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Caring for your baby at night when they are unwell

Babies tend to have, on average, about six to twelve minor illnesses such as viruses, colds and tummy upsets each year.

……and that’s not even including teething!

After the age of 6 months, when they have lost the immunity given by their mother, it is not unusual for babies to catch some kind of virus every few weeks.

This is especially the case if they are in daycare or have an older sibling.

Exposure to antigens in young childhood builds up their immune system. These illnesses can be tough at the time to cope with, but they make your baby’s resistance to infections stronger in the long run.

Some common signs that your baby is unwell

Usually, you can tell when your baby is not feeling well but sometimes it’s not always clear. They can’t tell you how they are feeling, so you need to look for some signs.

The first sign is usually crying. Their cry may sound different to normal or be very prolonged. If they don’t stop crying when you pick them up and cuddle them, you know that they are probably in discomfort.

Another sign of illness is when they are listless and/or over-sleepy. They might not want to have their milk or their food if they are unwell.

If they have diarrhoea and/or vomiting this could be a sign of infection or allergy.

Other signs of illness are that their skin feels hot or clammy or they have a rash.

If your baby has a temperature above 38C, seems very unwell, has a rash or has a different cry, you should seek prompt medical help.

Before bed

Give them a painkiller if needed, about 20 minutes before their bath. Ibuprofen is a good choice, as it needs to be taken with food. Then if another painkiller is needed during the night, you can give Paracetamol or Tylenol. This can be taken without food and is a different “family” of painkillers.

Bathe them if they are well enough and then dress them quickly and take them through to their sleep space. Be aware that if they are unwell they might not want to be over handled. Keep your touch gentle and brief.

After their bath time, offer their usual milk feed. 

Don’t be too stressed if your older baby refuses their usual milk or doesn’t take it all. If they are poorly, they are very unlikely to wake up hungry, even if they haven’t eaten much during the day. Their body needs to rest and repair at nighttime. If they have lost their appetite, they will soon regain it and catch up with any lost calories when they are better. 

With very young babies, it is important that they feed regularly. If your baby is just a few weeks old and refusing feeds, you must seek medical advice.

If your baby usually self-settles, allow them to go to sleep without help, as usual. It’s fine to return frequently to them to check and reassure them, but rocking them to sleep can become a difficult habit to break once they are better.

If they feel hot or have a temperature, keep the room cool and if you need to, use an electric fan. Position it at the foot of the cot, with air wafting up their body. This is safer and more comfortable than having it directly on their face.

During the night

If they wake up in the night, don’t leave them to self-settle if they’re crying. They will not sleep if left in discomfort.

Even if they were fine when they went to bed, if they wake up during the night, go and check on them. If they seem unwell pick them up and offer a cuddle and a drink of water [not milk if you’ve already dropped the night feeds – even if they didn’t have it at bedtime.] 

Picking them up and giving them a drink can help to unblock the nose. It also helps them clear the small [Eustachian] tubes connecting the back of the nose to the ears. This will make your baby feel more comfortable. 

If they continue crying, and/or if they feel hot, you can give a [second] dose of infant painkiller. Make sure it is a different family of medicine than they had at bedtime. If it is the same one as at bedtime, carefully follow the instructions supplied about the timing and spacing of doses.

You can then remain close by and hold them if necessary, until they are calm and settled. 

Tempting as it might be, it is best if you avoid bringing them into bed with you if they are poorly. This is especially true if they have a high temperature. It is safer for them to stay in their own cot, with you close beside them.

When they are better

It usually takes two or three consecutive nights of your baby coming into your bed for this to become a habit. It is the same for feeds or being rocked to sleep.

It will do no harm to relax the usual rules around bedtime when babies are genuinely unwell.

As soon as they are better, however, it’s time to get back to normal. Allow them to self-settle again at the start of the night and save the cuddles for the morning. If you do this, they will soon get back to sleeping as they did before the illness.

Further help

If you’re struggling with any aspect of your baby’s sleep, I am here to help you.

My books

My bestselling books give you the tools to help your baby and yourself get a good night’s sleep. They are full of expert, practical advice and case studies. Each book teaches you to create your baby or child’s personal sleep plan and is written in a clear and accessible style.

They are available in all formats from Amazon and other booksellers.

My Courses

My courses are a mix of video, graphics and easy-to-read text. They are a great way to access my expert help – from your phone, tablet or laptop. The courses have no expiry date and are updated frequently. The Gentle Sleep Course is very comprehensive, easy to dip in and out of and is very empowering.

The Early Waking Course is concise and accessible – it takes around an hour to complete and it may be the best hour you’ve ever spent!

Both of the courses contain helpful schedules for day and night time sleep.

My 1:1 Consultations

If you choose to book a one-to-one consultation with me, you will receive my expert advice along with an individual sleep plan for your child. You will be in very safe, experienced hands and I treat every parent and child with kindness. As a qualified health professional, I can help families with medical and developmental issues. My success rate is outstanding, with over 15,000 face-to-face sleep consultations with families from all over the world.

See my reviews on Trustpilot