There are so many sleep myths out there, it's hard to choose only a few for this post, but here are some of the most common I hear that are either completely incorrect or simply misunderstood.
1. “Sleep promotes sleep”
Fact: Humans, including tiny ones, have a finite amount of sleep they need in each 24-hour period. Encouraging more sleep than needed can in fact have the opposite of the intended effect and lead to very frequent night-waking, long stretches of awake time at night, and very early rising. This is because sleep needs are being met earlier in the day or night, and then your baby needs to build up more sleep pressure. Sleep pressure can only be built by being awake, stimulated, and burning energy.
Now, this doesn’t mean we want to push our babies well beyond their limits or arbitrarily reduce daytime sleep to a certain amount. That can result in a cranky and stressed-out baby that can find it difficult to wind down. But, if you are finding it difficult to put your baby to sleep (e.g., it’s taking more than 15-20 minutes), or maybe they are waking very early or having long stretches awake in the middle of the night – you may want to consider that they need less sleep than you think.
Tip: If you are struggling with frequent waking at night and your baby is sleeping in a dark room during the day, try switching to a light room and see if this reduces the length of their nap naturally. When they wake, get them up and continue with the day and engaging in age-appropriate stimulation and activities to help them build sleep pressure for the next nap and night-time.
2. You must teach your baby to sleep, or they will never learn
Fact: Sleep is a biological function controlled by the sleep regulators of the circadian rhythm (body clock) and sleep pressure (being tired). Sleep is not something that you need to, or even can teach. Research using objective measures of sleep show sleep training (Galland et al., 2017; Hall et al., 2015; Kempler et al., 2016) does not change babies’ sleep, only their signalling behaviours and parents’ perception of their baby’s sleep. Babies that have been sleep trained, and babies that have not been sleep trained sleep the same and wake up the same number of times. Fragmented sleep is normal and is not harmful to a baby’s development.
Excessive night-waking (hourly or more) for many weeks is likely to have an underlying cause. For example, things we can control around your baby’s sleep and routines, or a medical red flag you should consider seeing a healthcare professional about to examine the root cause. Recommending sleep training as a first option for excessive night-waking is not investigating or treating the root cause, whether that’s a medical concern or simply a body clock/routine issue.
3. You must teach your baby to self soothe, or they will never learn to sleep independently.
Fact: Babies are developmentally incapable of self-soothing or regulating their emotions, they rely on their caregivers to do this with and for them. An infant, or even toddler, brain does not have the necessary parts or ability to self-regulate on its own. This skill is not fully developed until adulthood (Zimmerman & Iwanski, 2014). Just like we wouldn’t try to teach or expect a 6-month-old to speak in full sentences, we can’t expect them to exercise an ability they simply do not have. What looks like self-soothing in sleep trained babies, is conditioning of behaviour, not the learned skill of emotion regulation. Research about how emotion regulation development does occur shows it is through caregiver responsiveness and coregulation (Raby et al., 2014; Davidov & Grusec, 2006). No evidence supports the idea or claim that a lack of or limiting responsiveness or being left alone in distress is conducive to the development of healthy independence or emotion regulation skills.
4. Feeding, rocking, or otherwise supporting a baby to sleep is a “bad habit” or a “sleep crutch”
Fact: There are no “bad habits” when it comes to supporting your baby to sleep. The best way to support a baby to sleep is the way that works best for the parent and the baby in that moment. Babies are capable of learning new ways to go to sleep if or when an old way no longer works for one or both parties. You do not need to stop a method of helping your baby to sleep out of fear they will always need it or because it relies on you. You didn’t make your baby dependent on you; they are born that way and are that way for very good reason. Many babies all around the world are supported to sleep every day and go on to become healthy and independent sleepers when they are developmentally ready. Far from hindering this skill growth, you are supporting it by being responsive (Davidov & Grusec, 2006).
Your options for sleep challenges are not cry-it-out or wait it out, though. There are many ways we can optimise everyone's sleep and well-being while parenting responsively and intuitively. See my instagram for free daily resources, tips, and reassurance, and sign up from the landing page to receive your free guide "How To Survive Sleep Regressions". If you need more personalised support, do not hesitate to get in touch via the contact form, book a single or sleep support package consult, or book a free discovery call