Imagine putting your baby to sleep in her crib. Your baby doesn’t cry. She happily plays in 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 downtime in the crib can be bad for your baby’s sleep.
A while 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?
Should immediately tend to your baby when he awakens?
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 playtime 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!
Is it cruel to leave a baby alone in her crib?
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 lying 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 playtime can be good, at some point, allowing too much “downtime” 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 “downtime” 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 “downtime” 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 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.