Sleep begets sleep – myth or fact?


As a parent, you may have heard the term “sleep begets sleep” meaning that the sleep quality your baby gets during the day directly correlates to their sleep at night. But we all want to know whether sleep begets sleep or if it is a myth. Let’s find out.

What does sleep begets sleep mean?

Before we dive into what sleep begets sleep means, it is important to understand infant sleep cycles.

According to Mamie Krueger, Certified Newborn Care Specialist and Sleep Coach, “Unlike adults, infants experience shorter sleep cycles, typically lasting between 40 to 50 minutes. These cycles consist of active (REM) and quiet (non-REM) sleep stages.”

Krueger says that during REM sleep, infants may exhibit twitching, eyes movements, and irregular breathing, while non-REM sleep is characterised by deeper, more restorative rest.”

According to the Pediatric Associates of NYC, the better a baby sleeps during the day, the easier it will be for them to fall asleep and stay asleep at night.

With adults, taking naps during the day has the opposite effect, therefore, it seems counterintuitive to us that naps equal better sleep in babies. It’s important to note that adult sleep is vastly different from baby sleep.

Rachel Mitchell, Certifies Sleep Specialist and CEO of My Sweet Sleeper makes it clear—”This is a term that essentially means ‘sleep promotes sleep’.”

When your baby sleeps well during the day, they are more likely to sleep well at night and vice versa. It points to the idea that for a child’s internal clock and circadian rhythm to work well together, they essentially need to have quality sleep in a 24-hour period (not just for naps OR nights – but ideally both).

Mitchell says that one of the primary reasons this is true is that children have optimal sleep periods during the day and night based on their development stage. When they aren’t sleeping (or sleeping enough) during these periods, it can negatively affect their circadian rhythm and cause a spike in cortisol, preventing them from getting restful sleep and leading to an overtired cycle.

This is why generally, if you see that your child takes quality naps, their night sleep will follow suit, and the other way around”

When a baby is overtired, adrenaline and cortisol increase causing a hyper-alert state. This makes babies irritable and fussy and prevents them from falling asleep easily. Cortisol counteracts and suppresses melatonin (the sleep hormone) which in turn, makes it difficult for your baby to fall asleep. That’s why daytime sleep begets nighttime sleep in babies.

Furthermore, cortisol prevents your baby from sinking into a deeper sleep. Even if your baby falls asleep, they will wake up more frequently throughout the night. The fact is, babies require tons of sleep! While it won’t be this way forever, it’s certainly true for the early years of your little one’s life.

Lastly, consistent sleep patterns help regulate your baby’s circadian rhythm (their internal clock).

When babies receive adequate and consistent sleep, their bodies learn to anticipate periods of rest, leading to smoother transitions between sleep cycles and longer stretches of sleep overall.”

How long should it take your baby to fall asleep?

According to Rachel Mitchell, “Ideally it takes somewhere between five to 20 minutes for your child to fall asleep for naps, and five to 30 minutes at night. There are a lot of factors that affect this, but when children take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep that is usually a sign of a scheduling or routine issue.”

If your little one falls asleep in less than five minutes, wakes mid-way through a nap, or frequently at night, they might be overtired. However, if it takes longer than 20 minutes, your baby may need additional awake time. 

To help prevent your little one from becoming overtired, it is very important to understand their sleep patterns and set a routine so you put them to bed before they begin to show signs of being overtired.

For example, learn how much sleep your little one needs. From birth to two months old, your baby will most likely need between 14 to 17 hours of total sleep. This will gradually reduce as they grow. 

Furthermore, it’s important to keep track of your baby’s wake windows i.e. the time they can remain awake between naps. It is usually around two hours for newborns, however, if your baby displays overtiredness before the two hours are up, their wake windows might be shorter.

Signs of an overtired newborn

According to Dr. Vyas, pediatrician and founder of Sleepless at NOLA, “Newborns should not have long cycles of sleep overnight as they should be waking to feed approximately every 3 hours. However, if they are only taking 20-minute naps during the day, they will have even more frequent wakeups overnight.”

Up to around six months of age, each of your baby’s naps should be roughly 2.5 to 3.5 hours long, with 45-minute to two-hour wake windows in between each nap. Establishing a soothing routine for bedtime can contribute to calming your baby and readying them for sleep. Ideally, you should aim to start this routine when your baby shows signs of tiredness and well before they become overtired.

A sleepy baby will often be quieter, less active, appear calm, and stare blankly. It is at this time you want to put your baby down for a nap. To avoid sleep dependency, foster independent sleep, and prevent separation anxiety, remember to put baby down awake but drowsy, and ensure they don’t fall asleep in your arms.

Signs that your baby is past overtired include – 

  1. Frequent yawning
  2. Crying
  3. Rubbing eyes
  4. Fussing
  5. Crankiness and irritability
  6. Difficulty in calming them

If your baby becomes overtired, it’s likely because they missed a nap, stayed awake for too long between naps, or went to sleep later than usual at night.

Two things you might be doing that make your baby overtired

With busy schedules, work, managing the home, and all the responsibilities that come with it, staying consistent can be a tough one for parents with newborns. While it might be difficult, not adhering to a set nap schedule and putting baby down to rest later than expected does cause overtiredness.

Another factor that often contributes to overtiredness is creating a sleep crutch for your little one. For example, letting them fall asleep in your arms, or bouncing, holding them too much. These actions can lead to negative sleep associations, and interfere with your baby’s ability to self-soothe and fall asleep independently. If you do miss a nap, try to put baby down earlier for the next one or move bedtime up.

Always put your newborn on a flat surface in a crib without extra bedding, such as sheets and blankets, so that he or she can fall asleep independently.”

If you do miss a nap, try to put baby down earlier for the next one or move bedtime up.

Can you help baby sleep if they become overtired?

While your baby will find it difficult to settle down once overtired, there are certain things you can try to calm and soothe them into drowsiness:

  1. Swaddle your little one and hold them close to you.
  2. Make sure they are well-fed and full and wait a while before putting them down to avoid reflux.
  3. Rock or bounce them until they begin to drift off.
  4. Following your set bedtime routine can also help.
  5. Set up an environment that is conducive to sleep – Use a humidifier, keep the room dark, and set up a sound machine.

Should you wake a sleeping baby?

Newborns usually lose a bit of weight the first few days after birth. It should take a couple of weeks for your little one to regain this weight. Therefore, while sleep does beget sleep, sometimes you will need to wake your sleeping baby. 

For your baby to regain their weight, you may have to wake them for a feed. Especially if your little one is sleeping longer than four hours at a stretch. Most newborns require 12 feeds a day, every two to three hours.


You may also like


Stay in the know

Sign up to get sleep tips, exciting product updates, and special offers right into your inbox.