My son was a terrible sleeper. As a baby, he rarely stayed asleep for more than an hour at a time. I knew he had to be exhausted, but when I set him down and tried to leave the room, he’d fight sleep by screaming, kicking, pulling at my pajamas, and thrashing in his crib.
Was it separation anxiety?
Was he overtired?
Was he hungry?
Was he just high maintenance?
I had no idea why my baby had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. And I didn’t know how to fix the problem.
I stuck to a bedtime routine. I tried a white noise machine. I pretended to sleep on the floor of his bedroom. I tried accepting my fate. Because all babies learn to sleep eventually—right?
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for us.
In desperate need of professional help, I went straight to my local pediatric sleep center. I had so many questions for the doctor, the first of which was:
Why won’t my baby sleep?!
Why do babies fight sleep?
I learned there are many reasons babies fight sleep. Here are six common ones:
- Separation anxiety: After nine months of being nestled snug in mom’s womb, being alone in a big world can be scary for baby! But true separation anxiety begins around 8-10 months of age, according to Stanford University. This is when babies begin to realize they want to be with you all the time. If your little one had been sleeping well and suddenly they’re fighting sleep, this might be why.
- Hunger: Newborn babies and infants need to eat frequently. This means you may be up around the clock feeding your baby for the first few months. This is normal and expected. If your baby is sucking on his fist, rooting, or licking his lips, he or she might be fighting sleep because of hunger. Be sure you know your baby’s hunger cues so you can rule hunger out.
- Overtired: Sleep begets sleep. And missed sleep begets more missed sleep! When babies are overtired, it’s actually harder for them to fall asleep. How to tell if your baby is overtired? Signs to look for: ear tugging, yawning, looking away, and eye rubbing. If your baby is doing any of these—or if you have a hard time consoling him or her—overtiredness may be the issue.
- Under tired: As babies age, they need less sleep overall. According to Johns Hopkins, newborns sleep 16-17 hours a day whereas babies between four months and one year need just 12-15 hours. If your older baby (or toddler) cries and protests when you try to put him or her down to sleep, consider whether they’ve already slept more than they need to.
- Overstimulation: Just as you might find it hard to hit the hay immediately after returning home from work, some babies have a hard time settling down after lots of stimulation. Overstimulation is caused by too much noise, too much light, or too much touch, among other things. If your house is often full of visitors and action, consider whether your baby is fighting sleep due to overstimulation.
- Teething: When new teeth break through the gums, some babies barely seem to notice. But for others, teething is really painful! Feeling discomfort due to teething is a common reason babies cry and fight sleep. If your baby is around six months old and you’ve noticed increased drooling or food refusal, teething could be what’s keeping him or her awake.
You can figure out why your baby is fighting sleep through process of elimination. For example, if you’ve fed your baby but the crying continues, you can likely eliminate hunger.
My son’s sleep issue was separation anxiety, which we figured out by eliminating the other possibilities.
Sleep problems vs. formal sleep disorders
Pediatric sleep problems like the ones named above are common. According to American Family Physician, one in two children have difficulty sleeping.
Formal sleep disorders—like infant sleep apnea or bradycardia—are less common. If you suspect a medical issue might be to blame for your baby’s poor sleep habits, talk to your pediatrician as soon as possible. Medicine or other interventions may be needed.
How much sleep does my baby need?
After ruling out a medical condition, my next step was to figure out whether my son was getting enough sleep. For one week, I kept a sleep diary. While it seemed like he was always awake and crying, I discovered he was indeed getting enough sleep. This made me feel much better!
To figure out how much sleep your baby needs to be healthy and happy, start by understanding baby sleep needs by age group. Columbia University Department of Neurology created a helpful chart that shows how much sleep babies need depending on how old they are. It will show you:
- Total sleep hours needed
- Total hours of nighttime sleep needed
- Total hours of daytime sleep needed
Once you know how much sleep your baby needs, use a sleep diary to track your baby’s sleep.
Even if your baby is getting the minimum required hours of sleep, they might still have a sleep problem. For example, although my son was getting enough sleep, his constant waking throughout the night was disruptive and stressful. And it wasn’t age-appropriate.
Newborns and infants three months old or younger sleep in one or two hour stretches. But older babies generally shouldn’t be waking up so often. For reference, two-thirds of babies sleep through the night (six to eight hours) regularly by the time they’re six months old according to Columbia University.
Sleep tips for babies who fight sleep
If your baby fights sleep, here are five tips to get baby (and you!) sleeping through the night.
Be there for baby—but set some boundaries. You might be considering a cry-it-out sleep training approach, but if separation anxiety is the issue, this could do more harm than good.
Every time my son cried, I used to pick him up, hug him, and then put him back down. Of course, he came to expect this, and he’d cry hysterically until he got his middle-of-the-night hug. My doctor encouraged me to set boundaries: When the crying began, I’d go into his room so he could feel secure, but then I’d quickly leave without holding or hugging him.
This approach worked for us, but different forms of sleep learning work for different families. Speak to your health care provider to understand all your options—then choose one that feels right for you and your family, whether it's cosleeping, letting sleep evolve naturally, or doing some form of sleep learning.
Set a bedtime and stick to it. Babies thrive on sleep routines. When you put your baby down to sleep at the same time every night, their body clocks start to understand that it’s time to rest.
In my house, we did have a bedtime (8 pm) but we were flexible about it. Sometimes my baby went to bed earlier and sometimes he went to bed later. My doctor encouraged me to make his bedtime firmer. If I saw that my son was about to drift off too early, I’d try to keep him awake. Instead of staying late at my parents’ house, I’d leave early so I could get him to bed on time.
- Stick to a nap schedule too. My son used to nap whenever and wherever he felt like it. My doctor encouraged me to schedule nap time. For example, if my baby was supposed to take his afternoon nap from 1-2:30 and he was still sleeping when 2:30 rolled around, I had to wake him up. (Waking a sleeping baby wasn’t in my DNA, so this took some getting used to!)
Shut off the electronics two hours before bed. If you live in a house where the television, stereo, or computer is always on, electronics could be disrupting your baby’s sleep.
Even when we weren’t watching anything, our TV was always on as background noise. My doctor encouraged us to shut the TV off two hours before my son’s bedtime. In the morning, we had to wait one hour after waking up to turn it on.
- Be consistent: This is the most important tip of all. When my son was crying in the middle of the night, I wanted nothing more than to pick him up and hug him. But I knew that would ruin the progress we had made. So I took my doctor’s advice and remained consistent in my sleep training. Whatever form of sleep learning you’ve decided to pursue, try to stick with it.
Self-care for tired moms
Coping with a crying baby that fights sleep is exhausting and frustrating. That’s why it’s important to take time for self-care. Here are some easy fixes to help you cope:
Sleep when baby sleeps: A messy house can wait. If your baby naps and you’re exhausted, take the opportunity to squeeze in some shut-eye. Your body will thank you!
Treat yourself to some cute and comfy loungewear: When you’re a mom, you spend lots of time at home. Treat yourself to a cute and comfy nursing T-shirt and joggers.
Ask for help: If you have a friend or family member you trust, ask them to watch the baby so you can get a break. Remember, it takes a village. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
In the end, my son turned out to be a great sleeper. (He’s down the hall snoozing away peacefully as I type!) So if you’re wondering, “Why is my baby fighting sleep?” and “Will it ever get better?” rest assured that it will.