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A Letter to Your Family about Sleep

Dear helpful friend/family member/neighbour/random person at the grocery store,

This letter is intended to help you understand the complicated world of baby sleep. As we parents all know, things are always changing. Twenty years ago there wasn’t any “Professional Sleep Consultants” to help teach babies to sleep. So why now and why should we listen to them? Because we are now discovering how important sleep is to children of all ages, and how detrimental sleep deprivation can be. There is no one single thing that will magically work for all babies to help them sleep, but there are many things that families may be doing (or advised to do) that can be the exact opposite of helpful. I hope that this article will help bring some of this unhelpful advice to the surface, and to help you understand why exactly it is ill-advised. The following “un-advice” is taken directly off my Facebook page from family members of my lovely followers.

Sleep Un-Advice #1 – “Your daughter doesn’t need to sleep so much during the day. If she stays up longer, she will sleep better at night.”

Ahhh yes. The ‘ol “keep them up so they will sleep longer” schpiel. This is the crème de la crème of poor sleep advice. I strongly believe that sleep is the area that the most poor advice is given simply because there is so much with baby sleep that is opposite of what you would think. As the saying goes, “sleep is not logical, it’s biological”. Babies need to sleep. A lot. WAY more than most would think. To give you an idea, here is a breakdown of sleep needs per day over the first 12 months of life:

Under 2 months: 16-20 hours
3 months: 15.5-18 hours
4 months: 15.5 hours
5 months: 15 hours
6 months: 14.5 hours
7/8 months: 14-14.5 hours
9-11 months: 14 hours
12-14 months: 13.5-13.75 hours

Do you know what happens when a baby is overtired? There is a hormone in our bodies called ‘cortisol’. This is the same hormone that is secreted when we are stressed….or when we are sleep-deprived. The more sleep-deprived we are, the more this hormone is secreted. Once we have reached the state of overtiredness, with all this cortisol pumping through our bodies, it is nearly impossible to fall asleep. I’m sure you have experienced a time when you are so dead exhausted, you go lay down in your bed, only to find yourself staring at the ceiling for hours because you simply cannot fall asleep. The same rule applies to babies, only amplified since they are so young and sensitive to sleep. In order to avoid this overtired state, babies need to sleep…A LOT. To give you an idea of how long a baby can tolerate being awake before they become overtired, here is a breakdown of the maximum awake times for the first year:

Under 2 months: 45-60 minutes
3 months: 1.5 hours
4 months: 1.75-2 hours
5 months: 2 hours
6 months: 2.5 hours
7 months: 2.75 hours
8/9 months: 3 hours
10-14 months: 3-4 hours

Keep in mind, these are the maximum awake times. Meaning we want baby to be asleep before we hit this maximum time. As well, some babies may require a bit less awake time before they reach that overtired state (especially between morning wake-up and first nap, this time is often very short as this nap is a continuation of nightsleep).

How much a baby needs to sleep and how often a baby needs to sleep is often something that is grandly underestimated by families. Sleep is a biological need, not a luxury – it’s food for the brain! Sleep begets sleep – the more sleep a little baby gets, the more its little body wants!

“I get the same thing. My child naps too much during the day and if I just kept him up he would sleep longer at night. And I also get that a 6:30-7:00pm bedtime is ridiculous and that I’m too tied down to a schedule. I love that my child is a happy baby because he has a great sleep routine! I will preserve that for as long as I can! And frankly I’m ready for bed by 8pm anyways! ”

— Momma C

Sleep Un-Advice #2 – “No one believes me when I say the earlier you put the baby to bed the longer he/she will sleep.”

I know I said the above ‘advice’ was the cherry on top, but I might have to call it a tie here. Not only are early bedtimes something that families push back on, but it’s something that a vast majority of my clients push back on as well. I don’t blame them, it really does seem opposite that an early bedtime would = a later wake-up but it couldn’t be more true. Now why is that?

Babies all have natural wake-up times that are predetermined before they are even born. As an adult, you are likely either a night owl or a morning lark. I bet if you asked your Mom or Dad whether this rang true while you were a baby as well, they would agree. We can’t fight biology. We can’t fight these natural wake-up times. All we can do is respect them and put baby to bed at an appropriate time so as to allow them to clock the 11-12 hours of nightsleep they need. Every single night. In 90% of cases, a baby’s natural wake-up time is anywhere between 6:00-8:00am.

Let’s take a 5 month old baby named Julia for example. Julia has a natural wake-up time of 7:00am. Julia’s mother knows this because Julia is very well-rested and she sleeps through the night for her age (meaning two nightfeedings). Knowing that Julia’s natural wake-up time is 7:00am and that she needs 11-12 hours of nightsleep with two nightfeedings, that would mean Julia would have to be asleep for the night between 6:30-7:30pm in order to clock a full 11-12 hours of nightsleep (subtracting, of course, the time it takes for her to eat twice at night). What will happen if we put Julia to bed at 9:00pm because 6:30pm is “just too early to be going to bed”? She will wake up at the same time in the morning but will only have slept 9.5 hours. As well, since Julia’s bedtime was too late for her, she may wake up crying several times in the night. Now Julia will be extremely overtired, which may lead her to take short naps the next day and thus perpetuate the cycle of overtiredness. There really is no advantage to a later bedtime if baby is up every 3-4 hours crying because the bedtime was too late. This goes hand-in-hand with Un-Advice#1 – babies need a lot of sleep, and we need to respect their need for said sleep.

Sleep Un-Advice #3 – ” I get told that I am letting my children run my life, they should be fitting into my lifestyle instead of me working around theirs.”

This criticism always really baffles me. I know for me, when I became pregnant with my first child, I knew my life was about to change drastically. I knew that I wouldn’t get to do all the things I used to do, to take vacations on a whim or meet my friends for coffee at the drop of a hat. Babies change your life. When you have a child, your mission in life is to take care of this little person – to feed them, clothe them, nurture them, and to ensure they are healthy and happy. Babies are never convenient, and especially where it comes to sleep, they are highly inconvenient. A baby’s sleep needs are SO high, as I’ve mentioned above. They need to sleep – A LOT. But this sleep is just as important to them as being fed nutritious food. We wouldn’t starve our babies, so why sleep-starve them? We wouldn’t feed our children junk food so why feed them junk sleep? Now, of course I am not staying that you are now house-bound for the first 2 years of your life because your baby needs to sleep, we all know life happens. An occasional nap on-the-go here or a late-ish bedtime there is not going to be detrimental to your child. But guess who deals with the ramifications of these late bedtimes or missed naps? Especially for those babies who are especially sleep-sensitive, a late bedtime can lead to a sleepless night and an extra early wake-up the next day….for baby AND Mom/Dad.
We are all just trying to do what’s best for our children, and healthy sleep IS what’s best for them. Babies are only babies once. Their sleep needs are ever-changing and there will come a time when they don’t need to nap, where they don’t need to be asleep for the night in the 6’s, and where a late bedtime won’t throw them off for the next 3-5 days. But for now, adhering to a good sleep schedule and allowing your baby the opportunity for lots of good quality, healthy sleep is only going to benefit them in the long-run.

“I’m on baby #3. The first two slept anywhere and everywhere and still do. My third was a whole different baby who is an absolute nightmare when she even slightly deviates from her norm. She’s been called a “bad baby”, I’ve been told that we shouldn’t have more because she’s “too much”. Sleep training has saved my marriage and given me a sweet, happy baby. So while I am strong in my convictions that our sleep habits work – I do get worn down when I hear all the complaints listed here: “your kid controls your life”, “she should/shouldn’t be tired”, “she needs to learn to sleep anywhere”, etc.”

— Momma J

Sleep Un-Advice #4 – “A baby will be more portable and sleep anywhere if they’re taught to.”

I have written about this popular ‘advice’ on another one of my articles (as well as a few other helpful ‘suggestions’ that friends and family love to share including starting cereal to help baby sleep and crying it out damaging babies), you can check it out here . But I will write about it again now because I am just very passionate about this topic. While it seems logical that always putting baby to bed in his/her crib, in a pitch black bedroom with some lovely, soothing white noise is going to spoil baby and cause them to not be able to adapt to any other situation, this is entirely false.

Why do we use a dark bedroom for baby sleep? First off, because babies (especially older babies) can be stimulated by just about anything – a wallpaper pattern, a toy across the room, a shadow on the wall. All of this stimulation can lead to poor sleep. As well, from a scientific standpoint, a dark bedroom stimulates the production of melatonin (the sleepy hormone). The brighter the days and the darker the sleep times, the more melatonin is secreted (and therefore, the quality and quantity of sleep is increased).
And as for white noise? A baby in the womb is subjected to constant noise – the sound of mom’s blood pumping, her heart beating, and muffled voices from the outside. It is quite daunting to go from constant sound for 9 months to dead silence. White noise has been shown to reduce stress in babies and to help them sleep better – it helps them to power down at the end of the day, a day that is filled with 100 new sights, sounds, and experiences. In addition to white noise helping babies to decompress, it also is crucial in muffling the sounds of the house which can wake baby during naps and/or the night. While some may say that “baby should get used to the noise” what would you do if you finally fell asleep for a nap and then someone started vacuuming outside your door, the dog started barking, doorbells are ringing, kids are running around outside your room screaming. You wouldn’t be too impressed. So why shouldn’t a baby have the luxury of a quiet and peaceful sleep time, especially when we know how important this sleep is to the child? Sure there are going to be times where the child may need to sleep in a noisy environment or perhaps a bedroom that is not pitch black but this is the beauty of healthy sleep – a child who is well-rested and given the opportunity to have quality, restorative sleep learns to LOVE sleep. They don’t care where they do it, their bodies just love it. Why should we provide our children with improper sleeping conditions 100% of the time just so that the 10% of the time when they are sleeping in these non-ideal conditions (say at the beach, or camping,etc.) that they might be adapted to it already? Well-rested children are extremely adaptable, and the key to helping a child become well-rested is providing them with opportunities for healthy sleep.

“My son (who is currently 18 months) has slept in his pitch black bedroom, in his crib, with his double white noise blaring for every single sleep time since the day he was born. We took a leap of faith and went camping one day, mainly because I wanted to experiment with how he would do in these non-ideal sleeping conditions. In the bright camper, with no white noise, dogs barking, kids screaming, he took his usual 3 hour nap. His body loves to sleep, it doesn’t care where it’s doing it, it just knows it WANTS it!”

— Pam

Any way you slice it, we are all just trying to do what’s best for our kids. Not all babies are easy babies, and it can be hard to walk in the shoes of someone with a more sleep-sensitive child if all you’ve had are easy children. Not all babies can sleep anywhere, anytime, in any environment. If you had a child like this – consider yourself lucky! And to be honest, it likely wasn’t anything you did to make them that way, you were just dealt a lucky hand. As well, our expectations of ‘good sleep’ are vastly different across the board. While one mom might consider it ‘normal’ for her 12 month old to be waking up 2-3 times at night (and therefore she doesn’t feel the need to keep baby on an age-appropriate schedule during the day), other parents know that life can be better than that! That a baby can sleep much better than that if we provide them with the right tools. So the next time you are ready to criticize a friend/family member/neighbor/etc. on what they choose to do in order to help their child sleep better, consider instead applauding them for respecting their child’s need for sleep, even if it means sacrificing a bit of their own time to attain it.

Pam Edwards is a Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Healthy sleep is addicting and she has made it her life mission to help families all across the world get the sleep they deserve – a good night’s sleep doesn’t have to be a dream!