Learn what’s really going on behind your baby’s sleep cycles…so you both can sleep better
I remember when my twins were 2 months old and waking up at random intervals in the middle of the night. During that time, I asked another mommy friend what she did to keep her baby asleep through the night.
“Oh,” she told me, “I make sure he is awake 3 hours before bedtime.”
The next day, I dutifully made sure my little ones were awake at 4:00 p.m. and did my best to keep them up until our 7:00 bedtime. I put them down to play, picked them up when they cried, jiggled them, talked to them, and sang to them. At about 6:00 p.m., we were FaceTiming family when I saw one baby’s eyes droop shut. Frantically, I called her name and jiggled her awake again. She did not like that at all, and protested. Loudly. I turned off the computer and prayed that somehow my husband would come home early. That night was a nightmare. My babies took forever to fall asleep that night and woke up even more times than usual during the night. And that’s when I learned that just because “everyone says” something doesn’t mean it’s actually true. In fact, there are loads of these sleep myths floating around.
Myth: Skipping a nap, or keeping babies awake longer, will help them sleep better at night.
Fact: Our brains are super machines, which pump out all kinds of hormones that help us do what we need to do when we need to do it. When it’s time for us to wake up, our body produces cortisol, a revving up hormone. As our children progress through the newborn, infant, and toddler stages, and then move through childhood into the adult world, their ability to stay awake increases. They start off as newborns with a 45 minute wake time limit, and end, as adults, with a 16 hour limit. But whatever stage your child is at (and yes, this does apply to you too!), there’s a limit. And when he reaches that limit and doesn’t get to sleep, the brain starts calling in the special forces: the “stay awake” hormones. So here’s your little kiddo who needs a nap—but didn’t get one—with all of these awake hormones pumping through his system. And this is where things get sticky. Because then you notice he’s overtired and try to put him down for a nap or bed. But he’s still got those hormones in his blood, working to keep him awake. The result? It’ll be harder for him to fall asleep, sleep soundly, and stay asleep. So that means long crying jags, lots of nighttime wakings and early morning wakeups.
The Verdict: Keeping your baby up for too long will only backfire on you.
Myth: When my baby is crying that means he is hungry.
Fact: Babies have lots of needs, a whole bunch of feelings, and pretty much only two ways to express them: crying, or smiling. Truth is, that babies who are tired, overtired, or overstimulated cry a lot, too. And loudly. Building a daytime routine, being aware of how many feeds or ounces of formula your child needs in a 24 hour period, and knowing how long they can go between sleeps, together will build a great foundation in knowing what your baby’s needs are. So when your baby cries, you’ll know if they’re hungry, need a change of scenery, or are just plain tired.
The Verdict: Being aware of your child’s age-appropriate needs will enable you to respond with what he ACTUALLY needs when he cries—not just food.
Myth: My baby sleeps just fine in the stroller/car/swing.
Fact: Not all sleep was created equal—we have lighter stages of sleep, then deeper stages and then dreaming sleep, and our brains do different things in each stage. That rich, yummy, invigorating sleep, though, comes in the deep sleep stage—you have to be sleeping for a while to get to it. The problem with motion sleep (any kind of sleep that you get while you’re moving) is that your body stays in the lighter stages of sleep and doesn’t move into Stage 4. So, while motion will lull your baby to sleep, it’s not the same quality sleep she would get if she was laying still in her crib—and that will be reflected in her alertness and temperament while she’s awake. I find that babies who sleep best in motion sleep are babies who are overtired—and that’s not a position any of us would want to be in!
The Verdict: Motion sleep is junk sleep; it may seem fine in the moment, but in the long run it won’t give them the rest they need.
Myth: My baby is just going through a stage. When he gets a little bigger and older, he’ll sleep better.
Fact: Babies are very impressionable; they can be taught just about anything, which is great—most of the time. Learn a language, learn to walk, learn about the world? Great! The problem is when he also “learns” that the way he falls asleep is by needing to be nursed, rocked, held, etc. Like all the other things he learns about the world, this one will stick. So your infant who doesn’t sleep well will likely turn into a toddler who doesn’t sleep well, who will turn into a pre-schooler who doesn’t sleep well. In fact, studies have shown that, when following infants who have difficulty sleeping well, 80% of them had persisting difficulties for 3-5 years! That’s a long time for your child (and you!) to not be sleeping well!
The Verdict: It’s never too early for a child to learn to sleep well—and it’s never too late either!
So there you have them, the top 4 sleep myths I’ve encountered and debunked. I will say that some babies react more strongly to variances than others do. Some babies are simply more sensitive—but that does not mean that they have vastly different needs; that simply means these things don’t bother them as much. If you find that your child is a wee bit more sensitive when it comes to sleep and his sleep environment, then try implementing some of the tips above—and let me know how it goes!