Wednesday 20 September 2017

Nine common sleep myths busted - some commonly held beliefs may do more harm than good

When you're desperate for your child to sleep, you'll try anything, but some commonly held beliefs may do more harm than good, writes sleep expert Lucy Wolfe

Baby in crib
Baby in crib

There is so much information out there on sleep. I contribute to this overload I know, but hope that it is helpful, reassuring and appropriate to hear what may or may not be true. It may be useful to think of sleep as counterintuitive because most things you think must be true are not. Here are some common sleep myths exposed:

1 I will spoil my baby if I always pick them up and hold them. Not true, not even close. It is impossible to spoil a young child, teaching them to feel safe and loved; to have predictable responses to their needs is our primary task. Very young babies need a lot of contact from the parent, so provide this as much as they need and, behind the scenes, work on helping them to need you less when they are falling asleep at bedtime.

2 If I limit daytime sleep then they will sleep better by night. Not true. Daytime sleep exists separately to night-time sleep - although they can have an impact on each other, rarely does limiting daytime sleep have a positive impact on night time. Your child will have an individual day and night-time sleep quota. Compromising one to improve the other can actually make night-time sleep worse. Some families will report that removing or limiting day sleep helped initially, but within 7-14 days, things deteriorated further. The more day sleep your child achieves at the right balance for their age, the higher their chance of having a more restful night sleep.

3 The later I keep them up, the later they will wake. Although this sounds reasonable, it is rarely the case - most children wake around the same time, regardless of the time that they go asleep at bedtime. Actually, the earlier they achieve sleep at bedtime, the higher the chances of them sleeping more than 11 hours - and without your intervention, overnight sleep increases exponentially. Many families worry that if they observe an early bedtime then they will wake even earlier, but this would only happen initially, and then longer, deeper sleep emerges. We aim for a wake time between 6am-7.30am in the main.

4 Some children just don't need as much sleep. Very few children need much less than the average amount of sleep as per their age group. Just because they fight sleep or appear to need less sleep, don't be fooled. We aim for most children from 4 months-12 months to need 12-16 hours; 1-2 years to need 11-14 hours; and 3-5 years to need 10-13 hours (all inclusive of naps when age-relevant). Most children that seem to fight sleep are actually in a cumulative state of over- tiredness, with potentially irregular wake times, naps attempted when already overtired and a bedtime process that starts too late. Learning to read their language for sleep - brief eye rubs and yawns rather than cranky and unreasonable behaviour - is a good place to start.

5 The more exercise they get in the day, the better they will sleep. Whilst outside activity is incredibly significant, on its own, it will not enable better sleep. I often meet families who are "running the legs" off their child by day in an effort to help them sleep, but this won't translate unless positive sleep practises exist in tandem with the exercise provided. Aim for at least one hour a day of outside activity. Replace screen time with green time, regardless of the weather. Expose your child to bright and natural light to regulate sleeping patterns and to ensure you are on the right time-balance per age and are encouraging sleep with reduced parental intervention, both at bedtime and through the night.

6 Feeding up my baby before bedtime will help them sleep longer. Stacking up the calories in advance of sleep time won't necessarily improve your child's sleep tendency. Ensuring that they are well fed and getting the correct amounts of milk and solid food throughout the course of the day is more important than what happens in the last hour of bedtime. Providing cereal-based foods after their dinner won't "fill them up" - it may make going asleep challenging due to discomfort. Similarly, introducing formula over breast milk may not be the magic bullet either. In fact, milk too close to bedtime can be the reason why your child wakes so frequently overnight. Have a balanced approach to feeding and understand that the brain needs to sleep first and then the stomach can follow, but if your child does not have the ability to return to sleep without a feed, then all the extra calories are just that.

7 Playing music will help your baby sleep longer. We all know that music can certainly help calm a baby but playing music or white noise when your baby is falling asleep may also be the reason why they waken again. Ideally, you should use music or white noise in one of two ways - turning it on when they fall asleep, and leaving it on for the rest of the sleep period; or turning it off before they actually go to sleep so that the brain does not search for this activity each time they transition through their sleep phases.

8 I need to create a difference for day and nighttime sleep. Not true. At the start of life, it can be important to help your baby learn the difference between night and day, as they can easily get the two confused. However, once your baby is 10-12 weeks old, this confusion is rarely a problem as their body is producing the sleep hormone. At this point, the aim is to create a sleep environment for each day and night-time sleep, to help promote good-quality and lengthy sleep durations. It would be very unusual for a child to treat a nap as bedtime and to sleep 11 hours from noon, their hormone system helps with that, but if the room is too bright, then the nap may be shortened, so it is worth creating a dark space for day sleep to make sure that it can be as long as needed.

9 We need to help our child to sleep through noise. As much as I'd like this one to be true, we need to appreciate that the skill to sleep through any noise diminishes as your baby gets older. By the time they are 4-6 months of age, the character of their sleep has locked into place and is very similar to adult sleep; besides the fact that they need more sleep and dream more than we do. To that end, anything that would disturb your sleep will potentially affect their sleep - too-loud and sudden noises specifically. But even someone entering a room can make a person wakeful, so be careful, and although I don't suggest tiptoeing about, I do suggest trying to take whatever measures necessary, within reason, to ensure that once they go to sleep, they stay asleep for as long as required.

Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant, author of 'The Baby Sleep Solution' and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep-consulting practice - with her 98pc-effective approach for sleep, she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families nationwode.

See sleepmatters.ie t: 087 2683584 or

e: lucy@sleepmatters.ie

'The Baby Sleep Solution' is available online and in all bookstores

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