Four Myths About Babies and Sleep

What every parent needs to know about how they can help -- and hinder -- their baby's sleep skills.

Reviewed by Sara DuMond, MD on June 16, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

It's a rite of passage that every parent anticipates: Your new baby is finally sleeping through the night. You're not the only one harboring this dream. Sympathetic friends, family, neighbors, and even your pediatrician are lining up to share time-honored guidance on how to get your infant snoozing peacefully by that magical three-month mark.

Just one problem: Much of that advice is misleading, says Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park and author of the book BabyFacts: The Truth About Your Child's Health From Newborn Through Preschool. "Parents take pride in hopefully trying to get their children to sleep early," he says. But even well-intentioned moms and dads can create sleep problems inadvertently. Take a look at these myths about baby slumber.

1. It's never too early to put your baby on a sleep schedule.

Not so. If parents are smart, they'll give up illusions of control and take their baby's erratic sleep schedule in stride during the newborn period, the first month after birth.

"When we're talking about influencing the sleep of a newborn, that's pretty much impossible," Adesman says. "For the first few weeks of life, newborns are going to be on their own schedule, and we have to respond to it."

Babies don't enter the world with a circadian rhythm. It develops over time. That means parents should try to catch some rest during the same odd hours around the clock that their newborns are sleeping. "Once babies get beyond the newborn period, they start to develop a sense of day and night cycles," Adesman says.

2. Babies should be sleeping through the night by 3 months.

If your baby isn't sleeping for a full night by age 3 months, is something wrong? No, nothing's amiss. By 3 months, many babies are sleeping five or six hours at a stretch -- much better than the one- to three-hour snippets that leave parents bleary-eyed.

But most babies aren't logging seven or eight hours at this point. "Sleeping through the night is not the adult version," Adesman says. And if baby doesn't reach the five- to six-hour range by 3 months, that's fine, too. Some babies don't sleep through the night until 4 months, he says.

3.Adding rice cereal to a bedtime bottle helps your baby sleep longer.

At some point, you might hear advice to slip a bit of rice cereal into the last bottle before bedtime. That way, your baby supposedly will sleep better because he won't be hungry.

Even some pediatricians subscribe to this "rice cereal myth," Adesman says. But while this practice may sound logical, there's no evidence it works. Research shows that babies who eat rice cereal before bedtime don't sleep longer than other babies, according to Adesman.

But more important, giving rice cereal to a baby younger than 4 months might not be safe. If the baby's gastrointestinal system isn't mature enough to digest it, the cereal can cause discomfort or even lead to food allergies.

"It's better to stick with a plain old bottle at bedtime and let your baby wake up from hunger, not from a tummy ache," Adesman says.

4. It's important to respond immediately to your baby throughout the night -- why else would you have a baby monitor?

There's no one right way to put a baby to sleep, Adesman says. But some parents are so anxious about their baby's well-being or so eager to help their baby sleep through the night that they overdo the nocturnal attention. "With baby monitors, parents can hear every whimper," Adesman says. "But there's no need to respond in a flash to light arousals.

"One of the biggest sources of sleep problems in infancy is well-intentioned parents being overly attentive to any fuss or noise that a baby may make," he says. Once they reach 4 months of age or older, "babies really need to learn the technique of self-calming or self-soothing when it comes to waking up in the middle of the night," Adesman says.

If a baby cries, but her diaper is clean, she hasn't spit up, and she is in no obvious discomfort, parents can feel reassured she's OK and then leave the room. "If a child is presumably clean, top and bottom, that child should learn to fall back asleep on its own," Adesman says.

"What parents shouldn't be doing is to try to cuddle and nurse the child back to sleep," he says. Nor should they bottle-feed in hopes of transferring their baby to the crib after she falls back asleep. "Parents in essence are creating a Frankenstein," he says.

Rocking a baby to sleep every night also deprives the infant of learning how to fall asleep on her own, Adesman says. "If you set up a routine so that your baby never falls asleep without you, you'll have a long, sleep-deprived haul ahead."

Why Back Is Best

What's the safest sleep position for your baby? From birth to age 1, a healthy baby should be put to sleep on her back, not her tummy or side. That's a major change from almost two decades ago, when parents were instructed to place babies on their stomachs so they wouldn't choke on spit-up or vomit.

It's not a good idea to put a baby on her side, either, because she can roll onto her belly. Stomach sleeping fell out of favor after doctors realized a link between the position and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Since 1992, when the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending back sleeping, the rate of SIDS has fallen dramatically -- by more than 50%.

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Andrew Adesman, MD, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; author of BabyFacts: The Truth About Your Child's Health From Newborn Through Preschool

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