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Tips to help your kids get to sleep while sick

Tips for helping sick kids get the sleep they need

It seems like a day doesn't go by where there isn’t some bug going around your kid's school or daycare or wherever. As a result, many parents are finding themselves caring for sick kids more frequently. Families all over are battling the flu, COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), stomach bugs and other illnesses that linger throughout the season. Symptoms of these illnesses can create uncomfortable sleeping conditions for kids, making it challenging to get the rest they need to recover. 

Doing what you can to ease symptoms of illness before and during sleep is the best way to ensure that everyone in your household gets their needed rest while battling illness.

Keep good sleeping habits

Sick kids may wake during the night more frequently than usual, but it is important to maintain healthy sleep routines and keep boundaries as much as possible. It can be tempting to bring kids into bed with you to help with night waking, but sticking to normal routines as closely as possible will facilitate the best sleep for your child.

Start bedtime at a reasonable hour, stop screen time at least one hour before bed, engage in the normal bedtime routine and make sure the environment is conducive to sleeping by keeping noise and activity to a minimum.

If symptoms of illness are keeping your child from being able to fall asleep or causing them to wake once they’re asleep, do what you can to provide relief from those symptoms and get your child feeling calm and relaxed.

Treating a fever

A fever (a temperature of 100.4°F or higher) is a sign that your child is trying to fight a virus or infection. A fever itself is not dangerous but a fever — especially a high one — can be uncomfortable for a child, causing body aches and chills. Fevers often come at night. Due to our natural wake sleep cycle called our circadian rhythm, our body’s stress hormone, Cortisol, is lower during sleep. Lower Cortisol levels at night can result in an increased immune response and fever. 

Do not use rubbing alcohol to lower a fever. It can cause poisoning and severe problems in your child's lungs. A cool bath and even lukewarm bath to lower fever generally is not recommended, this will only cause the body to work harder to elevate your child’s temperature again and may result in an even higher fever. However, a warm bath can be soothing and may be used to help make your child more comfortable so you may try a quick bath before putting your child to bed. Try not to over bundle your child, but instead dress them in light clothing and have an extra blanket handy in case they get too cold.

If the fever seems to be bothering your child, you can also administer a fever-reducing, pain relief medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. However, aspirin is an important exception. Aspirin should not be given to children due to its associated risk of Reye’s syndrome (a rare disorder that can cause brain and liver damage). See dosing chart for acetaminophen and ibuprofen below. Note that ibuprofen is not recommended for infants under 6 months of age.

A fever should naturally break on its own in one to three days, but you will want to seek out your pediatrician if your child's fever persists or climbs above 104°F

It’s also important to note if your child is less than 8 weeks old and has a fever (rectal temperature of 100.4°F or higher) you should bring them to the nearest emergency department right away. Babies that young don’t have a fully developed immune system, so any fever should be taken very seriously.

Congestion and coughing

Congestion and cough symptoms always seem worse at night because your child is lying down which will cause mucus to drain backwards into the upper airway, and because they are still, it limits their body's ability to move phlegm. Finding ways to help your child clear their passages will provide the most relief.

A traditional bulb syringe or another mucus remover along with saline solution can help clear passageways and create better breathing conditions while sleeping. Elevating your child's head by adding an extra pillow or two will help with drainage while they sleep. For infants, elevate the head of the crib by placing pillows or blankets under the mattress up to a 30 degree incline — beyond that, your baby will be at risk of rolling over. 

If your child wakes in the night and seems to be congested, exposure to moist air will help to thin the mucus in their nasal passages and make it easier to clear. This can be done by running a hot shower and having your child sit in the bathroom with the hot steam, or by running a vaporizer (or a cool-mist humidifier) in your child's bedroom.

If a cough is keeping your child awake, you may try giving them a small dose of honey to coat their throat. (Do not give honey to children under 12 months, and do not administer cough or cold medicine to children under 2 years.) If your child has trouble swallowing honey, stir the dose into a cup of warm water. Limit honey intake to 2 tablespoons daily. 

Provide the comfort your child needs

Frequent night waking can be frustrating and impact the whole family's ability to get adequate sleep. Do your best to maintain a sleep schedule, but it’s okay not to be too strict when kids and babies are sick.

If a sick infant is crying at night, it's okay to comfort them more quickly and frequently than you normally would. Start with the least amount of intervention — like rubbing their back or shushing — before picking them up and holding them. They may need a few days to reestablish sleeping habits once they’re feeling better, but getting them the sleep they need will help them feel better more quickly.

If a child is waking at night, try to keep them in their own bed and offer extra cuddles if they’re feeling upset. The more comforted and calm they are, the more relaxed they will feel, which will help them get the rest they need to start feeling better.

If you’re feeling concerned about your child or need advice about how to treat them, contact your pediatrician’s office. You can also download the Children’s Wisconsin app and use our convenient symptom checker. This will help you decide what’s a run-of-the-mill cold and what may require a visit to one of our urgent care locations or Emergency Department