How Down Time in the Crib Can Be Bad For Your Baby’s Sleep

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Imagine when you put your baby to sleep, your baby doesn’t cry. Your baby happily plays in his or her crib, looks at the mobile, or babbles, but isn’t sleeping. Or, your toddler happily chats in his bed for an hour every night before going to sleep. You’re lucky, right? This is the ideal baby sleep situation and you have nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. This article will explain how TOO much down time in the crib can be bad for your baby’s sleep.

Awhile ago, I received an e-mail that went something like this:

If your baby is moaning, but not crying, is it OK to leave them in the crib? For how long? Is it cruel? Will it make for a bad start to the day?

Baby Wake EarlyFirst, let me address the first part of the question about whether or not you should immediately tend to your baby when he awakens, crying or not.

If your baby wakes too early in the morning (what is “too early” will be different for everyone) and she is not crying, I would absolutely recommend that you NOT go in to engage her. This will inadvertently reinforce her continuing to wake up too early. If your baby is crying, you will want to limit your engagement as much as possible, feed her, if appropriate, change her diaper, etc. but not make it FUN to be up and try not to get her up UP for the day. This may “set” her internal clock to continue to wake early.

If your baby wakes up in the morning and it’s not “too early” but she’s happy, allowing some play time is perfectly okay. I remember one phase in my son’s sleep when I’d hear him wake up, it wasn’t too early, so I’d go in to get him up and he fussed at me for coming in too early! The first day he did this, I didn’t understand, but after a couple more times I figured out that he was enjoying his “relaxation time” in the morning. When we used to have a lot of sleep problems, you could NOT have told me THAT would happen and I believe you!

All parents will have a different philosophy about whether it’s “cruel” to allow your baby alone time in his or her bed. My take on it is if they aren’t upset, some independent “think” time or relaxation is not a bad thing and may even be a good idea. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m laying in bed (or at least not talking to anyone) or walking/running on the treadmill. This site was one of those ideas! :) Once I got the idea, I shared it with those closest to me, but the idea itself came to me when I was all by my lonesome. Your baby may like the time and if she isn’t crying, she probably does!

Although independent play time can be good, at some point, allowing too much “down time” in the crib or bed can be bad for your baby’s sleep and you do want to avoid it. Just because you may have an easy-going baby who will lay in bed for hours without crying doesn’t mean she should. You might think this sounds far-fetched and babies who lay around for “hours” will be a rare few, but once your baby does know how to sleep independently, it is very normal for babies to begin to play and chat up a storm in their bed in the morning when they first wake up or before they go to sleep at night. I know, I know! I didn’t think it would happen either, but it did!!

Why down time causes baby sleep problems

First, too much time on your baby’s back, when their heads are still soft can cause Plagiocephaly, or their head to be flat or misshapen. Since it is recommended for SIDS prevention to put your baby on his back to sleep, this has become more prevalent. You will want to give your baby plenty of tummy time to play during the day.

Second, too much “resting” time can actually lead to short naps, more night-wakings, and especially long middle of the night wakings, for older babies and toddlers.

Some general rules of thumb:

  • Once past the initial sleep coaching period, limit “down time” to a maximum of 20-30 minutes before naps and 30 minutes prior to bedtime, if possible.
  • If your baby or toddler has not fallen asleep, consider getting them up and trying again about 30 minutes later. OR, if it’s at night, reconsider his schedule.
  • Don’t make schedule decisions based on one day or even two. If he or she has a lot of “down time” for one day, that is okay. This article is discussing more of a consistent pattern over days/weeks/months, not a one-time event.

In the end, you know your baby best and what’s “too much” for one baby won’t be for another. I have one current client whose toddler takes 45 minutes to fall asleep no matter what time they put her down. She “chats” to herself about her day and needs that “unwind” time. For her, this is perfectly acceptable and even what she needs. Now that my client knows that, she can set her schedule appropriately. As always, keep in mind that something isn’t a problem until it becomes one.

If you’re looking for ways to get your baby or toddler into a healthy sleeping routine during the day, I encourage you to download our FREE guide, 7 Common Napping Mistakes, or explore Mastering Naps and Schedules, a comprehensive guide to napping routines, nap transitions, and all the other important “how-tos” of good baby sleep. With over 40 sample sleep schedules and planning worksheets, Mastering Naps and Schedules is a hands-on tool ideal for any parenting style. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using the same unique approach and practical tools for success, this e-book helps you and your baby sleep through the night. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

How Much Time Do You Allow in the Crib Not Sleeping and Do You Think It’s Cruel to Let Your Baby Stay in Her Crib Not Sleeping?

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16 Responses to How Down Time in the Crib Can Be Bad For Your Baby’s Sleep

  1. Jane says:

    This is the perfect topic! I was just discussing this with my mom. My 15 month old daughter seems to be transitioning to one nap. Each day is different, but sometimes we are only getting in the morning nap (and even that one depends on so many things). In the afternoon she will roll around and talk to herself for up to an hour or more if we let her. I’ve never known what to really do in those situations – do I let her continue because sometimes she eventually falls asleep – or do I go in and get her because it’s cruel (even though I know/think she needs a nap). I’m guessing this is a good sign for us that we need to start pushing the morning nap back a little until we have the one solid afternoon nap. Thankfully her rolling and playing haven’t seemed to affect any night sleep and when she does fall asleep for her naps they’re always at least 90 minutes (and she’s always getting at least one per day). Thanks for all your help! Your weekly entries are always so relevant to what I seem to be going through.

  2. Dyan says:

    My son is 22 months old and just started preschool in the mornings so I can get some work done. Before school when we were “on schedule” he would wake up at 8, nap at 12:30 (anything later and he would not sleep), up at 2:30ish, bed around 7:30-8. On occasion he talks a bit before nap and bed. We noticed when he starts to get overtired he will “talk” until as late as 9:30 but then sleep well and wake up at his normal time. If he gets too overtired he will fall asleep instantly at bedtime but then wake up in the middle of the night for an hour or two and talk.

    Now that he is in school we are having trouble with waking at 6:30 (still has the option to sleep until 7:45) and skipping naps. He stays at school until 12:50, then 15 minutes to get home. I started out picking him up at 11:45 and moving it back by 15 minutes every few days. That worked until we got to picking him up at 12:30 and having him doing naptime around 12:45. Suggestions?

  3. Michelle says:

    Now that my 8mo son is starting to crawl and pull himself up, all he wants to do is sit up, crawl around and pull up on things. When we put him in his crib for naps and bedtime, he immediately sits up and can be heard in his room falling against the side of the crib or talking for up to a half hour. I know that when they learn new skills, it can affect their sleep and he has been waking up in the middle of the night lately. Gotta love when they learn new skills!

    He also seems very tired when we initially put him down for the night around 7 or 7:30pm but after being in his crib for 15-20 min, he seems wide awake. We have been leaving him in his room even though we would LOVE to play with him and keep him up until 8pm just to spend some extra quality time with him. I can understand separation anxiety with parents now. I miss him so much at night.

  4. Lainie says:

    This article speaks to my soul. ;)

    My 3yo, starting from when she was about 1, started taking longer and longer to fall asleep. Just talking and singing. Cute at first, but then it go to where night time was too late (she didn’t do this for naps). We recently cut out her naps (except on days she seems really tired), and she falls fast asleep at 7:30 within mere seconds. It’s bliss!!!

    My almost 18 month old is starting this habit, and obviously she needs her nap. But it’s SO confusing to know if she’s taking forever to fall asleep (I mean an hour or more sometimes) because she’s OVERTIRED or NOT TIRED ENOUGH. Ahh! Her nap is 11:30-1:30 with a 7pm bedtime. My hunch is that by 7 she’s actually overtired, although she doesn’t cry in bed. She’s wide awake. Would you suggest like a 12:30-2:30 nap with the same bed time?

    Love your articles, Nicole! You seem to always know what is troubling your fellow mothers. :)

  5. Sasha says:

    My 2,5 yo is not a perfect sleeper)) but IF he doesn`t cry after I leave the room, he can talk to himself occasionally. I would say it happens when he really needs to re-live some moments of the day. and I think it`s a good habit – it helps to release some strong impressions and I do recommend it to all adults – to spend a few minutes before going to sleep remembering this day impressions and letting them go.
    anyway, for babies maybe if they spend too much time lying there, not sleeping, it can become a bad habit. but why should it be dangerous?

  6. Nkem says:

    My 7months old baby isnt doing bad; an easy going person even towards the bedtime period. He tends to stay awake while we are awake but then being a baby, putting him on the bed, says “nap time”! I actually put a sucker into his mouth and before you know it he is asleep.

  7. Nicki says:

    My 9 month old isn’t falling asleep on his own yet. When we put him down in his crib for bedtime around 6:30 (hoping for a 7:30 bedtime) he comes wide awake and plays and rolls around forever even when he is bone tired and falling asleep at the breast. Then when he gets tired enough, he fusses for us to pick him up and rock him to sleep which usually, at that point, only takes a minute or two. He has gotten pretty good about putting himself back to sleep when he wakes in the middle of the night but not 100% yet. When he wakes in the am, if it’s before 7a, he plays in his crib until then. Same for naps if he wakes before 1 hour unless he is “hard” crying. He doesn’t have downtime in his crib other than that unless for some reason I have to run to the mailbox or something. He loves his crib and can play in there for up to 1 hour even though it’s usually around 20 min. I don’t think it’s cruel at all if it’s limited. I think it’s cruel is people use the crib as a babysitter and don’t let their kids get out and explore their world.

  8. Nicole says:

    @Jane Nap transitions are a very common time to have more down time than usual and usually is not a problem. The “rest time” even if she is not sleeping is actually good for her to avoid being too over-tired at bedtime, if she doesn’t ever fall asleep. If she does eventually fall asleep, then even better reason to continue to give her this time. If you do see a pattern, though, you may just want to bump awake time a smidge and put her in her crib 30 minutes later than you normally would while she’s transitioning. Sounds like she’s doing great and thanks for commenting!

    @Dyan If your son only recently started preschool, I’d give him some time to adjust to see if he will get used to a 1 p.m. nap, which is actually very common at this age. In fact, I’m fairly surprised he fell asleep at 12:30 p.m. after waking at 8 a.m. :) Goes to show that all kids are indeed different! I would recommend an earlier bedtime during this adjustment as he being over-tired at bedtime is the most likely reason for waking too early in the morning. I’d recommend trying to get him to bed, asleep, by 7 p.m. and see if he begins to sleep 7p-7a and starts to nap better, eventually. Then, you can move the schedule forward to 8p-7:30/7:45 a.m. if you wanted to. Good luck!

    @Michelle 8 months is a very common trouble spot with pulling up, etc. when they should be sleeping. Here is the article about it here, in case you missed it: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-patterns/8-9-10-month-old-baby-sleep-regression/ I know it’s hard when you miss your baby at night. :( If it becomes routine for him to stay awake until 8 p.m., that may be his true bedtime, and you’d be fine to wait until 7:30 p.m. to put him down. But, if this is new, I’d give him a bit more time. He may need the time to process his new skills and you don’t want to get in the way of that and make him over-tired. Good luck!

    @Lainie Thank you! I’m glad I have a “pulse” on what many people are going through at the time. :) I know it’s so confusing to know if a baby or toddler is under- or over-tired. I would assume, based on the time of the year, that your 18-month old can’t sleep due to bedtime being too early ONLY because it’s summer and it’s bright out. Expect this to change in the Fall, again. I would try to move the nap to 12-2 or 12:30-2:30 and then make bedtime a bit later to correspond more closely to the sun setting. This is more prevalent in 18 months or older toddlers. Good luck!

    @Sasha Very cute! :) I agree it’s good to reflect on your day as well. It is not dangerous that he lays there awake. It can only be bad for sleep IF it’s a habit and he is in bed “too” much in that it can cause long middle of the night wakings or waking too early in the morning, that’s all. :)

    @Nkem That’s great he’s doing so well! Thanks for sharing.

    @Nicki It sounds like he’s doing great! You may be surprised that he falls asleep in a few minutes once he starts fussing. He may not need to be rocked at all as he sounds like a good self-soother the fact he can roll around on his own for an hour. You might just try it! :) It sounds like you’re doing great and good luck!

  9. Michelle says:

    @Nicole, thank you! He was only a month old when that article was posted. I need to do a little more reading on your site :) I appreciate so much that you take the time to respond to comments. It keeps me sane when I start to get worried!

  10. Lainie says:

    Thanks, Nicole. We’ll see if we can find the right combination.

  11. Dyan says:

    Thanks! I was shocked to learn (months ago) that he might actually need to nap earlier than about 1 or 1:30. I was a nanny for years and never saw a child take a nap at 11:45 or noon. I tried about 6 weeks before school to move his naps back a bit at a time, but when we hit 12:45 we hit a wall. Always. I assume he will eventually get used to sleeping later in the day. At this point no nap equals a 6:30ish bedtime. He falls asleep quickly but 1 out of 3 nights average he wakes around 10 PM having nightmares. I am hoping in a few more weeks he will be past this stage! Thanks for all the help!

  12. Lori says:

    This is an excellent article, and so timely. I’m having the same problem as Jane. I think my 13.5 month old is on the verge of transitioning to one nap. His afternoon nap has always been hit and miss. Sometimes, he will sit in his crib and fuss off and on for the full hour (I try to wait an hour unless he’s really crying). It always takes him about 30 minutes to fall asleep at naptime and bedtime, usually an hour for the afternoon nap. Recently, it has been taking longer sometimes for the morning nap, pushing wake-up too late to get an afternoon nap. I’m unsure if I sure continue the back-and-forth, or go ahead and move him to one nap. He’s also teething (4 at once, OUCH), which is making sleep decisions harder! Oh, the joys of parenthood! lol

  13. ldoo says:

    An update, if you’re looking here still:

    My 17 month old had an early nap yesterday cause my Mom – the babysitter – said she seemed really tired. So 11:15-1:15.

    By 5pm she was acting grumpy, so I laid her down for bed at 6:45. She took TWO HOURS to fall asleep. She seemed tired, but was still chatting and playing away.

    Seems like I should have stuck with a 7-7:30 bedtime, right?

  14. Debbye says:

    @ Michelle-
    Thanks for writing! We are so happy that the articles and information has been helpful! :)

    @ Lainie-
    Good luck! I hope things are going well!

    @ Dyan-
    Schedules can be SO tricky! It sounds like you are working hard to get your little one on the right track, and i hope he has transitioned to preschool well, and the night wakings have improved!

    @ Lori-
    Oh no! Sleep transitions and teeth! I hope things have smoothed out by now. You can feel free to continue to offer two naps on some days and one one others. It is common to go back and forth for a while as a toddler transitions to one nap. You may just need to “feel it out” on some days.
    Good luck!

    @ Idoo-
    Depending on how she handles being over tired, she may be able to make it to 730 bedtime with an early nap. Others will fall apart with too long in between sleep. It does sound like she was ready and willing to wait for her regular bedtime, and did have a harder time falling asleep perhaps because she was over tired from having an early nap. Usually one day off schedule will not cause any issues, so hopefully everything is fine now. :)
    Best wishes!

  15. Dyan says:

    Update: I gave up. I started letting him stay at school longer so he can nap. He naps well at school and now doesn’t go to sleep until about 8:30 or 9 but he sleeps through (or wakes for a few and falls back asleep quickly) and wakes between 7 and 8 am.

  16. Debbye says:

    Thanks for the update Dyan!
    It sounds like things worked out, even if not the way you had planned!
    Hope things continue to go well. :)