Why Won't My Baby Sleep?
Every now and then, a miracle unicorn sleepy baby is born. Instead of days filled with determined sleeplessness, the anguished cries of over exhaustion, and the mournful wails of loneliness; his parents are blessed with sweet, thumb-sucking peacefulness. My firstborn is not a miracle sleepy unicorn baby. I cannot count the number of times the first year of her life I searched for the answer to the question: “Why won’t my baby sleep?” All the parenting literature I read made statements like “Baby will sleep more than you think she needs,” and “Baby sleeps around 20 hours a day,” or “Baby needs lots of sleep and spends more time asleep and awake.” Then what is wrong with my child? I wondered. Why won’t my baby sleep? After many late-night searches through the mom blogs, and even more trial and error, I learned a few tricks for the sleep-hating babies out there. And I am glad I did, because baby number three turned out to be an angry, sleep-hater, too. Let me tell you a few reasons my baby won’t sleep, and how I worked through them.
1. Overstimulation – the enemy of peacefulness
I scrolled through my Facebook feed, wildly jealous of the mom whose kid fell asleep playing in the floor or passed out in the car seat. My daughter refused to sleep if she could see anything that might be remotely entertaining. She refused to sleep in her car seat, even on the long, five-hour drive to visit family. My daughter still struggles to settle down (four years later) after a fun or eventful day. Her mind is swirling with possibilities and curiosities.
Baby is terribly curious and interested in all the colors, lights, sounds, and feels of life outside the womb. Some babies, instead of shutting down when they have had enough, simply crave more and more stimulation, which leads them to overstimulation. When baby is overstimulated, she can’t sleep, even though she needs to. She seems terrified that she will miss the next big thing if she sleeps for thirty minutes. The key to preventing overstimulation is limitation. Limit the amount of time baby spends in front of bright, colorful toys or flashing TV screens. Even though these things are often educational, too much quickly wears out baby, causing the screaming mess of overstimulation. Baby can handle a lot less of these things than we seem to think.
Put baby down for a nap a few minutes before you think she might be ready. Most likely she will play in her crib and fall asleep peacefully when given the chance, instead of screaming for more stimulation.
I have yet to discover the peaceful solution to overstimulation. Once my daughter reached the point of no return, we had to put her in what we called the “sensory deprivation chamber.” I know, it sounds terrible. We held her comfortably in our arms, trying to keep her from flailing wildly. We wrapped her in her favorite blanket, gently covered her eyes, and bathed her ears in white noise. Without all the sights and sounds of an exciting life ahead, she was finally able to settle into sleep – but not without much crying.
Why won’t my baby sleep? Maybe she is having too much fun. Sleep breeds sleep, so maybe try putting her down a little earlier to nap, to help prevent overstimulation.
2. The basics – simple solution for sleeplessness
Naturally, the biggest cause of sleeplessness are the basics. Hunger, dirty diaper, or comfort are the top three simple sleep stealers. Baby grows at an alarming rate over the first year, which requires a substantial caloric intake. I tend to forget the last time I fed baby (mommy brain is real!). I try to write down the time when I feed my baby or make a note in my phone. I’ve seen some great apps and products to help with this. However, sometimes baby needs to eat off schedule. While babies grow consistently throughout the year, they seem to have dedicated growth spurts during which they just need more food. Don’t be afraid to give baby one more snack before bed. Sometimes a snack will also help calm an overstimulated baby.
My kids are sneaky little buggers. When I put them down for nap, I go through the check list. Fed? Check. Comfort? Check. Diaper? Check. Ok, sleepy time! But many babies and young toddlers love to use naptime to fill their diaper. Each of my kids reached a point that their daily dirty was always five minutes into nap time. You might have just changed your baby’s diaper, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t dirty again.
Finally, baby might just be lonely. We are busy moms. I know I have been guilty of feeding my baby, then moving her to a baby toy, and getting back to washing dishes or folding laundry. But baby needs people time, especially mommy time. Take a few minutes before nap time to cuddle and comfort baby. Often that special time with mommy helps her to relax into rest. If baby is crying after being put down, she may just need a little comfort. I’ve said it before, a fussy baby will put herself to sleep, but a crying baby needs something, even if that is just a little more comfort.
Why won’t my baby sleep? Maybe something simple is keeping her up. Just check the basics one more time.
3. Teething – the saboteur of slumber
While most babies cut their first teeth between six and nine months, many begin experiencing teething pain as early as three months. Teething pain is difficult to diagnose, because baby can’t just say, “Mom, my mouth hurts.” Like I explain to my older kids, baby doesn’t have any words yet, so when they hurt or feel sad, the only way they can let us know is by crying. For me, this is a time for comfort, extra time nursing, or anything you can to alleviate their stress. I have a few products that I love to help with teething, but nothing will 100% take away all the discomfort. Be patient with teething baby – this time will also pass.
Why won’t my baby sleep? Maybe she is in pain. Give her comfort and check with your pediatrician about medications that might help. For more information about teething, check out my post to help you and baby through this difficult phase.
4. Learning – an exciting step to a bigger life
Many babies, mine included, experience severe sleep regression when they learn a new skill. For instance, when baby first learns to roll over. My daughter hated tummy time – from that low vantage point, she couldn’t see all the fun stuff happening around her. While tummy time is important for baby, hers was often short lived. She quickly became frustrated and started screaming. So, when she learned to roll over, the entire situation worsened. I put her down on her back to sleep, but as soon as I walked away, she rolled over, impulsively, and became angry about tummy time. Unfortunately, she was also too tired to roll back. This phase is a difficult one to work through, and you may need to rock baby to sleep a few times, or comfort her frequently, until she adjusts. Most likely you will go through this phase with each new development: sitting up, crawling, walking, etc. A little extra comfort goes a long way during these phases.
Why won’t my baby sleep? Because she is learning and growing. Maybe she needs some help adjusting to a new skill.
PRO TIP: The day will come when your baby cries herself to sleep, regardless of your efforts to comfort her. Whether that is in your arms, as you sob the tears of a mother engulfed in helplessness; in her car-seat as you attempt to navigate heavy traffic with bleary eyes and heavy heart; or in her crib, as you assist her sibling, who also desperately needs you. Please, don’t let the guilt in that moment weigh you down. Tuck away the negative feelings, knowing that this will pass. Find something positive to dwell on and enjoy every baby smile and coo with a joyful heart.
Sometimes the reason baby won’t sleep is simple, sometimes it is a little more complicated. Either way, we moms can help our babies work through their troubles, so they can get the rest they need. Then we can get the rest we need; because, seriously, this momma is tired. Grab a cup of coffee and hopefully we can get this baby sleep thing figured out soon.