Why Is My Baby Fighting Sleep? 5 Causes Of This Common Nighttime Battle

by Tara Saltzburg

Is your baby fighting sleep? Welcome to the club! Babies have a brand new environment to explore and there’s A LOT going on. Your little one is using a ton of physical and mental energy to navigate her new world. The problem is, you’re also using tons of physical and mental energy to help her navigate her new world, so when she doesn’t sleep, neither do you, and that’s no good for anyone. If you’re growing increasingly frustrated at bedtime, I promise there’s still hope! Let’s figure out how your little one (and you) can get some much-needed 💤.

Article Contents:

Why Is My Baby Fighting Sleep?

First, the good news. Your little bundle of joy is not the first baby fighting sleep. As parents, we’ve all been there at some point (and if you haven’t been there yet, you’ll be there soon).

Learning how to get a baby to stop fighting sleep becomes much easier once you figure out the root cause of the issue. If your baby turns into Conor McGregor right as you slip her into her crib, it’s likely she’s experiencing one (or more) of the following five issues: She’s overtired or not tired enough, she’s in a sleep regression, she’s suffering from separation anxiety, she’s hungry, or she’s experience day/night confusion. Let’s dive into each issue along with some ways to help your baby settle into a more peaceful night’s rest.

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#1. Overtired or Not Tired Enough

Although it seems counterintuitive, overtiredness is the most common reason that babies fight sleep. It’s a common misconception that being overtired is a good thing that can lead to a more restful sleep, but such is not the case for babies; an overtired baby will likely wake more frequently and sleep for a shorter period.

Babies have a very short, magical snippet of time in which they are primed and ready to peacefully drift off to sleepyland. This sacred few minutes is called the “sleep window” and overtiredness occurs when you miss it. The sleep window is that beautiful moment when your little one is drowsy enough to fall asleep fairly quickly, but not so tired that she’s crying. Unfortunately this window is so short that even a quick diaper change can be the difference between a peaceful transition and an epic battle!

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So perhaps we develop a better nap schedule and follow it like a boot camp instructor? Nope. Turns out that can be problematic, too ( 🙄 ). Every night and every nap is different, particularly in the first few months, so you may end up with a baby who’s overtired or not tired enough at the “scheduled” sleep time.

Although it’s a much less common reason, being "under" tired can also cause issues when trying to settle your little one in for a snooze. As babies get older, their sleep patterns change, so you will need to make adjustments.

Solution

According to Nicole Johnson at The Baby Sleep Site, the single most important thing is to stay within an optimal “wake time” zone. Say, what?? “Wake time” is the duration of wakefulness between sleep times (counting the time it takes to soothe your baby to sleep). Knowing the best wake time for your little one will keep you ahead of overtiredness like nothing else.

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An optimal “wake time” depends on the age of the baby and the duration of the last sleep. Considering these factors will allow you to determine an optimal amount of time your little one should be awake between sleeps. Below are her recommendations:

  • 0 to 1 month   – Wake time = Duration of the last sleep time, up to 40 minutes max.
  • 1 to 2 months – Wake time = Duration of the last sleep time, up to 40-60 minutes max.
  • 2 to 3 months – Wake time = Duration of the last sleep time, up to 60-80 minutes max.
  • 3 to 4 months – Wake time = Duration of the last sleep time, up to 60-90 minutes max.
  • 4 to 6 months – Wake time = Duration of the last sleep time, up to 1 hour 15 minutes-1 hour and 45 minutes.
  • 6-8 months: Look for wakeful periods to begin to stretch to 2.5 hours without becoming overtired, provided that the naps are not too short. Nap duration is less of a factor now. The first nap of the day will still need to occur a bit earlier(within 2 hours).
  • 8-10 months – Wake time = 2 to 3.5 hours

If you have a baby fighting sleep, it’s also helpful to look for sleep cues. Your little one will try to tell you when she’s ready for sleep. By keeping an eye out for common signs, you will be better able to spot the sacred “sleep window”. For example, if your baby starts sucking on her fingers, it’s a good indicator that she’s trying to find ways to self soothe and settle into sleep. Here are some other common red flags:

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Try to spot these signs and make a mental note when things go well. Unfortunately, sleep cues differ from child to child, so you’ll have to become familiar with your baby’s!

#2. Sleep Regression

Sleep regressions happen very often for most babies throughout the first year.  A sleep regression is just what it sounds like; it’s when there is a regression—or relapse—in your baby’s sleep behavior. Where your child once slept soundly through the night and maintained scheduled naps each day, she now suddenly wakes frequently at night and skip naps. If you have a baby fighting sleep, a sleep regression could be the cause.

While anyone can experience bad sleep from time to time, sleep regression is more consistent and can last from 2-6 weeks. This constant and frustrating disruption in your baby’s sleep is due to their physical and cognitive milestones, so it commonly happens at certain ages. The most common sleep regressions occur around 3-4 months, 6 months, 8-10 months, and 12 months, but keep in mind that they can vary from child to child since not all babies develop at the same pace (Also, just warning ya - a toddler regression will often creep up around the two year mark 😬).

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Just when you get your little one to sleep well, a new regression seems to knock at the door! Don’t worry, you’re not alone and there are things you can do to help. Before looking at ways to mitigate these rough sleep patches, here’s a quick review of what’s going on at the times when regression often occurs:

3-4 Months: These months are when babies are just coming out of the “4th trimester”. It marks significant changes and developments as they adjust to life outside the womb. They are starting to shake the glaze from their eyes and they’re becoming more aware of the people and environment around them.

6 Months: At 6 months, babies are starting to recognize faces. They’re playing more and beginning to communicate through babbling. They’re also showing more curiosity for their environment, which can make settling down a difficult task.

8-10 Months: At this stage, babies are becoming mobile. They’re sitting up, pulling themselves up, crawling, and maybe even walking. All these newfound skills could lead to overtiredness and irritability. Not to mention, babies may want to practice their new skills once they get into bed!

12 Months: At 1 year old, babies are learning new skills everyday. They are engaging in more physical play, like climbing, and their sleep patterns may be changing.

Solution

When you’re in the throes of a sleep regression, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated, but there are some things you can do to help your little one settle down and sleep better. If you think your baby is battling a sleep regression, check out our Guide To Sleep Regression During Baby’s First Year for a deeper look at each regression, but here are some general tips that will help throughout any regression:

  • Stick to a routine and be consistent, but not overly rigid (per #1, being too rigid can also cause problems).
  • Maintain a good bedtime routine and be prepared to give a little extra TLC and attention prior to falling asleep. As your little one develops, it will become increasingly more difficult to settle into a peaceful slumber.
  • Know that it’s okay to be flexible and adjust as your little one’s needs change.
  • Because regressions are often a result of cognitive and physical developments, give her plenty of time outside the nursery to practice her newfound skills.
  • Maintain a dark, quiet space free from distraction when it’s sleep time.
  • If your baby experiences a growth spurt or new milestone, her appetite may change; don’t be afraid to feed her more if she wants it.

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#3. Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can play a major role in baby sleep problems, and it usually manifests itself in the form of clinginess, crying when you leave the room, increased nighttime wakes, and of course, fighting or resisting sleep. This anxiety may even crop up in other aspects of baby’s life—crying when you leave for work in the morning or when you drop her off at daycare, for example. A strange environment or unknown caregiver can make this anxiety worse.

Separation anxiety is prevalent between 6 and 10 months of age since babies are becoming increasingly aware of their environment and surroundings. It typically lasts two to three weeks and can pop up throughout infancy, toddlerhood, and later childhood. According to expert and sleep consultant Brooke Nell, babies under two will likely display separation anxiety around the following ages and stages:

6 to 7 months: babies begin to develop an understanding of object permanence, meaning they understand that people and objects exist even though you can’t see them. Keep in mind that it’s great when your little one achieves this milestone! Because she feels connected to you, she fears not knowing how long you’ll be gone, which can cause insecurity.

9 to 10 months: At this stage, babies start to get a better sense or their daily routine and social scenarios. Babies begin to understand things like “Oh, I get dropped off at daycare in the morning and Mom is gone for a really long time.”

13 to 14 months: During this time, babies have great receptive language—meaning they understand what you’re saying—but they may be unable to express how they feel. They would like to say ‘Why do you have to go to work? Why are you leaving me?”, but since they can’t, crying is a logical alternative.

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Solution

First, determine if your baby is fighting sleep because of separation anxiety. According to Brooke, you can perform a simple test: Pick your baby up. If you hold her and she stops crying, the cause of her tears is most likely separation anxiety. If she continues crying even after you pick her up, something else might be going on.

The good news is that separation anxiety will eventually ease once your baby gets the hang of a new milestone. Although there’s nothing you can really do to prevent it, there are a number of things you can do to ease the transition:

  • Play peekaboo: Peekaboo and other games like “Hide the Ball” are great for separation anxiety because they help babies realize that things can go away then come back.
  • Prepare ahead of time: If you’re transitioning to a daycare of introducing a new caregiver to your baby (over 6 months old), it’s a good idea to prepare her slowly in advance. That way, there are no surprises when transition time comes.
  • Comfort with smell: Babies find your scent comforting and familiar. Giving her something that smells like you can help ease separation fears.
  • Make the crib a happy oasis: It’s important that your little one views the crib as a safe, happy place. Brooke recommends playing with your baby in the crib while she’s happy and take her out of the crib while she’s still happy. The more positive experiences in the nursery, the better!
  • Try to stay calm.  Remember that babies mirror their parents’ faces, reactions, and actions. If your baby starts wailing when you leave, try to keep calm and your baby will pick up on that. If you exhibit anxiety, stress, and panic, your baby will also pick up on that!

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#4. Hunger

Ok this one might be kind of obvious, but if you have a baby fighting sleep, the issue may be hunger. This is especially common for babies who have recently or are about to transition to solid foods, which is usually around 5 months. If your baby is fighting sleep or waking more frequently at night, she might not be getting enough solid foods to keep those hunger pangs at bay.  

Solution

So how much are you supposed to be feeding your little one? Like adults, babies have varying appetites, so don’t be surprised if you speak to your pediatrician and all she tells you is to feed your baby as much as she’ll take. Unlike adults, babies will eat exactly what they need, so don’t try to force feed or limit intake. Instead, follow your baby’s cues. You may want to consider introducing another feeding throughout the day, moving the last feeding back, or dare I say it: waking baby up for a late feeding 😬.

Although it's likely against the advice of every sleep consultant and veteran parent out there, I had success with waking my baby up for a late feeding. Yes, I know, never wake a sleeping baby. Call me crazy, but in my experience, it worked. Around 11:00pm, I would wake up my son, throw on an episode of Friends, do a quick feeding and put him back down. He nodded off peacefully, affording me the luxury of a little extra shut eye. 

Hey, every baby is different, so it's worth a shot. But if it doesn't work for you, please refrain from hate mail 😉.

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#5. Day/Night Confusion

This one’s a doozy. Day/night confusion is exactly what it sounds likebaby snoozes right through the day then plays vampire at night. If you have a newborn fighting sleep or a young baby, day/night confusion may be the cause since infants have not yet developed the internal rhythms that make them feel more awake during the day and more sleepy at night.

Solution

So how do you solve day/night confusion? Below are some tips and tricks to get your little one on the right path:

During the Day

  • Even when baby is napping, make the nursery as bright as possible.
  • Don’t be too timid with noise, even during naps. Allow volumes—such as talking, television, brother or sister playing, etc—to stay normal. It’s better to keep a regular daytime noise level because it will assist in setting her internal clock to the correct time.
  • Go outside with your baby and let her get used to the light of day. When indoors, open up the curtains to allow as much natural light as possible.

At Night

  • Keep the nursery as dark as possible when she is sleeping at night. Remember, your completely dark womb is what she knows!
  • Use the least amount of light, like a closet light or night light, so you can see for night feedings and diaper changes.
  • Keep night feedings all business. The goal is to feed and change the baby then get her back to sleep quickly. Maintain a quiet, calm atmosphere and try to be as aloof as possible. It may be difficult but do your best to avoid eye contact, making noise, smiling, or talking. Instead, save it for daytime, which is play time.
  • Get your baby used to a pre-bedtime routine. This could be a bath before bed followed by putting on pajamas, nighttime feeding, or a song. These will become cues that let them know sleep is coming.
  • Make your baby as comfortable and cozy as possible. Opt for ultra-soft PJs that are lightweight and air-permeable so the skin can breathe. Babies have very delicate skin so comfy, non-irritating PJs are key to a good night’s rest!
  • Put baby down while she’s in the optimal “sleep window” (reminder: the few minutes when your little one is drowsy enough to fall asleep fairly quickly, but not so tired that she’s crying).

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Summary

A baby fighting sleep is a major stressor in the parenting department. As with most baby-related issues, you’re not alone—most of us have been there! First try to determine the cause of the problem. If a baby is fighting sleep, it can usually be attributed to one of five common culprits: overtired/not tired enough, a sleep regression, separation anxiety, hunger, or day/night confusion. Once you’ve got that figured out, you’ll be much better equipped to tackle the problem. The most important thing when your baby won’t sleep is to try to stay calm. Remember, babies take cues from their parents; a frustrated, anxious, or panicked mama will certainly not help the situation.

Wishing you luck and some much-needed shut eye.

Xo, Tara

Please note: This article is informational only and is not intended to replace medical advice.

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Sources:

https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/why-do-babies-fight-sleep/

https://www.parents.com/baby/sleep/issues/our-baby-wont-sleep/

https://amotherfarfromhome.com/baby-schedule/

https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/overtired-baby/

https://www.megfaure.com/how-to-get-an-over-tired-baby-or-toddler-to-sleep/

https://wholesomebabyfood.momtastic.com/howmuchbabyeat.htm

https://www.babysleepsite.com/schedules/baby-sleep-wake-time-formula/

https://www.nanit.com/blog/separation-anxiety-need-know/

http://redtri.com/4-tips-to-changing-infant-day-night-confusion/

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