Why do Babies Fight Sleep? 5 Common Sleep Battles and How to Win!!!

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Sound familiar?

This is what my brain is screaming to myself every time I have tried to wean my baby off his nightly feed that sends him to sleep.

Yes, sleep reliance is bad (apparently) but it has helped me cope this far. But I know he has to learn to sleep on his own eventually.

Every time I think he is on the drift he wakes himself up, and eventually, I give in.

This article is me taking the bull by the horns and at least arming myself with the theory of what I can do to overcome this challenge of my baby fighting sleep. He needs sleep, and so do I. Let’s make it happen!!

I have gathered information on the five most common reasons for sleep resistance and outlined a game plan to overcome them and send my baby off to the land of ZZZ’s. Then I am going to put it to the test…. Wish me luck!

why do babies fight their sleep

Are Babies Who Fight Sleep Smarter?

Sorry parents, this is a myth that spread around the internet based on a couple of poorly researched articles that went viral.

It’s certainly a catchy headline right? And a relatable one that may justify hours of hardship for the parents.

If you are interested in the science that debunks this myth I would encourage you to check out this article that looks at a broad range of studies and compares to the claims made in these other articles.

A quote cited from a 2017 study sums up the findings nicely:

“there is a positive association between sleep, memory, language, executive function, and overall cognitive development in typically developing infants and young children.”

The idea that less sleep leads to superior cognitive function would sound ridiculous for an adult right?

So rather than rationalizing a lack of sleep away as some leading indicator of innate brilliance, let’s just get to work on solving the problem.

1. Overtired Baby

Babies can go from one hundred to zero in a matter of seconds. Your little one could be perfectly content, playing with her toys happily and showing no signs of tiredness when, all of a sudden, there is one yawn and her whole demeanor changes.

She becomes overly sensitive, crying over every little thing. She becomes increasingly clumsy, almost unable to stand on her own two feet. She refuses to eat, cannot be comforted, and may even become destructive.

Frantically, you initiate the bedtime routine. She cries as you brush her teeth and get her changed into her pajamas, and can barely lift her head or keep her eyes open as you are carrying her back to bed.

Finally, you lay her down, kiss her little forehead, and wait for the magical sounds of heavy breathing and baby snores…only to find that it does not come. Instead, what you hear are the screams of a child who refuses to go to sleep.

How can one so tired refuse to sleep?

Why Does an Overtired Baby Fight Sleep?

Any change to your baby’s schedule can throw her off and cause her to lose sleep. This includes missing naps, staying up too late, or having an active, overstimulating day.

Depending on your baby’s age, there are also average awake times you should be conscious of.

For newborns, 45 minutes is typically the maximum amount of time a baby can be awake before she gets tired. In older babies, it is usually about 2 hours for a 6 month old and 4-5 for a toddler.

Staying up beyond these times can easily result in an overtired baby who has troubles falling asleep.

Once your baby passes the initial point of tiredness, one of two possible things will occur:

  1. She will become overly cranky, clingy, emotionally sensitive, or defiant, resulting in an unbearably unhappy baby; OR
  2. She will become hyperactive, perhaps even “punchy” and giggly, which can trick parents into thinking their babies are not tired yet.

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Things To Avoid

Do not try to keep your baby awake. Oftentimes, parents will try to set a schedule for their baby that is is conducive with their own.

While there is nothing wrong with setting a schedule for your baby, you want to do it gradually, especially if you are trying to move their bedtime to a later hour.

Keeping a baby awake longer than their typically awake period (according to their age, as we discussed in the previous section) pushes her “past the point of no return”, causing her to then fight sleep.

Overstimulation, especially in younger babies, can also result in overtiredness.

Too many people or exciting experiences at once can wear a little one out, causing her to become tired earlier than normal. Try to avoid anything that may overstimulate your baby close to bedtime.

How To Get An Overtired Baby To Sleep

The key is to watch for your baby’s cues to know when she is getting tired. It may be eye rubs, yawns, or simply a look on her face that gives her away.

For my little one, she would start to slow down and lose interest in what she was doing. Her eyes would get really pink, and I would know she was getting tired, regardless of what her actions were telling me.

Older babies often never show signs of being tired until it is too late. They just go, go, go until they are so tired they cannot function, afraid that if they go to sleep they will miss out on all the fun.

This makes it hard to read their cues, and you will need to rely on keeping track of the time and their schedule instead.

As your baby gets older, a bedtime routine will become crucial in avoiding overtiredness.

Start preparing for bedtime about 15 minutes or so before you want her to be asleep. Try choosing some quiet activities to get her settled down.

Ideally, after brushing her teeth, some reading time in your baby’s room, with the lights dimmed, is the best way to get your older baby settled for bed.

If your baby is younger and still needing some help, an extended feeding before bedtime (not putting her to sleep while feeding) is your best option for a peaceful bedtime routine.

Also check out this great workshop for some additional techniques to get an overtired baby to sleep.

2. Under Tired Baby At Bedtime

In contrast to our previous example, here is another scenario for you:

You and your baby are creatures of habit and routine. Bedtime is always set at 8:00 pm, and it has always worked wonders. You brush her teeth, read her book, cuddle and sing to her, and she simply lies down and goes to sleep.

Until suddenly she does not. Something has changed. Instead of silence you hear babbling and giggling as the cutie pie is laying in bed talking to herself and playing with her feet, refusing to go to sleep.

And as cute as it may be, after a long day all you want is the silence that comes with knowing your little one is asleep and you can take a breather.

Why Does an Undertired Baby Fight Sleep?

As your baby grows, her sleep schedule will change…often. What may have been her bedtime before is now too early for her.

Just during your baby’s first year, she will change her asleep and awake times at least 5 times! These typically take place about every 2-3 months.

As she grows, she is ready to stay awake for longer periods of time between sleep, eventually shifting from multiple naps to two scheduled ones (usually late morning and early afternoon) and then down to one midday.

These frequent changes can leave you confused, as you are trying to put her down for sleep and she is acting like she is not tired.

Overstimulation by television and other electronic screens can also result in a child who is not tired at bedtime.

The blue backlit from the screen stimulates your baby’s brain, throwing off her circadian rhythm and tricking her body into thinking it is daytime.

Things To Avoid

Our first bit of advice to you is not to get too comfortable or rigid in your baby’s schedule. Remaining open and flexible will have you prepared for those sleep changes.

The next best thing you can do to help your little one sleep is to keep her away from electronic screens, especially as it gets closer to nap time and bedtime.

Ideally, you do not want to allow her to be entertained by an electronic screen at least 90 minutes before she needs to sleep.

It May Be Time For Sleep Schedule Change

If it seems like your little one’s nap time(s) or length(s) are slightly different, she may be going through a schedule change. This can push bedtime to a later hour, particularly if your baby is taking a nap in the late afternoon.

If you are concerned that your baby is staying up too late (especially 11:00/12:00 at night), try to readjust her schedule slightly.

Get her up a bit earlier in the morning so that she is ready for an earlier nap.

It may take a few days to a week, but eventually, the schedule will move back a touch so that she is still getting enough sleep without staying up too late.

Stick to a relaxing bedtime routine that will lead to your baby becoming drowsy and falling asleep easier. Dim the lights, out on some white noise, and read a book or sing a lullaby to help her fall asleep easier and faster.

sleeping baby

3. Separation Anxiety

You have got a good little sleeper on your hands. Her routine is down, and it takes no effort for you to keep to it. Wake up at 8:00 am, nap from 12:00 to 2:00 in the afternoon, and bedtime at 8:30.

All you have to do is stick to the bedtime routine, lay her down, and leave the room, and your little one will quietly fall asleep on her own.

But one day your good little sleeper goes into panic mode when you get up to leave the room. She screams and she will not let you put her down.

She needs you to be near enough to touch and will only close her eyes if you are lying next to her.

How could this have happened? What could have possibly changed when she was doing so well for so long?

Why Does Separation Anxiety Effect Sleep?

There comes a time when they begin to realize that people and objects continue to exist, even when they are out of sight.

When there is a person or thing that they are particularly attached to (namely you, the parent), and it “disappears”, your baby will cry, longing for its return.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of every baby’s development. It is actually a good sign, as it shows the attachment your baby has made with you.

It can also, however, be a difficult phase, as your infant begins fighting sleep when you leave the room.

Some babies experience some degree of separation anxiety around her age of 6-7 months, but most peak around 10-18 months, and it has usually subsided by the age of two years.

If you have been co-sleeping then the separation anxiety may be more intense.

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Things To Avoid

While the easiest thing would seem to be to lie with them until they fall asleep and then sneak away when they are unaware, this is probably the worst thing you could do.

Avoid sneaking out, as it causes your baby’s trust to waver. She may afraid to close her eyes, fighting sleep even more, for fear that you will disappear whenever she closes her eyes or looks away.

You should also try not to create bad sleep habits, or sleep associations.

If you stay with your little one until she is asleep, she will become accustomed to it, causing you to have to do it every time she lies down to sleep, and she will have a harder time putting herself back to sleep during the night without you there.

How To Overcome The Night Time Separation Anxiety

Rather than create sleep habits and sneak out, be firm but loving.

Give your baby a few minutes to cry by herself before going in to comfort her. Allow her to know that you are there to meet her needs, but that she is also capable of sleeping on her own.

Telling her goodnight and allowing her to see you walk out the door will also give her the reassurance that you always return but also lets her know that it is time to sleep (you mean business).

Finally, do not make a big deal out of bedtime.

Keep things fun and light, but also relaxing so that your baby does not come to dread bedtime, but instead has something to look forward to, like picking out a book, before she goes to sleep.

4. External Inhibitors

It was a night just like any other. After our bedtime routine was finished and my baby girl was tucked in, she fell asleep with little fuss. I set the timer on the fan and closed the door, expecting her to be asleep for the night.

That is, until I suddenly heard screaming coming from her room. I ran in to check on her, only to find that she was drenched in sweat.

After taking a moment to let her know I was there and turn the fan back on (with no timer this time), she calmed down almost immediately and started falling back to sleep.

You may think it strange, especially considering that babies can often sleep anytime and anywhere, in any position and any environment.

They could not possibly be uncomfortable, right?

Why Does It Happen?

Certain external factors can prevent your little one from getting a good night’s rest, or from even getting to sleep at all.

They may stay up and try to fight sleep if they do not have the ideal sleeping environment.

Babies, just like adults can get overheated in their sleep, be distracted by sounds outside of their bedroom, and be in an uncomfortable position.

Things To Avoid

Do not automatically think that footed, fleece pajamas are the way to go. My baby was always too hot and often preferred to sleep in just a diaper.

Instead, a sleeper sack (with an elastic opening at the bottom) may be a better choice, especially for young babies, as they can stick their legs out of the bottom if they get too hot.

You should also be wary if you are changing your baby’s sleeping arrangement.

Newborns and infants cannot move as easily as older babies do, so you should not switch out their firm mattress for a softer one and you should avoid giving them blankets, as both of these things are contributing factors to SIDS.

Take Control Of The Sleep Environment

Set yourself up for success and create a comfortable sleeping atmosphere for your little one:

Keep her room cool to make sure she does not wake up in a sweat, like my little one did. As you get to know your baby, you will know if she is one to get hot or cold easily, which will help you to have a better idea of what to keep the thermostat at.

Dress her in loose, non-restrictive clothing. This will not only help to keep her cool, but it will also keep her comfortable as it is easier to move throughout the night without feeling confined.

Rooms that are too quiet can also be a distraction for little ones trying to sleep. They are distracted by the sounds of the house, dogs barking outside, or your voice carrying through the halls of your home.

Try some white noise in your baby’s room which will create a peaceful environment and drown out other noises that can keep her awake.

Also Read:

internal inhibitors to sleep

5. Internal Inhibitors

Sometimes your baby may be fighting sleep and you cannot seem to figure out why. No amount of comforting, environmental adjustment, or bedtime change seems to calm her down. She simply will not sleep.

What could possibly be the cause?

Why Does It Happen?

Teething is a major sleep killer in babies and toddlers. Their poor gums are sore from the pushing and cutting of teeth coming in, which can lead to cranky babies during the day and loss of sleep at night.

Growing pains can also keep your baby awake at night, although growth spurts often result in your baby being sleepier rather than staying awake.

Illness is also a big contributing factor to babies inability to fall asleep, particularly if there is congestion or indigestion involved.

Putting your baby to sleep on her back (as is recommended by pediatricians) can upset her stomach more or make it difficult to breathe through her stuffed up nose.

Things To Avoid

If it is an illness that is keeping your baby from being able to sleep, be sure that you do not change her sleeping position or give her a pillow to elevate her head, especially if she is younger than 6-8 months old.

If she is unable to roll over on her own or lift her head easily, the risk of SIDS is greatly increased.

If you suspect it is teething that is preventing sleep, do not administer any medicated pain relievers, such as topical gels or liquid medication, without reading the instructions and following the guidelines laid out for your baby’s age.


Make your baby as comfortable as possible if she is teething. Gum massages, ice, teething rings, and pacifiers are great (non-medicated) ways to help relieve your baby’s teething pains.

Determine the true nature of your baby’s illness to know how to better help her sleep and breathe. Colds are often accompanied by runny noses, coughs, occasional fever, and they typically clear up on their own within 7-10 days.

If you notice any other symptoms or if the illness lasts longer than 10 days, contact your pediatrician as there may be an underlying cause a needs medical attention.

Otherwise, do what you can to keep your baby’s nose clear. Sitting in a steamy bathroom, using saline drops, and using suction with a nose bulb are all great ways to try and help your baby breathe.

Best Practices For Your Bed Time Routine


The following is based on a theoretical perfect world scenario. It will not always go to plan no matter what you do.

Every parent-child bedtime routine is going to be slightly different, but here is a good guide to follow to give you the best chance of getting your baby to sleep quickly and easily.

Start with a diaper change and getting into pyjamas.

Changing out of daytime clothes will help your baby to differentiate between daytime and nighttime, and a diaper change, complete with diaper cream to prevent rashes throughout the night, will leave her clean and comfortable.

Next, dim the lights and sit with her to read a book. This provides ideal cuddle time between parent and baby, which will have her more receptive to you leaving when it is time to sleep.

Finally, lay her down and lie next to her, stroking her head and speaking softly as you sing her a lullaby or say prayers with her.

A gentle kiss on the head, a “goodnight” and “I love you”, are the finishing touches to ensure that she drifts off to sleep with little to no fuss.

Here is eight hours of baby sleep music to help you on your way…

I Have Tried Everything! Can I Just Use Medication?

While there are over the counter medications marketed toward parents looking for ways to help their babies sleep, it should never be a first response to your baby’s sleep struggles.

The frustration that comes along with a baby who just will not sleep is understandable, however, the situation needs to be handled carefully and responsibly.

Never give your baby anything that says it will make her drowsy without first consulting her pediatrician.

By talking to the doctor, they may be able to give you recommendations for sleep methods to try that you had not considered before, or she may determine that your case is unique and can prescribe melatonin to help your baby fall asleep.

Your baby’s safety comes first, and you would hate for misuse of sleeping medication to cause her any harm.

Final Word

It may seem difficult and trying at times to get your baby to sleep, but just know that you are not alone and that there are things you can do to try and help her break the no-sleep cycle.

And most bouts of sleeplessness in babies are temporary and will eventually pass once the inhibitor has run its course.

If you have any comments or questions about sleepless babies, be sure to let us know below and connect with other parents like you. And share this article with other parents who may find it helpful.

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Hi, my name is Schianne, wife to my high school sweetheart and mother to a beautiful and clever little girl. I've always had a passion for all thing writing and literature, and motherhood has really allowed me to bring that passion to life. Experiencing how wonderfully challenging pregnancy and motherhood can be has made me want to share my story and tips with other mothers to help them realize two very important things: you are not alone and you are stronger than you think!

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