There are pieces of advice that all of us parents have heard at one time or another after we have babies. 'Never wake a sleeping baby' is probably right up there with 'keep them up longer and they'll stay asleep longer' and other similar gems of sleep wisdom. While the 'never wake a sleeping baby advice' is quite harmless compared to some of the other 'helpful' advice out there, it is still not the whole truth. In this post, I will debunk this rumor and look at the times that it is absolutely a good idea to wake that sleeping baby.
Wake your sleeping baby if....they are a newborn.
Day/night confusion occurs often with newborn babies. We know that light (artificial or natural) helps to set our body clocks, but in the womb, baby is exposed to very little light. Also, your baby is more prone to being active when you are resting (i.e. at night) and sleeping while you are moving (i.e. during the day) as the rocking motion of you going on with your day-to-day life lulls your unborn child to sleep. With these two factors at work, children will often be born a bit confused about when they should be awake more frequently and when they should be sleeping longer stretches. So, with all newborn children, I would recommend waking them every 3 hours during the day for a feeding. There is no need to keep them awake after the feed if they fall back asleep, but this helps to a) make sure they are taking in enough calories during the day to sleep longer at night and b) exposes them to light during the day to help re-set their body clock.
Wake your sleeping baby if... too much daysleep = not enough nightsleep.
Naps are very important for all children. Getting adequate rest during the day is crucial to a child's physical and mental development. However, nightsleep is far superior to daysleep and should be protected at all costs. If you think your child may be sleeping excessively during the day which in turn is leading to lower than average nightsleep (i.e. much lower than 11 hours for most children) then you may want to look at capping naps during the day. What would 'excessive daysleep' look like?
3 months and under: any single nap longer than 3 hours
4 months: any single nap longer than 2.5 hours and/or more than 4.5 hours of total daysleep
5 months: any single nap longer than 2 hours and/or more than 4 hours of total daysleep
6 months: any single nap longer than 2 hours and/or more than 3.5 hours of total daysleep
7/8 months: any single nap longer than 2 hours and/or more than 3.25 hours of total daysleep
9-13 months: any single nap longer than 2 hours and/or more than 3 hours of total daysleep
13+ months: more than 3 hours of total daysleep
Some babies have higher sleep needs than others so don't look at capping daysleep unless you are noticing a direct effect on nightsleep.
Wake your sleeping baby if... you are holding off a nap transition.
Nap transitions can be a really stressful time in a baby's (and your!) life. They often lead to early bedtimes, early wake-ups, and overtiredness is almost always inevitable. One way that we can make sure that these nap transitions are less taxing is if we are holding it off for as long as we can. Nap transitions are something that we never want to rush into. Dropping naps before a child is truly ready can be disastrous for both day and nightsleep. One of the easiest ways we can hold off a nap transition is by waking baby in the morning and/or from naps in order to keep the last nap for as long as we can. I would recommend trying to keep 3 naps until as close to 8 months (adjusted) as possible and 2 naps until as close to 18 months (adjusted) as possible.
Let's take a 7 month old, for example. We may have to start waking our 7 month old up at 7:00am to ensure we can fit in 3 naps before 5:00pm. We might also have to start waking this baby from their 2nd nap at 2:00pm to ensure we can fit in a 3rd nap from 4:30-5:00pm.
For a 17 month old, we might have to start waking this child at 7:00am as well, and then waking from the first nap after an hour to ensure we can fit in a 2nd nap from 3:00-4:00pm. Holding off these nap transitions helps to avoid a cycle of overtiredness and promotes a smoother transition.
Wake your sleeping baby if... the last nap is running too late.
As I mentioned above, protecting nightsleep at all costs is very important as allowing baby the opportunity to clock 11-12 hours of nightsleep (excluding time awake for nightfeeds) helps ensure your child is well-rested. To protect that nightsleep, in addition to making sure that naps aren't excessive, we want to avoid baby napping too late in the day. When a nap runs too late in the day, it encroaches on nightsleep territory. This can cause a too-late bedtime (resulting in insufficient nightsleep), nightwakings, sleep-cries, and potentially an early wake-up the next day (again, resulting in insufficient nightsleep).
Waking baby from their last nap of the day to protect bedtime is a must. What time should we be waking them by? For a baby that is between 3 months and 8 months of age, you want to ensure that naps are finished by 5:00pm. For a baby that is 8 months (or whenever they transition to 2 naps) and older, naps should be finished by 4:00pm. For children that have transitioned to 1 nap, this 'nap cut-off' may be even earlier than 4:00pm depending on how long of an awake time they need before bed (i.e. for a 2 year old, sleeping until 4:00pm would likely mean they aren't falling asleep for the night until 9:00pm, so you'd likely want to end naps by 3:00pm to ensure a relatively early bedtime).
For more of these 'Sleep Wives Tales', check out my blog post here, where I debunk 5 more of these rumors about baby sleep!
Pam Edwards is a Certified Infant & Child Sleep Consultant and founder of Wee Bee Dreaming Pediatric Sleep Consulting in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Healthy sleep is addicting and she has made it her life mission to help families all across the world get the sleep they deserve - a good night's sleep doesn't have to be a dream!