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When I was a new mom, I pored over books and blogs, and talked to all my mom friends looking for “answers” to questions about my baby’s sleep schedule. I’ve since learned from my experience as a parent and my training as a sleep consultant that there are some pretty big myths circulating. But when you’re wading through advice it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction (especially if you’re exhausted from lack of sleep!)
Here are some of the baby sleep myths I’d like to bust, once and for all:
1. Feeding your baby more will help him sleep longer.
Newborns need to eat frequently – sometimes as often as every hour. This is normal. Their tummies are tiny, milk is digested quickly, and they are growing like crazy, which adds up to lots of feedings, night and day.
It seems somewhat logical that if you feed a baby more (for instance, by giving him a big bottle or mixing in rice cereal) that he would sleep longer, but this is simply not true. Babies sleep for longer stretches when they are developmentally ready to do so (although they often need assistance learning this skill – see myth #3). Over-filling their tummies will not make that happen faster.
2. Your baby will naturally give up night feedings when he or she is ready.
Again, the idea is that when babies wake at night, it is always due to hunger. However, for many babies, eating at night becomes a learned habit.
If I eat a bowl of ice cream at 9pm every night while watching TV, my body will learn to feel hungry at that time. Babies are the same way.
Most infants past the age of 6 months are ready to go pretty long stretches at night without a feeding – 10 or 12 hours. But they may not give up their nighttime eating habit without a little nudge. It’s fairly easy to wean your baby from these feedings by gradually reducing the number of ounces in the bottle or the number of minutes you’re nursing (always check with your pediatrician first). Your baby will adjust by consuming extra calories during the day.
3. Your baby will figure out how to sleep on his own.
This is similar to myth #2. Some babies do seem to figure out how to sleep on their own, just like some kids hop on a bike and start pedaling away on the first try. Many babies, though, need some encouragement. Sleeping is a natural state, but going to sleep is a skill – a skill that comes more easily to some than others.
If your baby is still waking regularly in the night by the time he is about 6 months old, consider some gentle sleep coaching strategies (see myth #4). You may think it will get easier as he gets older, but generally the opposite is true.
4. “Cry it out” is the only way to help your child learn to sleep
In the world of infant sleep, “sleep training” is often equated with “crying it out” – i.e., putting your baby in her bed, leaving the room, and letting her cry until she goes sleep.
Many parents simply can’t stomach leaving their babies alone to cry, though, and no sleep coaching method is going to work if you don’t do it consistently.
The good news is that there ARE alternatives that are just as effective – alternatives that enable you to be present to comfort and sooth your baby. As your baby’s sleep skills improve, you can gradually reduce the amount of reassurance you provide.
5. Your baby should be on a predictable nap schedule.
Some sleep books suggest that by the time your baby is 3 or 4 months old, his naps will have taken shape. While this may be true for a few lucky moms, most babies this young still have great variation in their naps from day to day.
If your little one is under 6 months old and his naps are all over the place, don’t worry! What’s most important at this age is to observe his sleepy signals and get him to sleep frequently. Most young babies can’t stay awake more than 90 minutes to 2 hours, sometimes even less, without becoming over-stimulated and over-tired. Even older babies have fairly short “awake windows” of 2 or possibly 3 hours.
Sleep is so important to your baby’s health and well-being – and yours! Arm yourself with solid information, be prepared for the inevitable shifts that come along with each stage of your baby’s incredible development, and gently work to establish healthy sleep habits. These healthy sleep habits will serve you both well for years to come!