What's with False Starts?
I’m guessing we all know what I’m referring to here and that I’m not using industry jargon when I refer to a “False Start,” but just in case, let’s define it before we go any further.
Unless you’re very lucky, I mean exceptionally lucky, you’ve experienced one of the false starts firsthand. You put your little one down for the night. They close their eyes, nod off, and then wake up again in about 20-30 minutes. So that specific situation is what we’re referring to here.
The reason it’s essential to distinguish between this scenario and the regular old “nighttime wake up” is because different things cause them and therefore have different solutions.
A nighttime wake-up is similar, obviously, but occurs after baby’s been asleep for at least an hour or so.
Nighttime wake-ups are usually the result of either hunger or a baby’s inability to string their sleep cycles together. Suppose your baby’s over six months of age and had a full feed before bed.
In that case, hunger likely isn’t the culprit. Suppose they’re unable to string their sleep cycles together, well. In that case, that’s another conversation altogether and a great reason to hire a pediatric sleep consultant. *Wink wink*
But false starts, as I mentioned, are a different animal and can often be solved relatively easily. So the first step, as with any problem, is to identify the cause, and when it comes to false starts, here are the three usual suspects.
What are the causes of false starts?
If your baby’s uncomfortable, there’s a good chance they won’t sleep well, as is the case with anybody of any age. Teething, gas, reflux, or even being too warm or too cool can cause babies to wake up quickly after they first settle. You can likely find temporary or permanent remedies to the first three by talking to your pediatrician.
As for the temperature issue, I have a really handy guide to dressing your baby appropriately for different temperature nurseries that I’d be delighted to share with you. Just fire me an email, and I’ll send it your way, free of charge.
2. Lack of Pressure
There are two things that help us fall asleep. One is our circadian rhythm, which signals our brain to start producing melatonin when it gets dark. And homeostatic sleep drive, which is the body’s natural urge to sleep as we spend time awake, exert ourselves physically, heal from sickness or injury, or experience exciting or stressful situations.
Given how quickly they’re developing, babies’ homeostatic sleep drive builds up much quicker than in the average adult. (A big part of why they need so much daytime sleep.) But as they get older, that pressure accumulation starts to slow down and requires more time awake between naps to build up to the point where they can fall asleep and stay asleep at bedtime.
If your baby takes a long time to fall asleep when you first put them down for the night and seems active and happy during that time, low sleep pressure could likely be the cause. It may be time to either drop a nap or reschedule their naps to allow that pressure to build up appropriately before bed.
This is where things can get a little challenging because, contrary to popular belief, over-tiredness doesn’t look like a more intense version of regular tiredness. Instead, over-tiredness causes cortisol secretion at the time when we want it the least and actually causes babies to get quite energetic, making it difficult for them to get to sleep. So, in this case, you might want to move bedtime up by 20-30 minutes.
And that’s the rub because, as you might already have noticed, we’re now dealing with the same symptoms we had in the earlier scenario. Instead of baby not getting enough awake time before bed, they’ve actually had too much.
So two completely opposite causes result in very similar symptoms but require opposite solutions, which makes it challenging to know which course of action to take to remedy the situation.
How do you know which scenario you're dealing with?
So, how do you know which scenario you’re dealing with and implement the proper fix? Well, I have a great little scheduling table that I’d be happy to share with you (once again, just send me an email), or you could try the trial-and-error approach.
If you do, though, I strongly suggest you start by moving bedtime up. Overtiredness is a vicious cycle once it takes hold. Baby doesn’t sleep well, which results in short, fitful naps the next day, which leads to insufficient sleep at night, and on and on it goes. So it’s much safer to move bedtime earlier and see if that solves the problem.
Hopefully, one of these solutions takes care of your little one’s false starts. But if the problem persists, it might be time to consider some one-on-one help from a pediatric sleep consultant, and it just so happens that I know a great one living in Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. :)
Book Your Free 20-Minute Sleep Evaluation to chat with me more about what's happening with your little one's sleep and I can explain how I can help and which program is best suited for your family.
Erin Neri - Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner of To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting since 2016.
To The Moon and Back Sleep Consulting
Providing families the tools & support they need to get their little ones sleeping through the night and napping like champs! Everyone has more fun when they are well rested!
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