Cold and Flu Season is in full swing. Everywhere you turn there are people with the sniffles.
Did you know it's normal for your baby to get between 6-8 colds per year in the first two years of life? And up to 12 if your child attends daycare?! Yep, that's right! It may seem like your baby or toddler has a cold ALL THE TIME, but this is a normal part of developing immunity. There are hundreds of viruses that cause colds and your baby can’t fight them off as well as an adult as their immune system is still developing. Although you may find that the winter months bring back to back illnesses, rest assured that it doesn’t have to wreak havoc on your baby’s sleep if you have healthy sleep foundations in place.
How do Colds Spread?
The common cold is caused by one of many viruses that are spread through direct contact and droplets in the air. Think sneezing, coughing, and touching a contaminated hard surface like a tabletop, toy, or doorknob.
Babies are more prone to developing colds because they explore the world with their hands and mouth giving common cold viruses an easy opportunity to make their way into your baby’s system. Your baby touches something that has germs on it, puts it in her mouth or touches her nose, and then the virus starts to incubate before showing symptoms. You then pick up your baby and/or touch something they have touched and touch your own nose or mouth and the germs spread to you resulting in the whole family getting sick. Common colds and Influenza are more common in the fall and winter months and tend to peak in January or February when people spend more time indoors and illness spreads more easily.
What are the Common Cold Symptoms?
Common cold symptoms have a more gradual onset and include:
- Runny nose
- Low-grade fever
- Decreased appetite
- Cranky/Fussy behavior
- Disrupted Sleep
Influenza Symptoms tend to have a more rapid onset and include:
- Fever (as high as 103/104 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Runny nose
- Body aches
- Decreased appetite
- Occasional nausea/vomiting/diarrhea although not the hallmark symptom
How do colds and illnesses affect sleep?
First off, your Wee One will need more sleep than usual to recover! Fighting off infection is hard work! Don’t be surprised if your baby takes longer naps or is ready for bed early! The schedule you’ve worked hard to achieve may go by the wayside for a few days. This is OK! Allow your baby to take naps when they want to, follow your baby’s cues, and ignore your usual wake windows for a few days while your baby is on the mend.
Although your baby may be sleeping more, you may also notice that their sleep is disrupted and with more frequent overnight awakenings. Babies are obligate nose breathers, meaning they strictly breathe through their nose. If the nose is full of snot and congestion it can make it much more difficult to breathe hence more sleep disruptions.
If your baby is waking more frequently than usual and having trouble falling back asleep it is OK to give extra love and cuddles to help them fall back to sleep. It’s okay to rock, feed, and cuddle your baby when they are sick as they need you to nurse them back to health. It’s common to see a decrease in feedings and appetite when your baby is sick, so if they are willing to feed overnight this is a time where it is OK even if they haven’t fed overnight in months. Staying hydrated is just as important to recovery as sleep!
These interventions are short term!! It takes 3 days to create a new habit, Many parents worry that their baby will revert back to frequent overnight wake-ups after the illness passes if they go back to rocking, feeding, and holding. It takes 3 nights to create a new sleep habit and the peak of most illnesses usually lasts 3 days or less, so give your baby what they need during those rough nights.
The good news is If you have established healthy sleep foundations and your baby has a common cold you may not have to intervene at all! Follow your Mom gut on this one!
If your baby is still waking up frequently after the illness passes and they were previously sleeping through the night, I recommend going back to the foundation of healthy sleep and working on independent sleep with a sleep training method or with a sleep consultant. If they had not established independent sleep skills prior to the illness and are older than 4 months, it’s a great time to start working toward that skill once the illness passes.
What Happens If I am sleep training and my baby gets sick?
If you happen to be sleep training and your baby gets sick, it's time to evaluate if you should pause. Truly, use your best judgment. If your baby has a stomach bug and has vomiting and diarrhea, definitely pause! If it’s a little sniffle, then you can probably continue your training. Common colds have a gradual onset, have a few days of worsening symptoms and then gradually improve over 10-14 days. Illnesses like Influenza have a rapid onset with fever. Ear infections tend to cause sleep disruption due to fluid behind the eardrum causing pressure and pain worsening when laying flat. You can usually resume within 1-2 weeks pending the type of illness.
What Can You Do to Help?
If your baby is congested you can use saline drops to the nose to ease and break up congestion. Limit nasal suctioning to 3-4 times/day max, if used more often it can make congestion worse due to irritation of the nasal passages!
Use a cool-mist humidifier by the crib.
Monitor how much your baby is eating and drinking and the number of wet diapers. If your baby has poor intake during the day, it's ok to offer a night feeding even if it's been months!
Talk with your PCP about medications like Tylenol or Motrin for discomfort. Cuddle and comfort your baby if they wake up and cry in the middle of the night.
Wash your hands and carry hand sanitizer with you!! This is the best measure to prevent the spread of illness.
Common colds usually last 1-2 weeks. If your baby is a good sleeper, to begin with, they will get back on track shortly after the illness passes and if you're still having sleep issues after the illness, help is available.
Founder, Well Rested Wee Ones
Katy Bourzikas is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified baby and toddler sleep coach, and certified breastfeeding counselor. She has over 15 years of experience working in the field of pediatrics. She is married and a mom to two boys. Her mission is to ensure families “Feed Well, Sleep Well, and Feel Well.” She lives in the Kansas City area and works with families both locally and virtually from newborn to age 5.