Parents love to commune over sleep. It’s the holy grail of parenthood. Discussed everywhere, sleep deprivation is all consuming, as can be the desire to “fix” it. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of information out there on sleep, but so much of it is conflicting. And when you’re tired, it’s hard to carry on a conversation or measure formula, much less weed through sleep theories. So exhausted parents often resort to gathering tricks here and there. But while one trick — like sleeping in a swing — may work for one baby, it’s not going to work for the vast majority. And it may not necessarily be safe, or be good for sleep patterns in the long run. We worked with one mom who was literally sleeping in her toddler’s crib with her. A grown woman in a crib. It may have worked for awhile, but clearly that was not a long-term fix to her child’s sleep issues.
Here are 6 sleep myths unveiled. Consider it a gift from us to you.
“You can sleep train your baby at 6 weeks.” False. Six weeks of age is too young to begin a sleep-teaching program or to follow a strict sleep schedule. There’s a wide range of what’s normal at this age, and most infants still need care around the clock for feeding and soothing. When babies are this young, it’s also difficult to distinguish between cries (hunger, pain, tired, frustrated). While a small number of children do start sleeping through the night on their own at six weeks, most aren’t able to do so until after four months of age. We recommend waiting until that point before sleep training.
“You can mess up your baby’s sleep habits by letting them sleep on you.” True and False. You really can’t make sleep mistakes the first few months of your baby’s life (aside from not following safe sleeping practices). If your newborn cries hysterically from 4 – 7 p.m. unless he’s sleeping on you, hold away. If you can do it safely and it soothes him, there’s nothing that needs to be fixed urgently. However, around four months of age, children are better at self-soothing and cognitively advanced enough to learn more independent sleep skills. So, letting a five-month-old sleep on you, or rocking her to sleep for each nap, can start to form longer lasting negative sleep associations. Children may start to believe they “need” you to fall asleep. Four to six months is a great time to work on phasing out some of these unwanted sleep patterns.
“You should never let your baby sleep overnight in a swing.” True. Some supervised swing naps are okay during the day, but it’s not safe to let your baby sleep in a swing for extended periods of time — particularly if he or she is unsupervised. The American Academy of Pediatrics also discourages prolonged swing-sleeping as a baby’s body and neck position may increase the risk of SIDS. If swinging is the only sleep trick you have up your sleeve, you can use it to help your child wind down. Just try to transfer him to a safe sleeping space before kinking out. Also experiment with other soothing techniques like a tight swaddle and white noise.
“Never wake a sleeping baby.” False. The first few months with a newborn are a transition time for everyone, so don’t try to be too rigid or anxious about sleep. Surrender and follow your baby’s sleep rhythms the first few months. Make all nighttime interactions very boring while ensuring your daytime is spirited and engaging. This contrast will help your child ease into normal sleep/wake patterns. However, once a child is on a sleep schedule (around the four-month mark), try to stick to those nap times. That could mean waking a baby if a nap goes on too long, like an afternoon nap that is inching up on bedtime.
“You should give your baby a dream feed to make him sleep through the night.” False. Dream feeds, essentially “topping off” a baby around 10 or 11 p.m. without fully waking a baby, is not a sleep slam-dunk. In fact, this trick can be counterproductive for children with gastrointestinal sensitives. Feeding fires up the digestive system, which can exacerbate reflux and other painful digestive issues. However, as it pertains to sleep the first few months, we always say if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. If dream feeds are extending your child’s nighttime sleep (and therefore improving YOUR nighttime sleep), go for it. But remember, after four months of age it’s possible to move all of your child’s feedings to the daytime, eliminating nighttime eating entirely.
“Keep your baby up all day. He’ll sleep better at night.” False. When children become overtired their bodies go into overdrive and produce a stress hormone called cortisol. The affect is similar to giving your baby a shot of espresso. Overtired babies can be hyperactive and often have a harder time settling down into deeper stages of sleep. Children sleep best when they have a predictable daytime napping schedule and a consistent bedtime, ideally somewhere between 6 – 8 p.m.
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Photography by Kristy May Photography. And yes! That’s Jessica’s beautiful Elsie.