Sleep myths & facts

The truth behind some commonly asked questions

When you spend a certain amount of time among other parents, you begin to hear some common questions or statements that, whilst they may have an element of truth, may not necessarily apply to you or your child. The aim of this post is to dispel some common myths surrounding children’s sleep, when to listen to advice, and more importantly when to ignore it!

Do babies need routines?

Yes, but not all routines need to be as structured as schedules like Gina Ford’s. Newborn babies are born without their own body clock, so at first need a simple routine of day and night using light, noise level and activity to show them the difference between the two. Some babies respond really well to fixed routines, however some newborn issues such as reflux can make it difficult to follow a structured day and can often leave a parent anxious and upset instead. It’s always best to suit pick a routine that works for you and your baby. A bedtime routine is always a great idea, especially by around 3 months of age when they can pick up on sleep cues and more complex patterns. This is to help them know that sleep is coming each night and signals the change between daytime and night time.

Will breastfeeding mean less sleep?

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding babies and sleep is that formula fed babies sleep better than breastfed babies. However, studies have shown that breastfed Mums can often get more sleep with their newborns due to the ease of feeding and not having to get up to make up a bottle, as well as the increased occurrence of co-sleeping. The biggest difference I have found is that because breastfeeding is so convenient, Mums are more likely to use feeding for comfort and sleep settling which in some cases can lead to disrupted nights. Breastmilk is metabolised quicker than formula so breastfed babies do typically need feeding a little more often than formula fed babies. However, breastfeeding Mums are more likely to feed on demand and respond to natural cluster feeding in the evening which can help promote longer stretches of sleep at night. Both formula and breastfed babies can sleep like logs, or equally can be affected by external factors that inhibit a good nights sleep. So don’t choose your feeding preference based on sleep!

Does ‘sleep training’ mean leaving my baby cry?

In short, no. The term ‘sleep training’ can put off many parents undertaking any kind of sleep intervention or support with their baby. In an ideal situation, you would lay down healthy sleep habits from birth so that you never need to implement any kind of sleep training. However it is always useful to have a method of soothing your child that eventually doesn’t involve you being there going forward. This is especially true if you have, with the best intentions, ended up down a path that now means your child isn’t in the best sleep place and you feel that as a family the situation needs to improve. Babies and children eventually learn to sleep independently, but even in our western society, where we often put emphasis on babies sleeping through, the timing of this goal varies greatly between families. Ultimately you must follow when and how you want or need you child to sleep independently, and there are many ways of achieving this including gentle methods. Making a change in your little one’s routine will likely cause some tears, but not only is this is only likely to peak for a few days, you can choose whether you want to stay and assist your child through the transition. It can be reassuring to view sleep training as supporting your child’s sleep development, just as you would any other area of their development such as learning to walk, counting to ten or riding a bike.

Can I hold my baby too much?

Many parents are told in the early weeks not to ‘make a rod for their own back’ by holding their baby too much. Newborn babies need to transition from the womb to the world, which is often referred to as the 4th trimester. During this time, babies can be put down to sleep in a crib or cot, but often they need to be held especially during unsettled periods. This need can peak at around 6-8 weeks, and gradually by around 3 months babies are usually more interested in the wider world. Until this time, parents can use swaddling (using the correct guidelines) or a sling to help give their baby they comfort need. Babies that need to be held constantly will need a longer transition period to being able to sleep independently but will still reach the same goal as every other baby. It really is true that you should try to enjoy the cuddles as before long they are running around and those moments are fleeting.

When will my baby sleep through the night?

This question is like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ yet it is still a question asked many times over! Firstly, you need to to determine what constitutes as sleeping through – some parents are happy with 4-5 hour stretches of sleep whereas others do not believe their child is sleeping through until they can sleep a 12 hour night in one go. Realistically, healthy full term babies can sleep for 6+ hour stretches at around 4-6 months, lengthening to 8+ hours between 6-9 months. Formula fed babies tend to need 1 night feed until around 6 months, and for breastfed babies this is usually until 9 months. Some babies are ready to sleep through well before before they actually do which can be due to a variety of factors such as sleep associations and routine issues. Babies won’t sleep through until they are ready and it is affected by many factors such as their size/weight, health, personality, and their routine/habits.

Do I need to fear sleep regressions?

Sleep regressions are another talking point that leave many parents dreading the lead up to each stage. Whilst they can be a very challenging time, they are only short lived usually lasting for 1-6 weeks. They key throughout is survival, support and trying to ensure unhelpful sleep habits aren’t introduced. The same applies to other sleep bumps such as illness, travel and developmental leaps.

Does sleep breed sleep?

Absolutely! A well rested baby with enough naps and an appropriate bedtime will sleep far better at night than an overtired baby. Many parents underestimate the amount of slept their child should be getting which can lead to night wakings and an unsettled baby. See my “How much sleep’ guide for more information on sleep parameters for every stage under 5 years. If you are experiencing sleep issues, one of the first things to look at is always whether your child is getting enough sleep.

Does a bath always need to be part of the bedtime routine?

Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is released as the body naturally cools down towards the end of the day, and a bath can help this process due to the sudden dip in body temperature after the bath. Whilst it can be a great start to a bedtime routine, it is not essential every night of the week. Those with children who suffer from skins conditions such as eczema are discouraged from bathing children every day, but also shouldn’t worry that this is going to have an impact on sleep. Light will always remain one of the biggest aids of melatonin production so lowering lighting up to an our before bedtime can provide enough help to get your little one to sleep.

What’s the deal with a dream feed?

Dream feeds can be a great and convenient way to get your baby to sleep for a longer stretch from when you go to bed. The basic premise is you pick up your sleeping baby and offer them another feed before settling them and heading off to bed. This is particularly useful for under 6 months, though be aware that it can cause further night wakings in older babies which defeats the purpose, especially seeing as some parents stay up later than they usually would to give the dream feed.