We can almost imagine you, mother, with disheveled hair and dark circles under your eyes, almost all the way down to your jawline, making a quick research to find out why your baby isn’t falling asleep and what you can do about it.

There are some studies on child development mixed with testimonies from mothers who have been or are – like you – desperate to understand this phenomenon that can help grasp the answer to this question. In fact, why do babies fight sleep?

There are a number of factors that might be disturbing your child’s sleeping patterns. First, you have be sure that your baby isn’t hungry or uncomfortable. Once you’re certain that the baby is well, then you must look out for signs of overtiredness, undertiredness or anxiety, which are the most common reasons why babies fight sleep. You will have to be alert to your baby’s behavior in order to determine the root of your baby’s war on sleep.

Feeding and comfort

The first step on tackling your little one’s resistance to sleep is to make sure that they don’t need anything from you: are they fed? Is their diaper clean? Are they comfortable?

A recent study showed that the frequency of feedings is related to night waking. The younger the baby is, the more frequent feedings need to be. Establishing a somewhat linear feeding schedule might help your baby get used to routines and improve his sleep.Try, as well, to pick up on your baby’s own, natural rhythms in order to determine a feeding routine that works for both of you.

why do babies fight sleep
Image by Dirk Schumacher

Pay attention to their comfort as well. At bedtime, the diaper must be clean, and you have to be positive that there aren’t any diaper rashes that may be causing discomfort or pain. Make sure that the crib and the mattress are adequate to your child. Verify if the mattress is firm enough, look for signs of indentation, and, ultimately, check if there is any damage or if there are any stains on the mattress (if there are, you might want to think of replacing it).

I’ve covered all of these. What do I do now?

Once the basics are covered, let us move on, then, to the second part of the answer.

Like you, there are many parents that have dealt, or are dealing, with babies that resist sleep. These parents have covered the basics, yet their baby keeps squirming, crying, yelling – doing everything BUT sleep.

It is valid to consider that maybe your child just needs less sleep than the average baby or that they are just extremely attentive to the world around them, which makes it hard for them to fall asleep. Nevertheless, you must first consider, seriously, the following three factors that may be disrupting your baby’s sleeping routine:

  • Overtiredness
  • Undertiredness
  • Separation anxiety

The number one factor to be blamed for resistance to sleep is overtiredness. All of us, as adults, have felt overtiredness, and we know how aggravating it is to be exhausted and not being able to fall asleep as soon as we sit on the couch or make it to bed.

When a baby is overtired, there is a stress response that includes the release of hormones, such as cortisol, which inhibits the product of melatonin (the hormone that allows us to relax and sleep). Obviously, this makes it even harder for the baby to not only fall asleep, but also to stay asleep.

How does the baby become overtired?

why do babies fight sleep
Image by Марина Вельможко

Generally speaking, there is a certain number of hours that a baby, depending on the age, must sleep. Newborns need frequent naps, whereas older babies tend to need less sleep. If the baby isn’t sleeping the amount of time they need to truly rest, then there is a high risk of overtiredness kicking in, causing considerable distress both on your life and your baby’s.

Look out for signs of overtiredness, such as:

  • Fussing and crying
  • Difficult to calm
  • Yawning
  • Clenching fists
  • Overactivity/agitation (this is a tricky one, because it may be interpreted as ready to play.)

What can I do to help my overtired baby?

First and foremost, it is important to never let your baby reach the point of overtiredness. It is essential to establish a sleep routine that allows the baby to understand that sleeping time is coming up.

A bedtime routine will help your baby relax, get them familiar with patterns associated with sleep – which will enable the release of the correct hormones to calm the baby –, allow bonding between you and your baby in a peaceful environment, and allow the baby to tranquilly fall asleep. You may even experiment healthy and fun bonding practices between you and your baby, such as songs, stories, or even cuddles.

If, for some reason, you weren’t able to guide them in their sleeping routine (it might happen, don’t blame yourself!), make the room very dark, try playing some white noise, and use calming techniques, such as gently and slowly rock your baby until you feel them becoming drowsy. Patience is necessary. It may take some time, but you can do it!

What if my baby is undertired (but I, on the other hand, am completely exhausted)?

In order to avoid the overtiredness, you might choose to put your baby to bed and go through the whole bedtime process significantly earlier – the baby will probably just stare at you, curious and wide-eyed. Your baby may even fall asleep, but it is most likely that they will wake up a couple of hours later, crying, because they simply weren’t tired enough to have a good, long nap.

The main concern regarding undertiredness is that it leads to overtiredness in the long run – if your baby keeps taking short naps frequently, they won’t be able to have a long night of quality sleep, thus failing to rest properly – both you and the baby, of course.

Look out for signs of undertiredness, such as:

  • Crying
  • Resisting settling
  • Waking up a lot during the night
  • Wanting to stay awake for hours on end
  • Overactivity/agitation

This is a scenario that requires a lot of attention from you, because the signs of overtiredness and undertiredness are similar. An agitated baby often conveys energy, and thus undertiredness, but overtired babies get agitated too when it is time to sleep.

It is up to you to oversee your child’s sleeping patterns and draw your conclusions based on what you observe. If your baby has been waking up a lot during the night, they are probably reaching the point of overtiredness.

Why does my baby suffer from separation anxiety? How can I help them?

Separation anxiety is a completely normal feeling that may start at 6 months old and peak between 10 and 18 months. Your baby is becoming aware that you, their protector, exist even when you’re out of sight, and they feel defenseless if alone or away from you. During this phase, your baby may wake up several times during the night, become anxious, and cry.

One way to deal with these situations is, as always, to calm your baby. Make the hours that lead up to bedtime peaceful and nurturing – cuddles, songs, and stories are good tools to create a safe and calm environment for your little one.

If they cry when you leave the room, you can go in, reassuring both of you that everything is fine, however, do not stimulate the baby – make your checkups quick and relaxed, so that the baby understands that he must go back to sleep without you. You can also help your baby associate the sense of calm and safety with an object (a toy or a blanket) and keep it with them, in the bed.

I have taken good care of my baby’s wellbeing and followed all the routines. What if they still fight sleep?

At the end, you might find yourself going over all of the above – you understand all the possibilities that may be an answer to ‘why do babies fight sleep?’ –, and you have all of this under control. Why do they keep fighting sleep?

You have to include in the magical equation that are babies their personality. Personality is a strong factor as well. As stated earlier, you are allowed to embrace the possibility that perhaps your baby doesn’t need as much or sleep, or that they are so attentive that they find it hard to disconnect for a few hours. Maybe there is a hint of inherited stubbornness or amazing, almost infinite energy.

Just keep in mind that you are definitely not alone in this subject. Keep in mind that these are just phases, they don’t last forever. Keep in mind that patience is key and love is necessary.