Why do babies fight sleep?!

“Shh! Shh! Shh! I know you’re tired little one, so why won’t you just close your tired little eyes and let yourself sleep?! Stop fighting sleep!!” 

Was that you this afternoon during nap time? Or was it your partner last night at 3am? 

I know I’ve said it before!  It’s one of the most infuriating feelings and a really big catch 22 situation! 

When a little one is overtired, falling asleep and staying asleep becomes a great challenge for them. Because their bodies are basically running on fumes, their cortisol levels go up in order to keep themselves awake and doing all the things they need to do. But then when they have the opportunity to sleep, because their cortisol levels are out of whack, their bodies won’t let them sleep. 

As an adult, think about that 2pm/3pm/4pm dip in your energy levels. It’s that afternoon slump that gets a lot of us yawning and drifting off to daydream land. What do we do to counteract this? Drink caffeine, and lots of it! But what happens to you if you drink your afternoon pick me up too late in the day? You’re left staring at your ceiling at midnight, tossing and turning, frustrated because now you can’t fall asleep. (I know some people aren’t easily affected by caffeine, aka my husband, but for most people this is the cycle that happens)

For us as adults though, we can most likely link the two events- drinking caffeine too late in the day and not being able to fall asleep at our normal bedtime, and then work to not have that happen again. But for babies, we don’t necessarily know when their little bodies are going into cortisol hyperdrive. So when a little one is crying and crying and not closing their eyes and drifting off to sleep, we are left asking why?! 

Whenever I’m working with a family, there are a couple of red flags I always check for first, and then after that, I do a deep dive to try to figure out if the little one I’m working with is suffering from a sleep debt. Basically, what I mean is, that they are constantly overtired. A lot of the time, the little ones I work with have such a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night, due to this fact.

But this is where that catch 22 situation I mentioned earlier comes in. Even if you know your little one is overtired, how do you get them the sleep they need if they won’t ever GO to sleep? 

First of all, I want you to know you’re not alone. If this was a quick and easy fix, then it wouldn’t be one of the most asked questions in google! Secondly, I want to give you hope that you can work around this and finally get your little one the sleep you know they need! It does take patience and it can be a long process. 

The first step I always recommend to my clients who have little ones suffering from a sleep debt is to offer an earlier bedtime as you work at repaying that sleep debt. 

“But wait, if I put my little one to sleep earlier in the night, won’t that just mean they wake up earlier in the morning?! I don’t want to get up any earlier than we already do! I need my sleep too!”

I hear you, but I’m going to lay 3 sleep-truth bombs on you right now. Are you ready?

  1. Sleep doesn’t work on a sliding scale, the earlier a child or baby goes to bed, does not correlate with an earlier wake up time.
  2. The more sleep the body gets, the more sleep the body wants. So, in my experience, the earlier a child goes to bed (while still aligning to their internal body clocks) the later their morning wake up becomes in the am. 
  3. Sleep is not logical, it’s biological. It’s important that we stop trying to understand sleep from a logical standpoint. Instead if you dive in and learn the science behind sleep, things start to make (a little) more sense.

After initiating this earlier bedtime, you want to make sure you are offering your little one their daytime sleep when their bodies biologically crave sleep. (If you’re unfamiliar with those timings, you can download my free nap guide here.)

Another reason your little one might be suffering from this sleep debt, besides lack of sleep, could be due to the quality of the sleep they are getting. The sleep that our body gets that does not align with our internal sleep drive, is not as restorative as sleep that does occur when our body biologically craves it, resulting in junk sleep. 

So if your little one is fighting sleep, chances are that their cortisol levels have skyrocketed because they missed the window that their bodies were craving the sleep. If you become better aware of when their little bodies need sleep, then there’s a better chance you can catch the window of when it will become easier for them to drift off and not actually fight sleep. 

Plus, the more restorative daytime sleep your little one gets, the more you’ll chip away at their sleep debt. This sleep will be more beneficial than the junk sleep they were getting. 

But like I said, this is a process. I always recommend logging all sleep sessions for your little one as you are working through this. Start with an early bedtime and then, ever so slightly, move their naps around until you find their sweet spot. 

The final step I have for you to get your little to stop fighting sleep, is to set up the most conducive environment to promote sleep. You can read more about this environment in my nap guide, but basically, a dark, cool, cave-like set up will help your little one’s body prepare itself for sleep.  

Again think about it in terms of yourself. Is it easier for you to fall asleep in a hot, brightly lit room with the TV blasting and the dog barking? Or do you find it easier to fall asleep in your dark, quiet bedroom under cool sheets with a sleep mask on? I mean if it helps bears sleep for months on end, I feel like they are onto something… 

So again, not saying that it’s going to be easy peasy to get your little one to stop fighting sleep, but if you follow these 3 steps, you should see a lot less protesting as your little one drifts off to dreamland! 💜🧸

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