6 Baby Sleep Myths—Busted
If you're a parent, you already know there's a tremendous amount of information out there about baby sleep—not to mention sleep in general.
When new parents go looking for help on getting their babies, children, (and, consequentially, themselves) more sleep, it’s not lack of information that’s the problem.
The problem is too much information. Plus, a lot of the information out there is contradictory—and a whole lot of it is just plain misinformation.
A Sleep Scientist's Quest for Answers
When our founder, Dr. Sofia Axelrod, had her first child, she spent a lot of time reading articles for new parents about baby sleep. The one big disconnect she found almost immediately was how little of the information out there was backed up by science. A lot of it is old adages, and just plain opinions, repeated so often they sound like facts.
Instead of the internet, Dr. Axelrod turned to her work in a Nobel-Prize winning sleep research lab. What she learned there became her guide for managing her children’s sleep schedule. It’s these findings that became the basis of Kulala, as well as Dr. Axelrod’s breakthrough book, How Babies Sleep.
The biggest thing she likes to share when it comes to information on sleep is that we should always look to the science. Only facts and research can tell us whether a commonly-repeated adage on sleep is true or false.
So today we’re sharing 6 of the most commonly-repeated sleep myths we hear as new parents, going into why they’re not true, and sharing what scientific-based research shows instead.
Myth 1: “All babies are different, so all babies will have different sleeping habits.”
It is true that all babies are different—any parent of two or more children can tell you that!
But that doesn’t mean that you should throw your hands up when you notice variations among their sleep patterns, and assume that what helped one child sleep won’t help another.
One inescapable fact: light affects all humans in the same way. So planning your child’s sleep routine around light exposure (and lack thereof) and their natural circadian rhythms will help ALL children sleep better. (More on light and circadian rhythm below).
Myth 2️: “Sleep begets sleep.”
Who hasn’t heard this one? This leads parents to think that if their child sleeps more at night, it will lead to longer naps—and vice versa.
Babies and toddlers only sleep for a certain amount of time, on average, in a twenty-four hour period. For averages by age, take a look at our handy chart below.
So for example, if your child is 9 months old, the average total amount of sleep they need in a twenty-four hour period is 13 hours. The ideal schedule has them sleeping 11 hours at night, with a 2 hour nap during the day. If your child ends up taking a 3 hour nap, you should expect their nighttime sleep to shorten by an hour—so they’ll likely sleep only 10 hours that night. Babies only have so much sleep in them. Expecting a longer stretch of sleep, either at night or during a nap, to make them sleep more the next time they go down just doesn’t make sense.
The bottom line: if babies and toddlers sleep too much during the day, they WILL sleep less at night. Daytime sleep controls nighttime sleep!
And as setting the right nighttime / daytime schedule for your little one can be confusing for many parents, we created an app just so you always know what the right nap and sleep schedule is for your child. Learn more here.
Myth 3: “Imposing a routine on babies is unhealthy.”
We’ve heard the well-meaning advice (as well as some less well-meaning advice) telling us that it’s not “natural” to create a schedule for a young baby.
Everything from “your baby is too young for that,” to “creating a schedule for your baby is selfish because it only benefits you” (yes, I have been told that—by another mom!)
Scientific research shows us this is simply untrue.
Yes, schedules benefit us as parents, which in turn benefits the entire family—but that’s not the only reason they’re valuable.
By establishing a sleeping and eating routine for our babies, we’re helping them understand and efficiently respond to feelings of fatigue and hunger. When a baby has a well-ingrained routine, they know what to expect at certain times of day. If they cry because their needs are not met—say dinner is delayed for an hour, or you’re out and their nap is delayed—you’re not left wondering what it is they need. At mealtime, your baby wants to eat; at naptime, your baby wants to sleep!
The bottom line here: Routine gives babies the structure they need to be healthier and happier. (And healthier and happier parents are good for your baby, too!)
Myth 4️: “Light doesn’t matter.”
It does! Light is very important when it comes to sleep, children’s sleep in particular.
A brief science lesson:
Light is made up of different wavelengths that correspond to different colors. In the morning, sunlight has a higher proportion of blue light, signaling our bodies it’s time to wake up. While in the evening, the blue light decreases as the amount of red light rises (which is why sunsets have pink, orange, or red light), telling our bodies it’s time to get ready for sleep.
This is how circadian rhythm works.
Melatonin, the hormone released at night that regulates our sleep, has been shown to decrease in the presence of blue light. Artificial lights, like incandescent lightbulbs and the light from TVs, tablets, and smartphones, all release some amount of blue light. So it stands to reason to help us sleep, we need to eliminate blue light from our sleep environments.
The same is even more true for our children. Science has shown that young children are even more effected by the disruptions caused by blue light. So in order to avoid disrupting your children’s sleep, you should do your best to eliminate all blue light from their environment during nighttime and naptime.
How do you do this? You need a few things.
- The first is high-quality blackout shades. These block out any sunlight during naptime, or potentially in the evenings during the summer, or in mornings, depending on where you live and how late you want your children sleep.
- The second is a red light lamp. Unlike blue light, red light does not disrupt melatonin production, which means it doesn’t disturb our circadian rhythms, or your children’s sleep. Keeping a red light in your child’s bedroom means if you need to turn the light on at some point during the night, it won't wake them. Or if they're already awake, they’ll be able to get back to sleep more easily, having only the red light on.
(The Kulala Baby Sleep Lamp is a great option for red light. It’s also a beautifully designed lamp that will look great in any children’s bedroom.)
Myth 5: “Keeping baby awake is unhealthy.”
When you’re trying to create a routine for your child, like we discussed above, you may be in the process of trying to move back their naptimes or bedtimes. This will involve keeping them awake a little longer than they’re used to. It may require you to actively keep them up by playing with them, talking to them, or otherwise distracting them when they try and drift off.
Some people claim this is harmful to your baby. But the fact is, there’s no scientific research to back up this statement.
There is absolutely no harm in slightly stretching babies’ awake times to get them into a good sleep routine.
Myth 6️: “Never wake a sleeping baby.”
How many times has your mother, your mother-in-law, or a total stranger said this to you?
I personally have lost track.
And we understand how difficult it can be—your baby is finally asleep! They’re sleeping well! Why would you want to wake them up?
This goes back to Myth # 2, “Sleep begets sleep.” We’ve already shown how that one is untrue—that if your child takes a longer nap than usual, that will mean they’ll go to sleep later, or not sleep as late in the morning. And if you’re trying to get your child on a schedule, this may not be ideal for you.
There’s nothing wrong with waking baby up if her nap is going too long, and you want her to sleep longer at night. It doesn’t harm them in any way, and in can in fact be beneficial, as we’ve already shown earlier, because routines benefit parents and children.
Simply gently ease them awake—they may be drowsy, so cuddle them for a bit, but eventually they should get used to their new wake-up times so waking them up should be unnecessary.
So that’s it: the 6 most common baby sleep myths we’ve heard, and why they’re myths and not facts.
Are there any other baby sleep myths you've heard out there? Any questions you have on any of these topics? Let us know on Instagram!