What Causes Babies & Toddlers to Resist Sleep?

What Causes Babies & Toddlers to Resist Sleep?

Do you have a little one who just won't go to sleep? Perhaps your baby or toddler takes forever to doze off at night, cries when bedtime arrives, or stays awake for hours in the middle of the night. I understand how tough this can be. Let's discuss why your newborn, baby, or toddler is struggling to sleep and explore some ways to assist them.

Here are some common reasons why a baby or toddler might struggle to fall asleep:

  • Dysregulation: To put it simply, this means little ones have a hard time controlling their feelings, actions, and bodily responses when dealing with things around them. This might show up as trouble calming down, irregular sleeping or eating habits, or being easily upset by changes in their surroundings. Dysregulation in babies can be caused by various things. Common reasons include overstimulation from the environment, inconsistent routine, hunger, tiredness, or discomfort due to things like nappy rash or illness. Babies might also struggle with self-settling if they haven't learned effective ways to calm themselves. Additionally, certain temperament traits or developmental issues can contribute to dysregulation.


    Temperament: Every baby is born with a one-of-a-kind personality, and a big part of what makes up that personality is the way they naturally interact with the world, known as their inborn temperament.Temperament can significantly impact a child's sleep patterns and habits. For instance, a baby with a more sensitive temperament might be more easily disturbed by noise or changes in the environment, leading to disrupted sleep. On the other hand, a more easygoing baby might adjust more quickly to different sleeping conditions. Furthermore, a baby's temperament can influence their response to routines and sleep schedules. Some babies with more easygoing temperaments may find it easier to follow a consistent sleep routine, while those with more difficult temperaments might struggle to adhere to a set schedule. Understanding a baby's individual temperament can help parents tailor their sleep environment and routines to better suit the baby's needs, promoting healthier and more consistent sleep patterns.
  • Day & Night Confusion: This mainly affect newborns. If your newborn is sleeping all day, they might not be tired enough to sleep at night. This is called day-night confusion, where your little one gets their days and nights mixed up. This then causes them to resist sleep at night time.
  • Overtiredness: When babies & toddlers don't nap enough or stay awake for too long, they can get really tired. When they're overtired, their bodies produce more cortisol (wake-up hormone) and adrenaline, making it more likely for them to resist sleep.
  • Undertiredness: If your baby hasn't been awake for long or hasn't had much active play, they might not be sleepy enough to doze off or stay asleep. This is because they haven't built enough sleep pressure to have a good sleep. Sleep pressure is the build-up of a natural urge to sleep as little ones stay awake. When a baby is awake for a while, this pressure gradually increases, making them more and more tired. It's like a sleepy feeling that gets stronger the longer they are awake. This helps babies fall asleep more easily and have a more restful sleep when they've had enough awake time to build up this sleep pressure.If your little one is resisting sleep and doesn't appear tired during naps or bedtime, think about extending their wake windows or adjusting their nap schedule.
  • Separation anxiety: Around six months and for a few years after, your baby might have moments of feeling separation anxiety when you're not around. This can make them upset and resistant to falling asleep.
  • Developmental milestones: Your little one might struggle to sleep when they're reaching new milestones, which can lead to disruption of sleep (sleep regression). You might notice they stay up more during the night or wake up earlier in the morning or have shorter naps.
  • Sickness: When your baby is not feeling well, it can be tough for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. It's important to make sure your baby is healthy first before trying to solve any sleep issues. If your baby is sick, it's essential to reduce any stress and provide the necessary support to help them sleep better.
  • Big life changes: Big changes during the toddler years, such as beginning daycare, moving to a new house, or preparing for a new sibling, can affect how well they sleep. It's common for toddlers to have trouble falling asleep when their routine is disrupted by these significant transitions. 

So how do I get them to stop resisting sleep?

  1. Help them with self-regulation: The skill to calm ourselves when we're upset is something we learn over time as we grow up. As adults, we often have various ways to relax when we're feeling stressed or down. This ability doesn't come naturally; it comes with maturity, learning from others, understanding our own feelings, and picking up life skills. So, young children need support to learn to manage their emotions, and this is done through the help of their carers, known as co-regulation. This is the process where a child learns to manage their emotions and behaviours with the help of a parent or a more experienced individual. It involves the carer providing support, guidance, and comfort to the child, assisting them in regulating their emotions and reactions when they are dysregulated. This is why it is important to approach nap time or bedtime in a calm manner because your little one will mirror your emotions. If you're feeling stressed and agitated, they will mirror the same feelings. When they are in a calmer state, it is easier for them to fall asleep.
  2. Follow a consistent routine: Having a regular routine before naptime or bedtime helps your baby or toddler's mind and body get ready for sleep. A soothing routine can reduce the challenges for little ones who resist sleeping during naps or at bedtime. It doesn't have to be complex. Try to follow a few simple steps consistently. For instance, change the nappy, put on a sleep sack, sing a song, turn on a sound machine, darken the room, and lay them down in the cot while they're still awake. Discover what works best for you and their temperament and stick to it before each sleep time. 

    ***Expert tip: For toddlers, using a bedtime routine chart helps make your evening routine more predictable and can reduce bedtime battles.
  3. Exposure to natural light: For newborns experiencing day & night confusion, exposing them to daylight during the day helps regulate their internal body clock, known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is responsible for the sleep-wake cycle and is influenced by environmental cues, such as light and darkness. When they see sunlight, their little brains learn that it's time to be awake and active. On the other hand, when it's dark, their brains recognise that it's time to wind down and get ready for sleep. This exposure to natural light helps babies establish a routine and makes it easier for them to sleep at night.
  4. Follow age-appropriate wake windows: A wake window is the period when your child is awake between naps, from when they wake up until they go back to sleep. Sticking to suitable wake windows for your child's age can make your days and nights go more smoothly. If the wake windows are too long, your little one might get too tired. Conversely, if the wake windows are too short, your baby or toddler may not be sleepy enough to sleep soundly. 

    *** Expert tip: How you spend the time between naps is almost as crucial as how long your little one stays awake. Remember that a baby or toddler is more likely to have a good sleep if they have plenty of things to think about and do during their awake time.
  5. Create an optimal sleep environment: A cool, dark, and peaceful setting can help when your baby or toddler is struggling to fall asleep. Shifting to a place with fewer distractions can soothe your baby (and you as well!). This kind of environment also aids in going back to sleep during naps or at night.


Here are my top tips for creating a good sleep environment:
    • Ensure safety: Make sure your baby's or toddler's room is safe for sleep, without any potential dangers. See Red Nose Safe Nursery Guidelines here.
    • Keep it really dark: Darkness helps with better sleep. Turn off night lights and cover the windows to create a soothing sleep space.
    • Use a white noise machine: Complete silence is not normal for your baby or toddler. A white noise machine provides a comforting sound and blocks out any disruptive noises.
    • Ensure comfort: A cooler environment encourages good sleep. Like us, babies and toddlers need to be just the right temperature to sleep well. Dress your little one comfortably for sleep and adjust as needed.
    • Introduce a comforter: If your baby is 7 months or older, it is safe to introduce a comforter for sleep. Based on research, having a comforter or a security object like a stuffed toy or blanket can provide a sense of security and comfort to babies during sleep. This familiarity can help them feel safe and relaxed, making it easier for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. A comforter can also become a part of their bedtime routine, signaling that it's time to wind down and rest. Additionally, this can be useful if they are experiencing separation anxiety.
    • Set up a plan: If your little one is having trouble falling asleep at bedtime or during naps, I can assist you. I have 1:1 support available, where I'll guide you on how to break the cycle of sleep struggles. You and your baby deserve a more calm bedtime and better quality sleep. I'll educate you on how to understand and support your child's specific needs in different stages of their development. You'll receive a personalised, easy-to-follow plan to help your child sleep better and promote overall well-being for your family.

      *Note: My 1:1 Support options are for 5 months to 4 years of age only. This is because this is around the age where I find that they are developmentally ready for formal sleep training. I do have a Sleep Guide available for Newborns (0-3 months) and a 3-4 months Sleep Guide (to help you navigate the 4 month sleep regression). These guides will educate you on infant sleep and give you age-appropriate & responsive methods to help you lay down a solid sleep foundation for your baby. You can download your sleep guides here.



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