Keep Your Baby Awake During The Day…And Other Sleep “Advice”

“Keep your baby awake as much as possible during the day so that he sleeps at night.”

Have you heard this one? Perhaps you’ve tried it, hoping that somehow you could manipulate that tiny person into a more desirable sleep schedule. In the name of getting more sleep at night, errant doctors and well-meaning (ill-informed) folks pass this idea along of playing with and overstimulating baby, keeping baby awake as much as possible during the day. Please. PLEASE. Don’t. Just don’t do this. Put down that no good, horrible, bad advice and back away, slowly.

Babies brains and bodies grow when they sleep. Why deprive them? Babies, especially newborns, are like cats. They sleep A LOT. Babies are also like babies. They wake up at night. Keeping a baby awake unnecessarily during the day is not going to keep the baby from waking up at night. Sleep begets sleep. The more sleep your baby gets, when your baby needs it, the more your baby will be able to get better sleep.

Another incredibly sensible reason NOT to keep your baby awake is that you will most likely end up with a very fussy baby. A lot of crying happens when a baby is tired. I think it is safe to say for everyone’s sanity, including the new mother recovering from childbirth, that no one wants to have a fussier-than-needs-to-be baby on their hands.

Real Baby Sleep Advice

Well, then, what to do? Since you’re sleep deprived and don’t have time to read through a bunch of books, I’ll pass along the most helpful tip I have ever come across on managing baby sleep. I literally read eight different books dedicated to baby sleep when my first was a baby. I’ve also read numerous books based on general baby care and routine recommendations. I have had countless conversations about sleep with all my mom friends. I had a postpartum doula that is an infant care specialist teach me some of her tricks. I have had numerous sleep consultations with a child therapist who has her own, researched based approach to sleep solutions. So, while I am not an expert, I have come across a serious amount of legitimate information. And as I’ve sorted through it all and experimented with various ideas, I have found that this one idea has been the most reliable and most helpful:

Watch the clock.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but trust me I am not going to give you a schedule of when you should be putting your baby down for naps and when you should be getting your baby up. I’ll leave that to baby expert books that you probably already have.

Instead, what I think happens most often is parents wait until they recognize sleep cues in their baby before making moves to put the baby down for a nap. Reasonable enough. And this does work sometimes. But what probably happens more often is that the optimal sleep window has already passed by the time it is obvious that baby needs to sleep. In short, by the time you notice tiredness, it is already too late. You’re baby is over-tired. Getting baby down for nap will be harder, and baby’s nap will probably not be the best. We tend to underestimate how frequently baby needs to be put down.

So, when I say watch the clock, I mean look at what time it is when your baby wakes up in the morning. Do not keep your baby up longer than 90 minutes beyond that time. Look at the clock when your baby wakes up from her nap. Do not keep your baby up longer than 90 minutes beyond that time. Do this all day.

I remember my doula telling me newborns should not be awake for more than 90 minutes at a stretch. Okay, so this was easy to follow in the beginning. Baby naturally slept easily within that window. What I didn’t realize is that this rule can last a really long time. As in, most of the first year. Your baby may need to keep this short awake window for nine months, maybe longer.

I personally found that my baby couldn’t be up for more than an hour first thing in the morning. I put her down for her first nap of the day within an hour of waking. Once she woke from that first nap, I put her down again within an hour and a half. And repeat. For three or four naps a day until baby was down for the “night.” I would always err on putting baby down too early rather than too late. If baby doesn’t go down, you try again in ten or more minutes, depending on what your intuition is telling you about your baby’s readiness for sleep. Trust me, there were a whole bunch of times I was convinced she would not go to sleep because she didn’t look tired, but she always did! I can tell you I almost ALWAYS waited until it was too late with my first (once he exited the sleepy newborn phase). I just never caught his sleep cues until they were really obvious, and by then it was too late.

This approach worked like a charm with baby number two. No, she wasn’t on a schedule, which would have been nice. I did attempt that, but she wasn’t interested in following my efforts. But she was very happy and very well rested. And I also never felt like I was left guessing when she was going to need to take a nap.

Note: If your baby is exhibiting sleep cues before the full 90 minutes, do NOT wait until the time span on the clock is up. Get to work putting your baby down. The time span is just a tool to help you stay on top of your baby’s sleep needs. Clearly, use your observation skills and intuition in conjunction with this concept.

The amount of naps babies take drop as they get older, so eventually towards the later part of the day your baby will be able to be up longer before bedtime. The evening awake period can stretch a little longer between sleep first, before the rest of the day changes to a longer span, likely to two hours between morning and first nap and two hours between morning nap and afternoon nap.

Of course every baby is different and you need to tailor your efforts to what works for you and your baby. In the event you haven’t tried this approach and you feel that you are struggling with how to manage your baby’s sleep needs throughout the day, perhaps give this idea a try. Let me know if it helps!

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2 thoughts on “Keep Your Baby Awake During The Day…And Other Sleep “Advice”

  1. I found you through Dianna Harnist, and I have to say, this is my little girl Avonlea to a tee. I was getting comments from well-meaning friends and neighbors and doctors, telling me she was sleeping too much during the day, but she was an absolute pill otherwise! She is slowly moving away from that pattern, but for several months I thought that maybe she was abnormal because she would sleep so much. Thanks for writing this to show that she’s not crazy, and neither am I!

    • Avonlea is a beautiful name! I love it. I know people know that babies sleep a lot, but I think the vast majority of people don’t realize just how much and/or how often babies need to sleep. Even doctors! As my postpartum doula says, “Doctors are for medical needs, not baby care.” I think what people hear is stuff about babies napping for a couple hours at a time, so they don’t need to be going down so often, but during that first half of the year their naps aren’t typically really long, and can be all over the place, from 15 minutes sometimes, to 30-45 minutes or perhaps 90 minutes. Sometimes a couple hours, but not necessarily on a dependable, consistent basis. They need that awake time to be short.

      My first had a really pleasant temperament, but ended up crying quite a bit in the first year and I knew it was from tiredness/sleep debt. I just felt at a loss as to what to do about it. I put him down regularly, but probably not soon enough since I always waited for sleep cues. Then his naps were super short, 30-45 minutes. He was more of a mess then he needed to be. I wish I had known the longer term need for this short awake period/frequency in sleeping for babies.

      This is truly the number one piece of sleep advice I wish all new moms had from the beginning. It is so helpful and I would guess that it applies to almost all babies. It certainly doesn’t hurt to try, whereas I believe depriving a baby of much needed sleep can be harmful in all kinds of ways.

      I have a couple other posts on sleep if you’re interested, and will be adding more in the future!

      Thanks for reading!

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