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  • Heather Wallace

Infant Sleep and False Starts

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

What Are False Starts Caused By and How Do You Fix Them?

Infants have false starts after bedtime for many reasons

The dreaded false start…right when you start relaxing on the couch to watch your latest Netflix show, like clockwork your baby wakes up 45 minutes after bedtime. Sometimes your baby goes through stages where he struggles to settle into a deep sleep for the night. There are many reasons that this happens, and each reason has a different fix.

Your Baby Had Help Getting to Sleep

If your baby has help to sleep at bedtime, such as feeding, rocking to sleep, or using the pacifier, then it is very common for the baby to struggle to go through the next stages of sleep on her own. Even if the baby just got drowsy before going into the crib ( heavy eyes, staring into space, or eyelids fluttering) it can cause a false start.
This fix isn’t so easy. It pulls on your heart strings! But if your baby is relying on something to fall asleep at bedtime and is waking shortly after being put down then it is time to sleep train. Pick a method, ensure that your routine leading up to being put down does not reinforce a sleep prop, and be consistent with your response to the crying. You aren’t making your baby cry. You are allowing your baby to have perfectly valid feelings about a change you made that is for the better. Your job isn’t to stop the crying, it’s to give her time and space to find her own self-soothing skills, and reassure her with your presence when appropriate. Once your baby knows how to fall asleep from a wide awake state independently then she will be able to transition to the next sleep cycle seamlessly and you can say goodbye to the false start.

Your Baby Is Overtired or Undertired

False starts are often associated with overtiredness. But I can’t make that blanket statement, as I have seen plenty of babies wake shortly after bedtime because they don’t have enough sleep pressure to get into a deep sleep (thus, undertired). Remember that overtiredness is inevitable at times. Life happens and I promise your baby will be a-okay even if she is a mess due to overtiredness. If your baby wakes due to overtiredness or undertiredness I would still have the expectation that she fall back to sleep on her own if she is already sleep trained. Starting a habit of feeding or helping to sleep will surely undo the hard work you put into teaching your little one how to sleep well.

As I mentioned above, sometimes there is no way around overtiredness. But keeping track of your baby’s wake windows and ensuring it is working well for your baby’s specific needs can help avoid overtiredness or undertiredness. I know it seems like you should err on the side of undertired, but there’s nothing worse than a wailing baby who isn’t tired enough to sleep!

You Just Dropped One Of Your Baby’s Naps

When you are transitioning to the next sleep schedule by dropping a nap sometimes your baby’s circadian rhythm doesn’t follow suit. Her body is used to a certain number of naps so when you put your baby down for bed she is up after the catnap, ready to play. I see this especially with the 4 to 3 nap transition around 12-17 weeks.

Time is the main fix here. Your baby just has to get used to the new schedule with one less nap. She will adjust! Sometimes you do have to play around with the wake windows before bed to find the sweet spot in order to help your baby fall asleep well and stay asleep.

Your Baby Is Under 12 Weeks Old

It takes time for a newborn’s circadian rhythm and melatonin production to develop. Typically this is complete by 9-12 weeks old (1) The melatonin production is extremely important for all humans, as it helps the body slip into that long stretch of sleep.

Itty bitty newborns under 8ish weeks old are night owls. You will have much more luck with your newborn settling into the night if the bedtime is on the later side between 9 and 11pm. It’s very common as you are trying to shift your baby’s bedtime to earlier, around 8-9 weeks old, that it doesn’t take the first several times. When this happens you can either try to resettle your baby back to sleep, or you can get the baby up and have another eat, play, sleep cycle, redoing bedtime basically. If the false start is still happening by 10-12 weeks old then I suggest getting very consistent with just checking in on your baby in short intervals to reassure, without rescuing. Once your baby learns how to fall back to sleep on her own she will do so much quicker.

To help your newborn develop the necessary melatonin, expose your baby to light in the early morning hours and during the day. Around dusk, start lowering the lights, as melatonin is produced in the dark, and blocked at the sight of light. Make sure your baby’s room is pitch black. Yes, do all the crazy things to black out your baby’s room! My clients like these blackout curtains, as well as these on Amazon!

Reinforce Healthy Sleep Habits!

No matter what the reason for the wake-up after bedtime is, always make sure to reinforce that yes, sweet baby, this is bedtime. If you help your baby back to sleep or feed your baby when she wakes shortly after bedtime then the false start will be reinforced and it will continue now just out of habit. If you need help getting your little one to fall asleep and stay asleep book a free 15-minute phone assessment here
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