The most common baby sleep myths
Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Very regularly we hear things in our work with families that are worryingly inaccurate! Some things are old wives tales that have been disproved by modern science, other things are just downright, frustratingly, mass hype and hysteria.
Let us debunk a few such “myths” around baby sleep for you.
Watch the Baby Sleep Myths video!
MYTH: Your baby should sleep in a light room during the day so they know it isn’t night time.
FACT: Daytime and nighttime means very little to your baby, so being in a light or a dark room won’t change that. The fact is that babies find the dark extremely comforting and it will be a lot easier for your baby to settle and sleep (and stay asleep) in a dark room. Especially if your baby is over 2 months old as the dark promotes the release of melatonin, which is a hormone crucial to your baby settling and sleeping well. The best way to actually help your baby understand the day/night difference is by regulating their circadian rhythm - this is done by, for example, always waking them at the same time each morning and heading towards a consistent bedtime at night.
MYTH: Babies don’t need much day sleep if they sleep well at night.
FACT: Day sleep and night sleep is intrinsically linked. The first 12 hours of your baby’s day directly affects the next 12 (the night). A baby who sleeps well in the day will also sleep well at night, provided their daily cumulative nap hours haven’t been exceeded for their age. For a baby who is already sleeping through the night but napping poorly, establishing better naps will not adversely affect their nights in the long-run, however continued poor napping will definitely start to negatively impact on their night sleep after a while.
MYTH: Babies younger than 6 months can’t sleep through the night.
FACT: A baby’s ability to sleep through the night depends on so many factors – their weight, their daily milk and food intake, their sleep environment, whether they’re swaddled or not (for younger babies), the temperature in their room, whether they’re sick, how much day sleep they’ve had, whether they’re able to settle themselves to sleep (in babies older than 4 months). It is completely possible for a baby as young as 6 weeks to sleep through the night in the right circumstances.
MYTH: You should never wake a sleeping baby.
FACT: If your baby is a great daytime napper they might be having too much day sleep, which would then mean they won’t sleep as much overnight. In this case you should definitely wake your baby from their naps. Some babies would quite happily sleep all day then stay awake all night and we absolutely don’t want it that way around! Waking your baby from their naps means you are able to regulate how much day sleep your little one is having, to enable them to sleep well at night.
MYTH: You should teach your newborn how to self-settle.
FACT: Babies under 12 weeks genuinely aren’t capable of consciously self-settling. It is also not crucial that your baby has this skill until they’re over 3 months old anyway, when they start waking between sleep cycles. (See THIS blog!) A baby under 12 weeks is able to transition a lot easier between sleep cycles, regardless of how they went to sleep at the start of each nap or at bedtime. It is however, good practice to put them in bed when they’re awake but drowsy so they do the final bit of falling asleep by themselves if you think they can. If you’ve been following our Sleep Program your baby will be good and ready for sleep and this will make it a lot easier for them to fall asleep without you helping them too much.
MYTH: If a baby wakes in the night it means they are hungry.
FACT: Babies do wake in the night hungry, for sure, but not every baby and not all the time. There are many factors that cause night waking in babies and toddlers – having had too much or too little day sleep, being too hot or cold, being sick, being uncomfortable, not being able to self-settle (in older babies) and of course hunger. If your baby is waking frequently in the night and you are feeding them every time, they might then be taking the bulk of their milk feeds during the night – meaning they’ll take less in the day. We want the opposite to happen! If you can rule out hunger as a cause of the waking, you should look at the other factors that might be contributing to the wakes.
MYTH: Some babies don’t like being swaddled.
FACT: Swaddling babies younger than 4-5 months is proven time and time again to assist in them settling and sleeping for longer stretches. Some babies seem to struggle or cry when being swaddled and people often assume this means their baby doesn’t like being swaddled. Usually it is because the baby is already overtired or may be undertired, the swaddle is too hot, or it’s not tight enough. Babies who are swaddled sleep better.
MYTH: You should sleep train your baby or fix their sleep at night only.
FACT: Because of the intrinsic link between daytime and night time sleep, it isn't fair on your baby to approach any kind of sleep training at night only. We understand the holistic nature of baby sleep and very often we see that a baby's night waking is due solely to their napping in the day - having had too much or too little day sleep or the naps not happening at the ideal times to promote good night sleep. Sleep training a baby at night only can often set them up to fail. If they had too much day sleep they are waking at night simply because they aren't tired enough for a more restorative night sleep, not because they need "sleep training". If a baby has too little day sleep night waking can be attributed to overtiredness, again, something that is quite outside your baby's control and something no amount of sleep training will "fix". We ALWAYS look at the napping first because many many times merely tweaking a baby's nap structure has the biggest, most positive influence on their night time sleep, without the need for actual sleep training.
MYTH: Babies are scared of the dark.
FACT: Babies are not scared of the dark. They have nothing to base that fear on. In the womb it is dark (and noisy) and so, like other mammals, babies find the dark comforting, safe and calming. If you have a young baby who is overstimulated or overtired, putting them in a pitch black room (with white noise) will be very calming for them. Babies do not need night-lights – any light will be stimulating and can prevent them from falling asleep or staying asleep.
MYTH: Babies will just fall asleep when they’re tired.
FACT: Some babies will fall asleep when they’re tired. The vast majority of babies will simply stay awake until they’re really overtired, making it impossible for them to settle easily or sleep well. We need to teach our babies how to sleep by making sure they have the right amount of awake time and nap time and that they have the right conditions for sleep. (See this blog for more help).
MYTH: You should be guided completely by a baby’s tired signs.
FACT: Unfortunately not all babies display reliable tired signs. Babies older than 6 weeks also do hit a natural dip in energy levels after 1-1.5 hours of awake time and may display “tired signs” here. This is a time when they are starting to get tired but are not actually tired enough to go to sleep, or to sleep for very long. Many people mistake this for a sign their baby is ready for bed, then wonder why they struggle to get their baby to fall asleep or why their baby only has a 20 minute nap (then blame the settling and the short nap on OVERtiredness when it was actually UNDERtiredness). Watching the clock and keeping your baby awake for the exact amount of awake time for their age is your best way to ensure their naps occur at the right time. (Our Sleep Programs have all this info in extensive detail!)
MYTH: Teething causes babies to sleep badly.
FACT: Despite all the drooling and excessive chomping on anything in sight, a baby is really only affected by teething for the day or two that the tooth is actually breaking through the gum. This shouldn’t cause disruption to their sleep for weeks or months on end and, in fact, when your baby is lying down their blood pressure is actually lowered so the pain in their gums will be LESS at night than when they're awake and upright in the day! If your baby is teething they will be unsettled in the day as well as at night. If you think your baby is teething but you can't see any teeth bulging and they’ve started sleeping much much worse, it could be that they are sick rather than teething and we’d recommend getting your baby’s ears and throat checked by a GP.
MYTH: Giving babies lots of solids at dinner will make them sleep through the night.
FACT: The balance of milk vs solids is really important. Simply giving your baby lots of solids isn’t as crucial as the times of the day when you give the food. You should always offer solids at the lunch meal first, once that is established, offer dinner then lastly introduce breakfast. Lunch is the most important meal of the day because protein at this meal is stored by the baby’s liver in a way that will help them feel full through the night. If a baby younger than 10 months has protein at dinner it can cause wakefulness in the night as their body struggles to digest the protein.
MYTH: Babies should sleep in a silent room.
FACT: Babies, especially very young babies, sleep better when it’s noisy. In the womb it can be louder than a vacuum cleaner and this is all your baby has known. Using white noise in their room for all their day sleeps and overnight will definitely help your baby settle better and sleep for longer. It also helps block out any other household or environmental sounds that might wake a sleeping baby. The white noise should be played louder than a baby’s cries (if they are crying) or as loud as a shower for sleep. If you have a decibel reader (you can get an app on your phone for free) we'd recommend the white noise be played around 65 dB. White noise is also extremely effective for adults who suffer from insomnia too! We have an excellent collection of white noise available in our shop, on Spotify and iTunes.
Hopefully this helps clear up some of your sleep concerns and sets you on a clearer path to better sleep.
Our age-specific Sleep Programs are the best way to ensure your baby is getting enough sleep, milk and food during the day to enable good sleep overnight.
If you liked this blog, be sure to check out Sleeping through the night and There is nothing cute about a catnap for more baby sleep advice.