Are You Falling For These Infant Sleep Myths?

mom sleeping next to baby

Did you know that lots of common infant sleep recommendations aren’t actually rooted in science? As a new parent you may have received sleep advice from lots of well-meaning friends and family, and you’ve probably even done some late-night Google searching on the topic. It can be hard to sift through all the recommendations made by fellow parents, social media influencers, and family members. We’ve got you covered with a look at common infant sleep myths and their corresponding, research-backed facts.

Myth #1 Babies need to sleep a certain number of hours and take a certain number of naps per day.

Have you seen those complicated infant sleep charts that recommend something like 16-18 hours of sleep and 3-5 naps for a newborn or 12-16 hours of sleep with 2-3 naps for an older baby? Are you concerned because your baby doesn’t seem to fit the mold? Is there a baby bedtime routine or a typical sleep schedule?

Fact #1 Research shows that there is a lot of variability when it comes to normal infant sleep.

While it’s true that newborns require more sleep than older babies, it’s also true that each baby is different, and one may not require the same amount of sleep as another. Additionally, some babies need more and some need fewer naps throughout the day. In fact, trying to get your baby to sleep more than needed throughout the day can result in wakeful nights. Don’t stress over the numbers…..just lean into your baby’s natural sleep patterns. 1

Myth #2 Babies should be sleeping through the night by the time they are just a few weeks or months old.

Are you stressed because your sister, neighbor, or even your pediatrician told you your baby should be sleeping through the night by 3 months? Is your 6 month old still waking to nurse at night?

Fact #2 Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone that babies reach at different ages.

First, it’s important to understand that “sleeping through the night” typically only means sleeping for a single 4-5 hour period. Data shows that 49% of infants still wake 1-2 times per night, at 12 months of age, whether they are fed formula or breast milk. 2

Myth #3 Breastfeeding to sleep is a bad habit.

Maybe you’ve heard or read that nursing your baby to sleep is a bad sleep habit and you’re wondering how you would prevent something that seems so natural.

Fact #3 Breastfeeding to sleep is biologically normal.

Babies are designed to fall asleep at the breast. Take advantage of the sleep inducing hormones contained in breast milk such as melatonin and tryptophan! Nursing also provides a great amount of comfort to help your baby drift off to sleep feeling safe and secure. By reducing stress around sleep times, you help support your baby’s natural sleep development and, eventually, the ability to fall asleep on his or her own. 3

Myth #4 It’s healthy for babies to be swaddled for sleeping and breastfeeding.

Swaddling is one of the most common methods used to extend babies’ sleep periods. Parents are often taught how to tightly swaddle their newborns right in the hospital, and there are countless swaddling products marketed to sleep-deprived families, but is swaddling supportive of baby’s natural development?

Fact #4 Swaddling can cause hip dysplasia, increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and make it harder for babies to breastfeed.

The National Hip Dysplasia Institute warns that traditional swaddling increases the risk of hip dislocation and healthy hip development. 4 Swaddling can also interfere with the protective mechanism that causes babies to wake from deep sleep to prevent SIDS. 5 Breastfeeding while baby is swaddled can make it more difficult to get into a good position for effective latching. Babies also need access to their hands to help orient themselves to the breast. They often even use their hands to massage and compress mom’s breast tissue to encourage milk flow! Remove the swaddle and opt for as much skin-to-skin contact as possible while breastfeeding.

Myth #5 Infant sleep products support healthy development.

Marketing surrounding infant sleep products is at an all time high. Inclined sleepers, vibrating bassinets, weighted swaddles, sleep positioners, and motion devices are advertised as the magic keys to longer, deeper infant sleep. 

Fact #5 Sleep devices come with risks.

Night waking is a protective biological norm that helps prevent infants from falling into such a deep sleep that they are unable to wake in response to potential dangers such as low oxygen levels. Any device that encourages an infant to sleep longer and deeper than is biologically normal increases the risk of SIDS. Products such as sleep suits, vibrating bassinets, weighted swaddles or blankets, and motion devices all fall into this category. Inclined sleepers and any item intended to serve as a sleep positioner do not meet the safety standards set forth by the CSPC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and the Food and Drug Administration. 7

Myth #6 Researchers agree that co-sleeping is dangerous for all babies.

There’s no doubt that you’ve heard that you must never sleep with your baby if you want to keep them safe from SIDS. The majority of U.S. babies are not exclusively breastfed, so infant sleep recommendations default to what is safe for this majority. 9

Fact #6 Leading infant sleep researchers refer to co-sleeping as biologically normal and protective when done safely. 

Top researchers out of the University of Notre Dame Sleep Lab have spent the last decade researching the protective attributes associated with what they call breastsleeping. Breastsleeping is a term to describe the unique sleep behaviors of breastfeeding mothers and babies. Breastsleeping results in a powerful synching of mother and baby’s sleep cycles and breathing. This synchronization supports baby’s natural, biological mechanisms for preventing SIDS. Other researchers such as Dr. Helen Ball and Dr. Pamela Douglas have provided data to support the need for rethinking the one-size-fits-all recommendations currently doled out to new mothers. 10

La Leche League International has established the Safe Sleep 7 guidelines for safe bedsharing: 11

  1. No smoking (this goes for everyone in the household)
  2. Be sober and unimpaired (partners too)
  3. Breastfeed
  4. Baby is full-term and healthy
  5. Place baby on their back
  6. Keep baby lightly dressed to avoid overheating (no hats)
  7. Share a safe sleep surface (no sofas, no recliners, no extra pillows, no heavy covers, no super-soft mattress, no strings or cords, no cracks or spaces that baby could fall into)

Bonus Fact 12: Establishing a consistent wake-up time is the first step to setting baby’s circadian clock. Pick a time that works for your family, and wake baby consistently each morning. It can take up to 2 weeks before baby starts to wake naturally at this time.

If you’re wondering why there is so much conflicting advice surrounding infant sleep, consider the following:

  • Infant Sleep has become a big business - a quick internet search returns hundreds of sleep programs, classes, books, coaches, trainers, products and more!
  • It takes an average of 17 years for well-researched clinical information to make its way into regular practice. 

With constant pressure from well-meaning friends and family as well as social media, it’s no wonder that parents are stressed and confused when it comes to infant sleep! Now that you know the truth, you can help others not to fall for these common infant sleep myths. 

What If I Have Questions?

If you are interested in learning more about infant sleep, you should contact your healthcare provider or you can schedule a one-on-one appointment with an Aeroflow lactation consultant here

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About The Author

Jacque Ordner is a mom of four sons and IBCLC in the heart of the Midwest in Illinois. Her love of lactation support began over a decade ago when she was working as a registered nurse. She specializes in adoptive lactation, breastfeeding after c-section, and pumping.