Naps, Nights & Sleep Props: How they impact each other.
I recently asked on Facebook if you would rather your baby:
A. Slept through the night
B. Had long and consistent naps
C. Fell asleep independently
I had a large response with many choosing:
D. All of the above! Ha ha!!
I asked this question because the understanding of how these all work together is often unknown. I know with my first child (pre Sleep Consultant years) I had no idea. In most cases, sleep disturbances that a family are experiencing include all 3 of these. Sometimes though we do not know that some of these are even disturbances. For example, parents might be frustrated because their baby wakes up every hour or two all night long but they report baby falls asleep quickly and easily with rocking. Another example is when parents are frustrated because baby does wake up frequently in the night but states naps are not a problem even though they are 30-45 minutes because baby wakes up happy!
These are tricky situations because although naps, nights and how a baby falls asleep all directly impact each other sometimes they are not ALL a problem for the family. I want to start off with talking about how and when sleep disturbances usually first present because it is important to know that it WASN’T you who caused them!
The 4 Month Sleep Shift (Regression)
For the first couple of months of your baby’s life they often wake frequently around the clock to feed (normal), sleep off and on for some long and some shorter periods in a 24 hour day (normal) and fall asleep during feeds or with parents (normal). Notice how the brackets say NORMAL… this is because it is normal for newborns to do all of the above. They were just in your womb and now it is our job to help them transition from womb to world. Some babies drift off to sleep on their own while others need help from mom and dad. I purposely chose a photo for this blog which shows how my baby likes to fall asleep at this time.... in my arms on my shoulder! My advice for those first couple of months… do what works! You are tired enough and don’t need any unrealistic expectations about sleep floating around in your world. This is also why it is suggested to wait until at least 4 months before sleep coaching.
Around 3 months sleep starts to get harder. You may notice that your baby needs more help falling asleep, might wake up after you put them down, takes shorter naps overall and may wake more at night. This is due to their sleep cycles maturing! Although hard, this is such an amazing developmental milestone. Go baby Go! Sleep is advancing in so many ways for your baby which includes the production of their own sleep hormones (huge change) as well as the maturation of deep sleep, light sleep and partial awakenings.
The new partial awakenings at the end of the sleep cycle are what disrupt sleep the most. The purpose of them is to protect us as individuals (adults have them too!). We fall asleep at a point where we are safe and the body takes note of everything in our environment at that time. At the end of the sleep cycle our body has a partial awakening so that it can assess the environment to make sure everything is the same as when we fell asleep. This is how we protect ourselves because if anything was different our brain would alert the body to fully awaken so that we can get that consistency and safe environment back! Here is an example of how this causes sleep disruptions for our little ones:
Your baby falls asleep while being rocked and once they seem really asleep we put them down in their sleep space. In about 30-45 minutes they are going to experience their partial awakening where the body is going to be comparing that environment to the one when they fell asleep. When they fell asleep they were in your arms (smell, warmth) with motion (rocking) but now when they assess their environment you won’t be there and they will be still. This is going to trigger the body to fully awaken to further investigate why there is changes to make sure they are not in danger. This will in turn make them call out for you because you are their safe person. You go into baby and find that the quickest way to put them back to sleep often includes how they fell asleep at the beginning of that sleep period.
So, as you can see however a baby falls asleep at the beginning of a nap and at bedtime (beginning of the night) will be what the body compares the environment too. We see frequent night wakings above what is average and constant short naps because naturally the body is responding to a change in the environment. Your baby is NOT bad or spoiled… this is actually a good sign! If your baby falls asleep with props and sleeps great then that is a bonus!
** Think about this: you fall asleep in your bed with your pillow and wake up on the middle of the kitchen floor! You will fully awaken to figure out how you got there and you will most likely want your own bed and pillow back. Exactly the same thing your baby is going through except your bed and pillow are your props!
Almost all families fall into sleep issues at one point but the most common comment I hear is “My baby slept great as a newborn and around 3 or 4 months it all went downhill and never really got better.” The above changes are to blame. It happens so fast that we begin to try anything that works to put them to sleep now that things seem to be harder. We blame it on gas, teething, illness, ect and after a few short days those props have set in and now your baby will only fall asleep with a specific action or series of actions.
You can read more on the 4 month sleep shift here.
How naps, nights and falling asleep work together
As you can see from above when a baby falls asleep with a prop they usually don’t know how to go back to sleep on their own after waking up after 1 sleep cycle. This directly impacts naps because after 1 sleep cycle your baby is waking up. I do try to encourage parents that if this is common to go to your baby right away and try for 15 minutes to put them back to sleep using whatever method works which is probably how they fell asleep at the beginning of the nap. This is how you can get some more daytime sleep happening. The problem with this is that the sleep drive during the day is not that high. Yes, babies need naps but once they sleep for 30-45 minutes that sleep drive is reduced and it can be very hard to put them back to sleep. Your baby might wake up happy or grouchy but either way that cat nap was not enough sleep if all their naps tend to be this way.
Falling asleep with a prop at bedtime has the same effect as naps except baby will usually fall back asleep when the prop is reintroduced because sleep drive is high at night. Your baby will most likely wake up after each sleep cycle or if the body is really tired we will see a baby who wakes up every 2 hours. This is because after 1 cycle the body forces itself to go into the next sleep cycle but then we see the wake up. Remember, this is because the body is detecting a change in the environment and so they need help going back to sleep.
Now, sleep is a system of balance in a 24 hour period. This is how it all fits together because next to partial awakenings another cause of short naps and frequent night wakings is when a baby is overtired. We are always trying to balance daytime sleep and nighttime sleep so that they can both be positive and restorative. When a baby is always cat napping then even if they appear happy they are not getting restorative naps during the day. This means that come bedtime they are already a little overtired and now we are going to put them down with their sleep prop that will most likely lead to more frequent night wakings. Now, the sleep debt is adding up and your baby will actually wake up in the morning a little on the tired side from a lack of consolidated sleep hours (yes, even if they appear happy). Your baby will now go into the first nap overtired which alone can cause a short nap and this will also reinforce needing the sleep prop because they will be fighting sleep more due to being overtired.
AHHHHH….. a vicious cycle!
To put it in short form:
Sleep prop --> frequent night wakings --> baby being tired in morning --> needing the prop for naps --> naps only being 1 sleep cycle --> overtired baby from no long naps --> need the prop for bedtime…. Repeat.
My tips to stop the cycle:
1. Know that “sleeping through the night” is different for each family so first identify what you want your normal to be or find what normal averages are! A baby won’t "sleep through the night" if they need feeds and many babies up to 9-12 months still have a feed.
2. Make sure your timing of naps and bedtime are appropriate. If on 2+ naps use healthy wake times to make sure your baby is not under tired or overtired from timing! If on 1 nap have more set times so the body can create a pattern each day of when it should be sleeping. Sometimes sleep will improve if you have the right timing (especially eliminating a bedtime that is too late)! Check out wake times here.
4. Once you have done the above and you know that the sleep props and partial awakenings are what is negatively impacting sleep then you can start with sleep coaching to move away from them. Choose a method that YOU feel comfortable with. You are the one implementing it and so if you feel confident and feel it is the right choice your baby will feed off of those emotions.
5. Start coaching at bedtime only. I really prefer to do this because I like to eliminate as much stress as possible. Making changes will be hard because nobody likes change. Remember, how your baby falls asleep at bedtime will be what the body compares to at each and every night waking. By starting here the body can naturally reduce night wakings because it will know how to fall back asleep if they do not need something else (feed, bum change, illness).
6. You are starting at bedtime which means throughout the night do what works the fastest to put them back to sleep. Their body is already learning something new at bedtime so save the stress and see how they do after 3-5 nights of coaching. If nights do not improve after your baby can fall asleep great on their own at bedtime then you can look into some options.
7. Start with naps once they are falling asleep well at bedtime. I like to preserve naps while night coaching so that your baby is not overtired at bedtime. Being overtired makes everything harder! Once bedtimes are better then you can feel confident that your baby knows what to do and can adapt quicker for naps. I also do this because sleep drive is lower for naps and so if we start coaching at naps first then more than likely your baby will use up their entire sleep drive protesting the change and no naps will happen. At night the body is ready for sleep.
8. If you feel like you don’t know where to start then ask for help! That is why I am here!! If you don’t feel ready to make changes then don’t start! Everyone needs to feel ready!