Although the journey through new parenthood holds many surprises, you probably expected to deal with sleep deprivation. However, many common beliefs about babies' nighttime habits are actually wrong. To set the record straight, we asked experts to put sleep myths to bed once and for all.
Myth: You need to be extra quiet when your baby is sleeping.
It's true that babies tend to sleep a bit lighter during naptime than at night, but tiptoeing while he slumbers may not be necessary. While in the womb, your baby experienced all sorts of noises, and many of those sounds can be just as soothing to him now. "An infant can sleep through a fair amount of noise, especially in the first third of the night, when he's in deep sleep," says Nancy Birkenmeier, R.N., a nurse at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke's Hospital, in Chesterfield, Missouri.
In fact, white noise or soft music may help lull your baby to sleep. Just be wary of becoming too dependent on a sound machine, as it could actually prevent your baby from getting accustomed to everyday sounds, says Laura E. Tomaselli, M.D., a senior instructor in pediatrics and neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York. "The more a baby gets used to typical house noises, the better he will likely be at sleeping through them."
Myth: Adding cereal to your baby's bottle will help her stay asleep.
Several studies have proven that filling your baby's belly with a bit of cereal before bedtime won't help you avoid night feedings. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend ever putting cereal in a bottle -- or introducing your baby to solid foods until around 6 months, when she should be getting all the nutrition she needs from breast milk or formula. What's more, this practice could put your baby at risk for excess weight gain, because she can wind up getting more calories than she needs, cautions Dr. Tomaselli. "A healthy baby eating a regular diet should be able to sleep through the night on her own by about 6 months."
Myth: If you make your baby's bedtime later, he'll wake up later.
Unfortunately, it's not easy to change his internal clock; some babies are just naturally early risers. While a newborn's sleep routine is still in flux, an older baby's body is often already on a set sleep schedule -- so putting him to bed later is unlikely to get him to sleep until a more acceptable hour. More likely, doing so will have the opposite effect and ultimately cause him to lose out on sleep time, explains Dr. Tomaselli. To pinpoint when he gets tired, track your baby's sleepy cues, such as eye-rubbing and yawning. Then, start bedtime half an hour before they usually appear to ensure your baby is getting the sleep he needs.
Myth: Snoring in babies in nothing to worry about.
It may seem cute if your little one snores (studies show that about 15 to 25 percent of all infants do), but noisy breathing could signal a potentially serious medical condition. "It's possible that your child has an underlying sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea," says Dr. Tomaselli, which is when a baby has brief pauses in breathing that may cause her to snore or make unusual noises. This disrupted breathing can cause her to lose out on sleep, which could lead to developmental problems later on. A study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, found that babies who had untreated sleep disorders such as snoring, sleep apnea, and mouth breathing at 6 months were significantly more likely to develop behaviors such as hyperactivity, depression, aggression, and ADHD by age 7. While some unusual and noisy breathing sounds during sleep are perfectly normal, if it happens all the time or seems to be especially loud, videotape your baby while she's sleeping and share the recording with your pediatrician.
Myth: Crying it out is bad for your baby.
As parents, we want to respond to our baby's cries. That's why sleep-training methods in which a baby is left alone to cry may seem unbearable. But can you teach your baby to sleep through the night without any crying at all? Probably not, says Birkenmeier. "If you try to change his sleep habits, he will be mad and likely start to cry."
The good news is that whatever sleep-training method feels most comfortable for you is just fine to try. According to an Australian study published in Pediatrics in 2012, sleep training has no long-lasting negative effects. Half of the infants in the study went through two variations of "cry it out" sleep training and the other half had no intervention at all. Five years later, researchers reevaluated the two groups of children and found no significant differences in terms of their behavior or their emotional health. "For the first three months, it's all right to hold and cuddle your baby as he goes sleep," says Dr. Tomaselli. "However, once your baby is a little older, he needs to learn the important lifelong skills of self-soothing and falling asleep on his own."
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Parents magazine.