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Sick Baby Only Sleeps When Held: A Common Problem with Simple Solutions

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As an exhausted parent whose sick baby will only sleep in your arms, it can feel hopeless to ever put them down. I have been there! When my daughter Emma caught a nasty cold at 4 months old, she was utterly miserable unless I was holding her tight. The moment I tried setting her in the crib, her little face would scrunch up and she’d wail unhappily about the sick baby only sleeping when held. Not exactly conducive to this mama getting any rest!

If you find yourself in this difficult situation with a clingy, sick little one who refuses to sleep unless held, take heart. This phase will pass, and there are plenty of gentle things you can try to encourage independent slumber while still making your baby feel safe, soothed and comfortable.

Why Your Sick Baby Only Sleeps When Held

Sick babies tend to be more clingy due to feeling plain old crummy. They ache, can’t breathe easily and simply long for comfort. Add to that congestion that might clear better when upright in a sick baby only sleeps when held position, and it’s no wonder these poor babes resist their cribs. Specific reasons your ill little one might only settle when held include:

  • Soothing Touch: Feeling your warm body and gentle heartbeat is calming. Babies associate physical closeness with safety and comfort when unwell. Skin-to-skin contact releases oxytocin, providing relief.
  • Congestion Relief: Keeping the head elevated can provide sinus relief for a sick baby who only sleeps well when held upright.
  • Increased Attention: Being held makes babies feel nurtured, soothing their distress.
  • Reflux Issues: Spitting up or vomiting is worse lying flat for babies with infant reflux or colic.
  • Teething Pain: Pressure and contact helps a throbbing gum line for a teething, unsettled baby. Close comfort eases their pain.
  • Feed to Sleep Association: Babies grow accustomed to nursing, rocking or bottles to nap. These sleep associations become entrenched habits.

While snuggling a sick, sad baby close makes all their troubles feel better, it comes at a cost for exhausted moms and dads facing ongoing sleep deprivation and fatigue. But have hope! With some preparation, adjustments and TLC, you can help your baby sleep better while regaining some freedom.

sick baby only sleeps when held
Sick baby only sleeps when held

First, Should I Even Try to Put Baby Down?

If your maternal instinct tells you your sick baby absolutely needs to sleep in your arms, by all means, snuggle away guilt-free! Do what you need to help them (and you) get the restorative rest you both need to heal. But if you’re eager to transition them to sleeping more independently, know it is possible with time and patience not to reinforce unhealthy sleep habits.

The Pros of Allowing Supported Sleep:

  • Gives baby comfort while ill
  • Allows parent to monitor breathing
  • Strengthens attachment and bonding between parent and child
  • Buys parents much needed shut eye amid sleep deprivation

The Cons of Unsupported Sleep:

  • Risk of parent falling asleep unsafely with baby
  • Hard for parent to get quality sleep
  • Makes transitioning to crib later more challenging
  • Doesn’t allow baby to learn self-soothing skills important for solo sleep success

As you can see, it’s about striking a delicate balance between meeting baby’s needs and reinforcing healthy sleep habits. Do what you must in the thick of sickness, then work toward independent sleep as health returns. Which brings us to…

Gentle Tips to Help Sick Baby Sleep in Crib

When your little one is on the mend but still resisting his bed, have hope! Here are gentle tips for coaxing an ill babe to sleep on his own:

Transition Gradually with Patience

Rather than going cold turkey to the crib, try:

  • Holding baby to sleep when unwell, then transferring to co-sleeper bassinet nearby so he still smells/hears you.
  • Letting baby nap in a baby carrier during the day to adjust to snoozing alone.
  • Doing sustained cuddle sessions before placing in crib during sickness, then staying nearby to shush/pat if needed.

Moving from total contact to completely alone abruptly can be upsetting. Take it slow.

sick baby only sleeps when held
Sick baby only sleeps when held

Adjust Naptime Routines

If your little sickie always nurses or takes a bottle before naps, switching the order could help, like:

  • Place baby in crib when drowsy but awake without feeding first.
  • Offer a pacifier or let baby suckle your pinky finger to their heart’s content pre-nap.
  • Rock, sing or take a short, swaying walk before laying down.

Meet baby’s needs first, then break the eat/sleep association.

Offer Reassurances

Consider these tips for reassuring a babe who resists their bed:

  • Leave on soft music, white noise or a ticking clock.
  • Make sure the sheets smell like you.
  • Rub a thin cloth with your scent and tuck it in the crib.
  • Ensure baby’s head is slightly elevated to prevent congestion.
  • Place baby in a baby sleeping bag to mimic snuggles.

Sometimes small comforts help them settle easier.

Give Yourself Grace

This difficult period with a clingy, unwell baby who only sleeps when held won’t last forever. Until your baby happily sleeps solo again:

  • Take shifts holding baby with a partner or grandparent’s help.
  • Prioritize self-care basics like healthy snacks, hygiene and fresh air.
  • Let housework slide. Laundry can wait; rest matters more!
  • Remind yourself this too shall pass. You’ve got this!

Take the pressure off where possible as everyone recoups.

When to Seek Medical Care for Ongoing Sleep Issues

While most sick baby sleep struggles resolve given patience and attentiveness, be aware of any red flags warranting a doctor’s care for underlying health issues, like:

  • High pitched, non-stop crying jags
  • Labored breathing or wheezing
  • Signs of respiratory distress
  • Projectile vomiting
  • Extreme lethargy

Don’t hesitate to call your pediatrician if something seems off. Some secondary infections like pneumonia, bronchitis, or viruses may require medication. Always trust those parental instincts!

Can I Still Sleep Train After Sickness?

If you had a solid sleeper pre-illness who now resists their crib, rest assured with consistency they will likely revert back soon on their own as the sickness passes. But some babes struggle to sleep train after sickness if they become too accustomed to supported sleep. Gentle methods like:

  • Gradually moving baby from arms to their bed over days/weeks
  • Soothing with shushing sounds and patting baby before leaving the room
  • Letting them fuss for slowly increasing intervals before responding

These can help transition clingy post-illness babies without fully or abruptly withdrawing comfort. Get the all clear from your pediatrician before attempting formal sleep training methods. Focus on health first!

Caring for Yourself Through This Difficult Phase

Lacking sleep caring for a sick, clingy baby leaves many parents drained and overwhelmed. As you give your all to help baby feel better faster, be sure to:

  • Ask for help from your spouse, family and friends with meals or errands.
  • Take breaks while your partner or a grandparent holds the baby.
  • Shower, eat healthy meals and hydrate when you can.
  • If possible, hire a postpartum doula for extra support.
  • Lower housekeeping standards and cut nonessentials.
  • Remind yourself this intense phase will pass!

Caregiver burnout is real. Allow others to support you until life regains some normalcy. This too shall pass!

Preventing Future Sleep Disruptions When Sick

Once your baby recoups and returns to solid solo sleeping, you can take measures to help prevent illness and sleep issues down the road:

  • Continue sterilizing all bottles, pacifiers, and toys frequently.
  • Wash hands often and avoid contacts with contagions.
  • Breastfeed to pass along immunities if possible.
  • Make sure baby takes vitamin D supplements.
  • Get a flu shot and TDAP vaccine while pregnant.
  • Keep sleep spaces cold and dry to limit germ growth.

With extra prevention, your baby can stay healthy and sleep soundly when the next sniffle comes along.

Switching Up Sleeping Arrangements

If despite your best efforts your baby fights their crib after sickness, consider moving them to:

  • A baby swing or bouncer, stopping the motion once asleep.
  • A bedside cosleeper bassinet for closeness.
  • A baby carrier during naps.
  • A dock-a-tot or other nest-like sleeper under supervision.
  • A supplemental heat source nearby like a hot water bottle to mimic your warmth.

While less ideal for safe sleep than an empty crib, do what you must to help everyone get rest and feel better faster while closely supervising. Check with your pediatrician for guidance specific to your baby’s age and needs. This too shall pass!

Common Questions About Sick Clingy Sleepers

Still have questions about supporting your sick little clinger who only settles when held? Here are answers to some common concerns:

Is this just a 4-month sleep regression?

Possibly! Many babies hit fussy phases right around 4, 8 and 12 months when sleep needs change. Illness can accentuate that. Take heart that it will pass!

Will this make sleep training harder?

It might temporarily if bad sleep associations form. But with consistency, compassion and patience helping baby learn to self soothe again is very possible after sickness passes.

What if nothing seems to work for putting my baby down?

First, talk to your pediatrician to rule out ongoing medical issues making sleep difficult. For short term, do whatever gets everyone the rest they need to heal, whether baby wearing, bed sharing, or shift holding under supervision. Create positive sleep associations slowly over time.

In Closing

Having a sick, clingy baby who only sleeps when held can be isolating and difficult. But with the right medical care, adjustments, support and self-compassion, this phase will pass. Stay patient, meet baby’s needs, prioritize health and rest, and accept help wherever possible. You’ve got this! Breathe through the tough moments, lower unrealistic expectations, and believe your baby will sleep happily alone again soon.

FAQ – Sick Baby Only Sleeps When Held

Why does my sick baby only want to sleep while being held?

There are a few reasons why sick babies find comfort sleeping in their parents’ arms. The warmth, touch, upright position, and familiar heartbeat all provide relief when they are not feeling well. Illnesses also make babies more uncomfortable lying flat, so they resist the crib.

What if I fall asleep accidentally while holding my sick baby?

Can letting my sick baby sleep while held create bad habits?

When should I call the doctor about my clingy, sick baby’s sleep issues?

Any tips for preventing sickness and sleep problems in the future?

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