I’ll say it: What we believe to be true about babies’ and toddlers’ sleep, and the real deal about children’s rest, are often very (very!) different! From your mother-in-law’s advice about how she managed sleep 40 years ago to the overwhelming mass of information available online, we are bombarded with (often contradictory) information about kids’ sleep. This creates a lot of confusion about what your child’s sleep patterns mean, and how to manage them.
Here are five misconceptions about children’s sleep, and the real deal about the rest your baby or toddler needs:
- A later bedtime will make your child sleep in: In general, this is very untrue! Research shows that children who go to bed well-rested – i.e. before they become overtired and overstimulated – have fewer night wakings and sleep later in the morning. It may sound counterintuitive at first read, but then makes absolute sense when you consider how much you toss and turn if you’ve had an overly-busy day and gone to bed too late. An early bedtime = a better night’s rest.
- If your child doesn’t fall asleep easily at bedtime, it’s because he’s not tired enough: This is very rarely the case. Unfortunately, many parents mistake their child’s overtired cues for signs that they are not tired enough, and decide to put them to bed even later, thinking they will fall asleep more quickly. If you are a parent who has tried this, you can probably attest to the fact that it rarely works, and probably resulted in a much more difficult bedtime (and perhaps an even earlier morning!) for your whole family. This is because a child will fall asleep more quickly and easily when put to bed early, but will appear very stimulated and “wired” if put to bed too late and already overtired.
- Children will get as much sleep as they need: For newborns, this is often the case, but then your baby may throw you a curve ball! Newborns will, in the first 2-3 months, often sleep anywhere and everywhere. However, at around the 14-16 week mark, many babies have developed dependencies on various sleep “props” (soothers, feeding to sleep, rocking, etc.) and will suddenly not be able to fall asleep without the assistance of something. In this case, a sleep association is in place and your child may no longer be getting all the sleep they truly need if their prop is not in place at all times (i.e. they are up multiple times at night and taking only very short naps, as they are constantly waking in light stages of sleep looking for their prop to help them drift back to sleep).
- Cutting naps will result in better nighttime sleep: Noooooo! Dropping naps too early is much more likely to be detrimental to your child’s nighttime sleep than to get her sleeping through the night. If you are like many moms who have been trolling the internet, desperate for sleep help, you know this is because sleep begets sleep (see #1 and #2!). The better rested your baby is, the better she will sleep at night. In rare cases, and only once your child is of an appropriate age (3-4 years), cutting the daytime nap may help to solve nighttime issues that have popped up. However, this is generally only the case for preschoolers who have been otherwise-amazing sleepers and who have, suddenly, for at least several weeks, been having nighttime sleep issues. Only then may the answer be cutting a daytime nap. Otherwise, it is likely an issue of a milestone or other developmental situation that will pass and see your child returning to great sleep if you continue her restorative daytime sleeps!
- Children “outgrow” all sleep difficulties: A mom recently informed me of a method of sleep coaching called “wait it out.” The method’s name is very self-explanatory: you simply wait out sleepless nights and napless days as long as it takes (be that two, three, four, eight years) and, eventually, your child’s sleep will improve. I see two fundamental issues with this: One, even if it were true in all cases, it means that neither your child nor you are getting proper sleep for upwards of several years and; Two, most sleep difficulties require behavioural changes on the part of the parent or the child (or both) in order to be resolved. While issues like bed-wetting might resolve themselves over time, issues like sleep dependencies (i.e. a child being unable to go to sleep or return to sleep without intervention by mom or dad) often require some kind of behavioural change before they disappear and allow your whole family to get amazing, healthy rest.