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

(I recently moved to Domestic Confessions! Find me there!)

“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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4 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!

  2. What really breaks my heart is mothers who don’t let their children – not just babies – get enough sleep clear through grade school. Being a teacher and a mother, I know how that sleep deprivation affects their IQ, their attention span, and their general well-being. Ever child is different, but I could safely say that up to 6 or 7, they can take a 60 min nap after lunch and go to bed at 7 (which ends up being 7:30-7:45).
    Young children, if they are healthy, are going to wake up at the crack of dawn regardless of when they’ve been put to bed, and they need to wake up by 7 or 8 anyway because their blood sugar drops.
    I would guestimate from my experience, that over half of our primary grade children go to bed AFTER 10, wake up just in time to get to school either skipping breakfast or having something sugary and fast, like toaster tarts or cereal. (Then they get labeled ADD or ADHD and get put on drugs.)
    Sometimes, the mother is just plain lazy, but most of the time there is a good reason – the Mom was raised that way herself – so that is the only picture she has; she is an overwhelmed single mom that is either working or sleeping, and always tired, and depends on an older sib to help with the kids; or she just doesn’t understand the importance and has never seen how different, healthy and happy, kids are when they get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast on time.
    My own mom taught my two younger brothers’ wives how to be mothers and homemakers – and they were eager to learn and are awesome mothers.
    My own daughter will be 17 in July. We often talk about what babies and children need, how to make a good home and all that means. How to keep a peaceful and happy home despite what life throws at you, like my daughter and foster son and I have done. (I lost my legs and my husband, her dad, when she was 6.)
    She says I have to be around to help her when she has her own home, though. Such a nice thing to hear from your teenage daughter!

    • I hear you on all of this! So, so often when I am around unpleasant children (crying, whining, out of control, bratty, hyper, etc.), usually my first thought is, “They don’t/didn’t get enough sleep,” or “They’ve eaten too much sugar/haven’t eaten a decent meal.” I feel like so many burdens/ill-behaviors that parents have to deal with in their children stem more from lack of sleep and inadequate diets than anything else. It takes very intentional work to provide a peaceful, structured life for kids, but they need it so much. I love routines, I love how kids thrive on them, and I love the predictability it gives everyone. Creating that kind of environment, with good sleep and a good diet takes a lot of effort and intention, and isn’t really a skill passed down anymore. Thanks for reading, Jean!

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