We all know about the “booby traps” that prevent parents from breastfeeding successfully, but what about the “snooze traps”? Those acts we’re all told to do by well-meaning sleep “experts”, trainers, family members, and doctors that may hurt our child’s sleep or have other unintended, negative consequences? Here I want to talk about what a few of them are and what they aren’t because too many families are led to believe that perfectly normal behaviours are anything but.
First let’s cover what aren’t snooze traps, despite what well-meaning other individuals might say. I call these mythical because it’s a myth that they will somehow pose problems forever more. At some point some of these behaviours may be ones you want to slowly wean off of, but there are gentle resources to help you do that (for example, see here). You can also read about how normal they are here. Without further ado, let’s go.
The Mythical Snooze Traps
Don’t nurse your baby to sleep
Many parents seem to be told that if they allow their baby to fall asleep on the breast, it will spell disaster. First, when babies are young, they need to be nursing regularly, including during sleep times. This serves to build up mom’s supply and keep baby thriving. Nursing also helps babies fall asleep and as such it can be a very helpful tool come sleep time. The main problem with this advice is that, as found in a recent review, it can have negative effects on mom’s breastmilk supply. This means mom’s risk of supply problems increases leading to supplementation and eventual early cessation of breastfeeding. Not ideal. Even at later ages when breastfeeding is fully established, the behaviour is incredibly normal and poses no long-term problems for infants or children.
Don’t rock/hold/wear your baby to sleep
Lots of books and plenty of “experts” espouse that you should always put your baby down awake. For some babies, this works great and you can put them down drowsy but not fully asleep and they’ll doze off. For others, they will hit the mattress and scream blue murder. The latter babies aren’t weird and you don’t need to force them to fall asleep on their own – eventually they will but they will take a bit more time. Babies around the world are worn while they sleep and in fact for most of human history, this was the only way babies slept – on someone. This means this is more akin to what they biologically expect and is closest to an external womb many babies require than anything else. And as any parent who has had the child that does not go down on one’s own, rocking or holding your baby to sleep (and while they sleep) is much preferable to a screaming infant.
If you don’t stop your baby waking at night now, it will continue forever
I dedicated an entire post to this topic so I’m just going to send you over there to read about how mythical this one is and how research actually does not support this.
Now, let’s get to the real snooze traps…
The Snooze Traps
You should put your child to nap in the dark/Your child needs complete dark to sleep during the day
It sounds logical right? I mean, we sleep in the dark don’t we? However, infant sleep is very different than ours: Their sleep cycles are different (going into REM sleep first followed by deep sleep, contrary to adults) and their cycles aren’t as long (an hour versus 90 minutes). They also happen to sleep a lot in the first few months meaning that they will sleep when it’s light out and although we have artificial means to make it darker, should we? Well, we don’t need to put babies in rooms or places with bright lights – being dimmed is good enough (like wraps that block out the bulk of the sun) – and in fact, having it be pitch black for naps has side effects no parent wants: It poses problems for your little one to consolidate nighttime sleep and limits the ability of the mother/father to develop a healthy daytime rhythm which protects against mental health problems. This shouldn’t be too surprising as naps are generally shorter and an infant expects to wake and play or re-engage with the world. If they are accustomed to waking to a dark room, nothing in that dark room signals that they should continue to sleep. Of course, there’s the second effect that placing a child alone in a room to sleep increases the risk of SIDS, something no parent wants.
Your child needs total silence to sleep
Many parents fall into this trap, opting for a silent house when the baby sleeps. I’m sure many of them come by it because they saw their baby rousing if they had the TV on too loud or were out and about when their infant was very young and babe was more interested in what was going on around them than sleep, but for many babies complete silence can become a problem. (Note that some children with sensory issues truly NEED silence to sleep, if you have a child like this, you will often see other sensory issues as well though.) When a baby becomes too accustomed to sleeping in silence, they can struggle to sleep when there’s any noise whatsoever. This limits a parent’s ability to, well, have a life. If you must be home and in silence every time your child needs to sleep, especially when they are young and sleeping often and both want and need to be near you, there isn’t a lot you can do and parents can grow frustrated with increased feelings of isolation and helplessness.
The problem is often the ways people use to “train” their babies to sleep through noise is to create loud, fake noises when their baby is sleeping. I frankly am baffled by this because you don’t want an infant to become a child who will sleep through fire alarms, etc. Some loud noises should wake your child. Therefore, the best way to get your child to learn to sleep is by letting them learn with normal, life noises. Carry your baby and go out for a walk or see friends. Listen to some music while they sleep. Basically, if you live your life and allow them to nap on the go, they will learn to sleep with the white noise of life. And actually, we know that some noise – especially white noise or music – is immensely helpful in inducing both infant and adult sleep. Where this becomes difficult for parents is when they struggle with shorter naps as their infant adjust to the “normal” noises. A baby needs to take some time to learn which noises are just part of their environment, and which are ones that should wake them up. During this learning period, many parents panic about the amount of sleep their little one is getting, though often babies make up for shorter naps with more frequent naps.
Your child needs to be in his/her own bed
The bedsharing issue. The first issue often brought up is to do with safety, specifically the fear that your child will suffocate. There are ways to make sure bedsharing is safe, and for those who aren’t comfortable with that, side-car cribs or co-sleepers that are right up against the bed allow for the closeness but with a bit of separation. However, you can read about the SIDS-bedsharing link here and about how to bedshare safely here. When done safely, your baby does not have an increased risk of SIDS (or any death) relative to babies in their own cot, despite recent headlines to the contrary (I recommended reading this for that issue). In fact, it is infants who are placed in their own room, separate from mom and dad, who have an increased risk of SIDS.
The other issue that often arises is the “independence” issue with bedsharing. People mistakenly believe that babies and children who share a bed will somehow never leave home, refuse to go out without parents, or some other nonsense. What does the research say? Well, it’s a bit mixed. Mixed in that either researchers find no difference between bedsharers and non-bedsharers in later life or they find that bedsharers are actually more independent than their solitary sleeping counterparts. Yes, that’s right folks: Bedsharing either has no impact on independence or it actually helps it. So you can put that myth to bed right now. (You can read a full research review on it here.)
The one thing that bedsharing is associated with is increased night wakings. Or rather, the awareness of increased wakings. No one is quite sure if solitary sleepers actually sleep through or simply fall back asleep before mom or dad notices. There is also the possibility that infants who naturally wake at night (yes, some will more than others and it’s all in the realm of “normal”) are more likely to be bedsharers because it’s easier for the entire family to get sleep.
You should put your child down to bed awake
There are two main issues pertaining to this particular snooze trap. First, if you put your child down when they are fully awake on a schedule (and not drowsy but not quite asleep), you are creating an association between the cot and play or non-sleep. I will discuss this more in the next trap so just remember the next one applies here too. Second, and the issue I want to highlight, this has a negative effect on breastfeeding, as highlighted in the Mythical Snooze Traps above (“Don’t nurse your baby to sleep”). A review of 20 years of research, including many studies on this type of advice on infant sleep, found that putting infants 6 months and under to bed awake had negative effects on breastfeeding, including diminished supply and early cessation of breastfeeding. Nursing to sleep and nursing while sleeping are some of the main ways in which one’s breastmilk supply increases and stabilizing, helping to ensure a normal, healthy nursing relationship.
What to do? Well, when a baby is younger, putting them down asleep is fine, especially if they have nursed to sleep (which does induce sleep too). The only “negative” is that when they wake they may signal if you aren’t there because they are looking for the same environment that they went to sleep with. However, outside of that, there are no negative effects to your child or their sleep from being put down while already asleep, and given that many younger babies love to fall asleep at the breast, no parent should worry about this behaviour. If, however, you want to put your baby down before they are fully asleep and you are breastfeeding, you should nurse to almost sleep and put them down when very drowsy. Some children still won’t go for this and will wake up at that point and that’s okay (and normal), but if they accept that type of going to sleep awake, having nursed them down will help minimize the risk of breastfeeding problems.
You should leave your child in bed for a set amount of time, regardless of whether or not s/he is awake
The main point here is that you’re forcing a child to remain in bed when he or she is not tired or sleeping. First, though, let me point out that the research shows that when used early, this doesn’t actually help with sleep. It’s unclear how well they work in later times. However, the unintended effects that concern me with are to do with what we know about the effects of creating the association between bed and sleep. As recommended by the National Sleep Foundations, bedrooms should not be used for play or work or other activities outside of sleep (well, and sex for adults). So what are we doing with our youngest when we force them to lie in bed when they aren’t tired? We’re creating associations between bed and play, or more broadly, bed and non-sleep. If a child is finished a nap and has woken, leaving them in the bed serves no purpose but to form that same association between bed and non-sleep, raising the risk that you will have a child with sleep onset problems later on. Just as it is recommended that if adults can’t fall asleep, they don’t lie in bed, but get up and do something relaxing but out of bed, the same recommendation holds for children.
What to do? Well, would you like it if you had to lie in bed doing nothing once you were rested and awake? Probably not. The same goes for your baby, so once your baby wakes, get them out of bed and let them play in the room, especially if they are calling for you. Whereas some parents find their little ones are quite content in a cot or on the bed, awake and looking around (and if you have a few things to do, go ahead and let them look, though again, I wouldn’t recommend leaving them too long if you don’t want the association of bed and sleep to be made), most of the time this advice is given to parents of babies who are signalling to be picked up and engaged with. I’m unclear why anyone would think that leaving a child who is awake in a cot to just lie there when they want out for a set time is doing anyone any good.
With the thousands of books out there talking about sleep, many of which are aimed at infant or toddler sleep, we are running the risk of ignoring the real research in favour of what sleep trainers want you to think. Not only do we have mythical snooze traps prevalent in our society, with families doing what they feel is right but then facing backlash and concern about “bad habits”, but the actual snooze traps run rampant and unchecked. Some of these things will work for you and you’ll wonder what the fuss is, but remember that we’re talking about promotion and when we promote something, it has to do the greatest good, not raise the risks of unintended, negative consequences.
As you head into the murky world of infant sleep, remember that what we have been doing for most of human history and what we do now are vastly different, and our newer ways may be setting us up to fail in ways we haven’t predicted. If you go in armed with knowledge you may still engage in some of these practices, but at least you’ll know what to look for if things aren’t going well and have potential solutions ready to go.
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