Why Downtime In The Crib MIGHT Be Bad For Sleep


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. Turns out that downtime in your baby’s crib – time in which she plays and entertains herself – might actually be detrimental to sleep. Read on for details!

Why Downtime In The Crib Can Be A Healthy and Productive Step

Occasionally, we’ll hear questions like this from our clients:

If my baby is making noise, 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?

Really, we need to take this question in several parts. First, let’s 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, of course!) and she is not crying, we 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 (i.e. offer comfort but do not reinforce the early waking by offering loads of intervention), 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. Nicole remembers a phase like this in her own life:

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, I would have NEVER believed that this could happen!

Now, as to whether or not it is cruel to allow your baby to have alone time in her bed: all parents have different philosophies on this. Our take on it is if baby isn’t upset, some independent “think” time or relaxation is not a bad thing and may even be a good idea. After all, for many of us, our best ideas come when we’re lying in bed (or at least not talking to anyone), in the shower, on the treadmill – in short, during times when we are in our own world and not engaging with anyone else. Likewise, your baby may enjoy downtime and if she isn’t crying, she probably does!

When Downtime In The Crib Turns Ugly

Now that we’ve covered the “good” of downtime in the crib, let’s take a look at the “bad”. 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. Here are two reasons we don’t advocate for an abundance of downtime in the crib:

  1. First of all, during the newborn and early infant stage (when baby’s skull is still forming), too much time on your baby’s back can cause Plagiocephaly, 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.
  2. Second (and here’s where sleep comes in) 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.

Tips For Encouraging Healthy Amounts of Crib Downtime For Your Baby

  • 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 within 20-30 minutes of going down for a nap, consider getting them up and trying again about 30 minutes later. OR, if it’s at night, reconsider his schedule and consider pushing bedtime back.
  • Don’t make schedule decisions based on one day or even two. If your baby has a lot of “down time” for one day, that is okay. Life happens! 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. We had a client once whose toddler took 45 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime, no matter what time mom and dad put her down. She (the toddler) would “chat” to herself about her day and seemed to need that “unwind” time. For her, this was perfectly acceptable and even what she needed. Once our client knew that, she could build that downtime into her schedule. As always, keep in mind that something isn’t a problem until it becomes one.

How about you? Do you incorporate downtime for your child in the crib or in bed? Does downtime before sleep work for your baby or toddler? Scroll down to share your story, to ask questions, and to hear from other parents just like you!

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6 thoughts on “Why Downtime In The Crib MIGHT Be Bad For Sleep”

  1. My 3 month old son had been doing very well with his first morning nap. I would usually rock him and sing to him until he found his thumb (he likes to suck on it when he goes to sleep) and started to get a little drowsy. Then I would lay him in his bed and leave the room. He would normally sleep anywhere from 40 min – 1 1/2 hr. He had also been doing quite well at nighttime usually settling in for the night on his own in his bed around 8:30pm without too much fussing and sleeping a 7 hour stretch, waking up to feed and then going right back to sleep until between 7 – 7:30am. About a week ago he really changed on me. When I try to put him down for his first morning nap he doesn’t really get drowsy. He will lie in his bed for almost an hour sometimes and coo and kick around. Eventually he normally falls asleep for a few minutes but then soon wakes again, I think because he is hungry. I have noticed since this has started that the rest of his naps are becoming more and more fragmented and he has also been having more trouble settling for the night. For example he will go right to sleep like usual at 8:00pm but then wake 30 min. later and have a really hard time settling down for the the night until like 10:30pm. He has also consistently been waking earlier in the morning like between 6:15-6:45am. He seems fussier also. I am wondering if not getting a solid first morning nap is throwing off his sleep for the rest of the day and he is getting overtired. Any tips for me? Thanks!

    • Hi @Michelle, thanks for writing to us. I am sorry you’re experiencing a sudden shift with your son’s morning naps and that it’s playing into everything else. This is a tough age for babies as their sleep patterns are beginning to change and become more like ours. Here is an article that may explain what is going on: https://www.babysleepsite.com/how-we-sleep/4-month-old-sleep-regression/
      Hopefully things level out for you soon, but if they don’t let us know! We have a lot of other options including ebooks, access to exclusive articles, and personalized sleep coaching that can help if things don’t improve or get worse (or you are just tired of trying) so feel free to contact us directly anytime at [email protected]. Hang in there!

  2. My youngest takes ages to go to sleep at bedtime no matter what I do and it’s been going on a month or so now. He’s nearly 2 and I often only know he’s awake because I check on his camera. I remember his older brother went through phases of taking ages to sleep too so I just put it down to developmental stages. My eldest is nearly 4 and has stopped napping so he’s usually asleep within 10 minutes now!

    • @Jules – Thank you for your comment! Boy, do I understand. My daughter is almost 2 and is heading into this right now! You may want to take a look at his sleep schedule – 2 year olds start needing a bit less sleep overall and a slightly longer awake time before sleep. Please also be sure to take another look at your little guy’s bedtime routine to ensure that he’s properly wound down and tired when you ask him to sleep. Otherwise, it’ll definitely take much longer for him to fall asleep. Also, know that 10-15 minutes to fall asleep is perfectly “normal” if there’s such a thing. 🙂 I’m not sure how long your little guy is taking but if it’s longer than 30-45 min, you may definitely want to consider his pre-bedtime activity and eating along with schedule. 2 year olds also go though another tremendous developmental leap, for sure, which frequently impacts sleep. Take a look at this article to read more about the 2 year sleep regression: https://www.babysleepsite.com/toddlers/5-things-about-2-year-old-toddler-sleep/

      I hope this helps! Thank you for visiting our sleepy little village and sharing with us – please come back for another visit soon!

  3. Hi, I’d just like to make a comment about “tummy time”. Very few people seem to remember to clarify that tummy time isn’t just putting your baby on their tummy on a firm surface. It also includes holding baby! Strictly speaking, I never gave mine any tummy time (or put him in a sitting position or help him walk before he was able to do it on his own), he hated it, but I held him a lot, and we were both quite happy about it. But I also gave him a considerable amount of time to play on his back, without hanging toys above him (eg:playgyms), which encouraged him to look to his sides and therefore avoid plagiocephaly, as well as encourage independent play early on. For anyone interested in this other way of going about gross motor development, I recommend looking up The Pikler Collection. Because of all the information we are bombarded with, and all the encouragement to stimulate stimulate stimulate, many will feel it goes against everything they know, but it’s amazing to see what a child can do when given the opportunity.

    • Hi Ade,
      Thanks so much for your comment and for visiting The Baby Sleep Site! Since we mostly work with baby and toddler sleep, we don’t recommend any particular kind of tummy time over another, but we’re sure that other parents reading will appreciate your information and research the best way forward for their families. Thank you for taking the time to share!

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