When I teach Mommy and Me classes, most of the new, bleary-eyed parents in my groups are laser-focused on sleep. The first months of our weekly meetings are usually about helping moms extract a bit more nighttime rest, getting a handle on nap schedules, and laying a foundation for good sleep habits later in the first year and beyond.
But inevitably, I also end up dispelling a lot of myths about baby sleep that have parents confused. Here are the top seven sleep myths I’ve come across:
1. Good sleepers don’t wake up at night. We all wake up at night at least briefly – as adults we may we roll over, pull up the covers, or adjust the pillow. Every 90 minutes, a sleep cycle ends and we rise into a light phase of sleep – in fact many of us will have a small window of consciousness that we may not even remember the next day. Babies have closer to 60-minute sleep cycles, so every hour they move through a similarly light phase of sleep.
Babies labeled “good sleepers” by their parents are likely to wake up just as often as their “bad sleeper” peers; the difference is that they are able to get comfy again and fall back into another deep sleep on their own.
2. At three months, sleep gets better. This is a big misconception. Lots of us assume that newborn sleep gradually gets better and better, and that by three months baby sleep is drastically improved – that’s what it says in the books, right? In fact, most babies’ sleep doesn’t follow a linear progression. Even a baby who sleeps well in month two can start waking up every two to three hours when she gets a little older (often the best explanation is a surge in cognitive development).
3. Good sleepers are born, not made. Sure, genes do play a role in how your little one’s circadian rhythm develops. As adults some of us naturally need seven hours a night while others need over eight; our kids’ biology varies in the same way. But the environment also plays a huge role in how children’s sleep habits develop.
A recent twin study estimated that the family environment (schedule, expectations, and habits) was responsible for 65 percent of the differences in a baby’s sleep patterns.
4. Use “sleepiness cues” to help your baby nap. If you’ve spotted eye rubbing and yawning, you might have passed the optimal window for napping. Especially in the first four months, the clock is your best indicator of when it’s naptime. Ninety minutes after a newborn baby wakes up in the morning or stirs from a nap, she’s likely to be drowsy, so after an hour and 15 minutes of awake time think about prepping for sleep at home or, if you’re out, putting the flap over her baby carrier.
5. Catnaps are not real naps. Catnaps get a bad rep, but a 20-minute nap is a true nap. Frustrating, yes, since that window barely gives you time to grab a snack or check your email, but a catnap is valid rest. After the drowsy newborn phase wears off, little babies sleeping on their backs (the way we position them for safety reasons) tend to wake up after 20-40 minutes until they’ve figure out how to get into another sleep cycle on their own. The two-hour naps are great, but for some babies they don’t come until later in development.
6. Keeping babies up later helps them sleep longer. In fact, early bedtimes help babies get the most from the night. Their little circadian rhythms are programmed to sleep more or less when it’s dark out. By three or four months old, a 7:00 p.m. bedtime affords your baby the most rest; regardless of what time they go to sleep, most babies are ready to start the day around the time the sun comes up.
7. Baby squawks mean jump to attention. Especially with a first baby, parents tend to spring into soothing action at baby’s first peep during the night. But have you ever really listened to a baby’s noises at night and noticed how similar they can sound to the grunting, babbling, and squawking they do during the day when they’re hanging out?
The fact that your baby’s awake in her crib and making noise doesn’t mean she’s saying, “I need you!” (You know the real “come in here immediately!” cries – they’re entirely different.) If you give her a little space, she may surprise you by falling back into another sleep cycle on her own. That’s important practice on the road to a full night’s rest.
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