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False Starts at Bedtime: Why Your Baby Won’t Stay Asleep

Maybe you’ve heard the term “false start” before – maybe you never have. But if you are here you’ve probably experienced it. False starts can be very stressful for parents. Luckily solving the problem of false starts is very possible. So what’s a false start and how do you fix it?

What Are False Starts?

You do your bedtime routine and finally put your infant to sleep. They blissfully drift off to la la land. You exhale and get ready to enjoy some quality time with your partner, or maybe do some things around the house. 

But it’s not to be. Within 20-30 minutes of going down, your child is awake again and you have to do the whole bedtime routine once more. When your baby wakes up and hasn’t completed a full sleep cycle, that’s a false start

Note: If your child has slept for more than an hour before waking up, most likely they haven’t yet learned to string sleeping cycles together. This is not considered a false start and the solutions would be different. 

Let’s be honest, false starts can be extremely frustrating. However, with a little bit of patience and detective work, you can figure out what is causing your child’s false starts and come up with a solid solution. Both you and your child will be getting the rest you need in no time.

Why False Starts Happen and How to Fix Them

If your baby has false starts you’re probably eager to figure out how to get rid of them once and for all. To do that, you need to understand why a baby might have a false start to their sleep cycle in the first place. 

Lack of sleep pressure – your baby isn’t tired enough

There are two things that signal it’s time to sleep for your child and they’re both critical to healthy sleep. The first, known as circadian rhythm, is responsible for the body knowing what time of day it is and feeling sleepy or awake accordingly. 

The other signal is homeostatic sleep drive, also called “sleep pressure” or “sleep drive”. Sleep pressure is caused by a buildup of a substance called adenosine in your baby’s brain after a period of wakefulness. As this chemical builds up, it makes your child feel more and more tired until they are ready to sleep. 

What does that really mean for you? If your child isn’t awake long enough before going to bed it can keep them from settling easily into bedtime and cause them to wake up too soon. You’ll know your baby has been up long enough if they settle to sleep within 15 minutes of going to bed. 

Not being tired enough is most likely the reason for the false start if your baby takes a long time to fall asleep before waking after a short while. 

Recommendation: Take a close look at the appropriate wake windows for your child’s age to ensure that you’re letting enough sleep pressure build. Dropping a nap, moving naptime further from bedtime, or shortening the nap could all be possible solutions. 

Your baby is overtired

I just said that your baby not being tired enough is a cause for false starts. So how could them being too tired cause false starts too?! Ah, if only parenthood was easy. As you probably know by now, babies are complicated little creatures. Being overtired can also cause your child to experience false starts. 

When your child gets overtired, their body produces cortisol, which then makes them feel energetic at the time when they most need to go to sleep. Baby being overtired is most likely to be the culprit if they fall asleep very quickly before having a false start (as cortisol production peaks).

The solution is to move up your child’s bedtime 15-30 minutes earlier to avoid them getting overtired. Avoiding an overtired baby is critical to restful sleep not just tonight but the next night. A bad night’s sleep can lead to short, fitful naps the next day and an overtired baby yet again the next night. 

To make sure you don’t miss your child’s recommended bedtime, pay close attention to their sleep cues. It may take a bit of trial and error until you find the right bedtime for your sleeping angel but it will be worth it. 

Your baby is uncomfortable

Even if your baby is appropriately tired, they might not sleep soundly if they’re uncomfortable. Your baby might be too hot, too cold, getting sick, teething, have reflux, or there could be something in their sleep environment that’s waking them up. You should rule out these problems before attempting other remedies. 

Here are some tips for a cozy sleeping environment: 

  • Make sure that you keep your child’s room between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit and dress them appropriately.
  • Use a sound machine to create a layer of white noise and avoid your child waking up from external sounds. 
  • Use blackout curtains on the windows to limit light.

It’s important that you check with your pediatrician if you have any medical or teething concerns. 

Your baby doesn’t fall asleep independently

One additional possibility is that your baby depends on you to fall asleep in the first place. If you feed, rock, or sing your child to sleep, they might not be able to go back to sleep on their own if they wake up. This makes perfect sense. Even we as adults can be dependent on certain elements to fall asleep – such as having the TV on – and struggle going to sleep without them. 

So if your baby depends on you to go to sleep, it stands to reason that should they wake up, they need the same conditions to fall asleep again. Instead of doing a quick toss and turn and returning to sleep independently, they fully wake up and need help returning to sleep. 

If you have ruled out the other three possibilities for false starts, make sure you take a closer look at how your baby falls asleep. And if you need help teaching your baby to fall asleep independently, don’t hesitate to reach out to us – we’d love to help. 

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