock your baby to sleep, but eventually, that stops working and babies start fighting sleep simply because they’re more alert. You might find that your baby used to go down really easily at bedtime, but suddenly bedtime becomes an hour or more song and dance of trying to put your baby down but they wake up the minute they touch the crib. This is 100% related to a developmental leap, typically starting in the 3-5 month period – an ideal time to sleep-train your baby!


2. Your baby is overtired

Babies and toddlers often fight sleep when they’re overtired. If they’re getting interrupted sleep at night, and short naps during the day, chances are they feel as exhausted as you feel. Although overtired usually looks like cranky, fussy and clingy behavior, sometimes an overtired baby looks extra alert! That’s adrenaline and the second wind that happens when you’re so tired, yet you can’t sleep. Has that ever happened to you? Imagine that “second wind” may be happening for your baby. 


3. Your baby is overstimulated

A bright room with lots of noisy toys and a caregiver in their face singing songs and playing games can cause a baby to get overstimulated very quickly. When babies are overstimulated they can get fussy or look wide awake when it’s time for sleep, and therefore fight going down harder than usual. 


4. Your baby is going through a developmental leap

Babies fight sleep more when they’re going through a big developmental leap. Let’s use the 3-4 month leap as an example. Before 3 months, your baby is still a newborn and sleeps more than older babies. They’re probably still happy in a swaddle, they don’t roll or crawl. Maybe they’ve even slept for up to 8-hour stretches at night, but suddenly they start waking increasingly more – sometimes every hour. You’ll hear this called the 4-month sleep regression, but that originates from a developmental leap. Fighting sleep and waking up more frequently is your baby’s way of telling you that they’re growing and changing, becoming more alert, and their sleep situation isn’t working for them any longer. 


5. Your baby is done with the swaddle and/or bassinet

If a still-swaddled baby starts crying when being swaddled, starts breaking out of the swaddle in the middle of the night, and/or starts trying to roll during the day, your baby is probably done with the swaddle and bassinet. I know the Snoo and most other bassinets say that your baby can sleep there until 6-8 months, but I disagree. Babies who are breaking out of the swaddle and trying to roll during tummy time are ready for a crib. They’re fighting sleep because they don’t want the swaddle anymore, and the bassinet is limiting and unsafe if your baby is trying to roll. 


Try These Things When Your Baby is Fighting Sleep

1. Give your baby some transition time

To avoid the sleep battles from FOMO, being overtired or overstimulated, turn down the noise and the lights when you’re getting ready for sleep. That includes saying goodbye to any siblings or company and turning off stimulating music and the TV. Give your baby time to unwind and transition into a sleepy environment. At bedtime, create a soothing routine with sleep cues like dim lights, shades closed, a book, and/or a song and white noise. You can recreate that mini routine for every nap so your baby knows it’s time for sleep every time.


2. Watch your baby’s cues and adjust their sleep environment

If your baby is fighting sleep because they’re breaking out of the swaddle, pay attention to what your baby is trying to tell you. Notice if they’re trying to roll and suck their hands during the day and consider: Might your baby want access to their hands when they’re trying to sleep? If they’re trying to roll and you still have your baby in a Dockatot, swaddle, bassinet or Snoo, is that a safe and sustainable sleep environment? If you see any clear signs (especially rolling), it’s time for you to get your baby sleeping in a full-sized crib without a swaddle as soon as possible.


3. Sleep train your baby

Babies want to sleep, they really do. But if your baby doesn’t know how to fall asleep without your assistance (rocking, feeding, pacifier, shushing, etc.), then they haven’t learned HOW to sleep. Teaching a baby how to sleep unassisted is what we call sleep training. It’s a challenging process because there are always some tears involved, but it’s what we do every day to help families sleep. The great news though is that once your baby knows how to fall asleep without your “help”, they can also fall back to sleep when they wake up repeatedly during the night. Because newsflash: all humans wake up between sleep cycles all night long. You know how to fall back asleep, but your baby still may need to learn that elusive skill!


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