As a pediatric sleep consultant, I hear a lot of the same (good!) questions about sleep. A lot of things we think to be true about baby sleep are actually not the case. What I love about this job is that I can help spread information that was so crucial to our understanding of healthy sleep habits – information backed by science! Here are some of the most common sleep misconceptions:
Keeping a baby awake later will help them to become tired and fall sleep
Makes sense, right? But, in reality, the key to an early bed time is to make it happen before a child becomes overtired. There is a certain amount of time babies can be awake before bedtime without becoming overtired – staying within that window is important because, once exceeded, a hormone called cortisol is released which essentially acts as a second wind, making it extremely difficult for a child to fall asleep and stay asleep. If your child is having a hard time falling asleep or is experiencing night wakings, you may want to try an earlier bed time.
Early bed times lead to early wake-times
But an early bed time means they’ll wake up earlier, right? Actually, no! In the same vein as the last myth, the hormone cortisol is often responsible for early wake ups. Cortisol builds up in babies’ systems overtime if they are consistently overtired…and this is often what leads to early wakings. If you have an early riser (before 6AM), try an earlier bedtime and you may just see that your child sleeps in a bit later (and you can, too!).
My baby is a cat napper, but any nap is better than no nap
Unfortunately, naps need to be at least an hour for it to be restorative for a baby. A lot of children cat nap because they aren’t sleeping at times of day that align with their biological rhythms – when it is easiest for a child to not only fall asleep and stay asleep, but also get the best, most restorative rest. To extend a nap to an hour or more, try consistently leaving your child in their crib for a full hour to give them the opportunity to fall back asleep. Eventually, they’ll learn to extend that nap and break the cat napping cycle once and for all!
A nap is a nap is a nap!
Nap times aren’t all created equal. As I mentioned above, naps that align with babies’ biological rhythms (called circadian rhythms) happen when sleep comes easiest for your little one. A child’s body is physiologically primed for sleep during these times, making it the perfect time of day to fall asleep and stay asleep. Not only does sleep come more easily at these times of day, but sleep during circadian rhythms serves an incredible purpose: the morning nap is cognitively restorative and the afternoon nap is physically restorative. When sleep happens outside of these windows of time, there is little benefit for the child. If your child is napping but still seems tired, you may need to adjust the schedule to allow them to sleep during these amazingly restorative times of day.
A consistent bed time is best
The truth is, bedtime is best when it is dependent on the quality of sleep that day. Remember when I said there is a certain amount of time your child can be awake without becoming overtired? Say, for example, this was 4 hours based on your child’s age. If your child takes an amazing nap and sleeps until 3:30PM, that means they can go to bed at 7:30PM without the risk of their body releasing cortisol and experiencing night wakings/early wake-ups. If, however, they have a poor nap day and only sleep until 2PM, bed time should be at 6PM. A flexible bed time trumps a structured bed time, and always allows you the option of a super-early bed time to combat overtiredness, illness, or transitions.
This new (insert name of sleep product here) is the answer to our sleep problems!
There will never be a lack of babies or tired parents, so, of course, there is a constant influx of new sleep products on the market. Before rushing out to the store (or, let’s be real, Amazon Priming) for the newest product on the market, make sure to do your research. A lot of products could create a safety hazard – and, even if completely safe, they could create a sleep association (meaning your child is learning to sleep only with this new product). If your goal is to teach your child to be an independent sleeper, save the money and work on getting healthy sleep foundations in place, and/or if you’re uncertain about a particular product, ask a Pediatric Sleep Consultant or your pediatrician.
Sleep training means letting your baby cry it out
Sleep training means understanding your child’s biological sleep needs and teaching them to be an independent sleeper. There are all types of ways to do this – and sleep consultants work with families to figure out which method feels right for them. But, at the end of the day, teaching a child to self-soothe is only one piece of the sleep puzzle. If all the puzzle pieces are in place good sleep will happen!
Colleen is a Family Sleep Institute Pediatric Sleep Consultant trained with Well Rested Baby where she helps families navigate the confusing world of baby sleep. Colleen also works in healthcare, and lives in Wakefield, Massachusetts with her husband and their twin daughters. Please feel free to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org