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False Start Bedtime Fixes: Get Your Baby to Fall Asleep & Stay Asleep

False Start Bedtime Fixes: Get Your Baby to Fall Asleep & Stay Asleep

A false start bedtime is when you think your baby is asleep for the night, so you put them to bed, only for them to be awake again shortly afterwards.

This can be extremely challenging, as the cycle can last for hours every night before your baby finally decides to stay asleep.

newborn baby asleep on her mothers chest after a bedtime false start

How to Fix False Start Bedtimes

Bedtime false starts are a common, developmentally normal occurrence for newborns.

But there are things you can do to minimise them. Here’s how:

1. Don’t Confuse The Period of Purple Crying with Tiredness

The period of purple crying (aka. ‘The Witching Hour) is a developmentally normal phase that newborns go through.

This period of purple crying begins at around two weeks of age. When it starts, parents often notice that their baby becomes more fussy, or very difficult (sometimes impossible) to soothe in late afternoons and evenings.

This period of fussiness gradually increases until peaking at between six to eight weeks old. Then it will slowly decrease before stopping at around three to four months of age.

When a baby becomes fussy in the evening due to the period of purple crying, and they don’t settle after a feed, it’s easy to assume they’re tired.

In addition to this, during this period it’s extremely common for newborns to fall asleep briefly and then wake and want to be held, cluster fed or suck on a pacifier. This can look like a baby who is just tired and needs sleep but keeps waking, when in fact that’s not the case.

a young mother cradling her crying baby in her arms trying to settle her

Avoiding a False Start Bedtime Due to the Period of Purple Crying:

Simply wait until later in the night to put them down. In the meantime, try soothing them in alternative ways during their fussy period.

For example, you could offer your little one a pacifier or encourage them to suck on their fingers to help soothe them.

Another option is to carry or wear them in a baby carrier.

Other options are to:

  • Let them nap on you as needed
  • Let them cluster feed if they’re breastfeeding or pace feed if you’re bottle feeding

Your newborn’s bedtime will gradually become more consistent and shift to an earlier time by around three months of age. The period of purple crying will also fade at this point.

Woman breastfeeing her young baby

2. Cater For Your Newborn’s Natural Late Bedtime

Newborn babies naturally have a relatively late bedtime compared to toddlers and young children.

For most babies, their bedtime will be anywhere between 10pm and midnight during their first few months of life.

The expectation that your baby should be going down to sleep for the night before this is a common cause of bedtime false starts.

If you’re trying to put your baby down for the night before 10pm, and find that they fall asleep, only to be awake a short time later, this might be the cause.

The Solution if This is Causing a False Start at Bedtime:

Try resetting your expectation around your baby’s bedtime.

Rather than starting at 7-8pm and trying for hours trying to get them to fall asleep and stay asleep, just aim for a later bedtime. I recommend 10pm as a rough guide, but test and see what works for your little one. This one small change can often relieve so much stress for new parents who find bed time a battle every night.

As babies get older, their bedtime usually gets earlier. By 5-6 months of age I recommend aiming for a bed time close to 7pm. Though again, this may vary a little depending on your baby and their nap schedule.

mother waking her newborn baby during the early evening

3. Use Wake Windows

Wake windows are a tool to help understand when your baby is likely to be ready for their next nap.

While they aren’t perfect, wake windows are one indicator of how much sleep pressure your baby has accumulated since their last nap. Because babies rely heavily on sleep pressure to guide their sleep cycles, this is a good way to predict nap timing.

If you try to put your baby down for the night when they have low sleep pressure, they are more likely to wake shortly after being put to bed.

How to Use Wake Windows to Avoid a False Start Bedtime:

The easiest way to use wake windows to help with false start bedtimes is to ensure your baby is awake for a sufficient amount of time for them to be tired again before trying to put them to sleep for the night.

Because babies build sleep pressure gradually while they are awake, it’s important to make sure they don’t nap too close to bedtime.

Wake windows are based on age. If you’d like to learn how many naps your baby should take each day, how long those naps will be, and how long each wake window in between will be as well, click here to download the free ‘new parent’s guide to naps’. This lists all of this information for you in a handy chart that you can reference whenever you need to.

4. Don’t Let Night Feeds and Diaper Changes Ruin Sleep

Once you do get your little one down to sleep for the night, it’s highly likely that they’re going to wake throughout the night for feeds. When this happens, you’ll want to get them back to sleep as quickly and as easily as possible afterwards.

But some really common habits often result in a night feed turning into an extended wake period. These simple mistakes can make it a huge struggle to put your baby to sleep again.

The two most common causes are:

  • Overstimulating babies during a night feed
  • Night-time diaper changes
  • Unnecessary and/or excess burping

Preventing Overstimulation Leading to False Starts:

There are a few things you need to make sure you avoid when your baby wakes for a feed, which will unintentionally keep them awake for far longer than necessary.

You’ve probably noticed that your newborn falling asleep while feeding. This is because sucking is calming for babies, and the hormones released during feeding makes your baby drowsy, causing them to drift back to sleep.

However you’ve also likely noticed that your newborn wakes up when you burp them or change their diaper.

That’s because these activities can be really stimulating for a newborn and often rouse them from their sleep.

What many people don’t realize is that sometime between six to eight weeks newborns typically stop having bowel movements during the night. When this happens they don’t need their diaper changed until morning. A little urine in a disposable diaper gets absorbed rapidly, and doesn’t sit against the skin. For that reason a wet diaper doesn’t need to be changed in the middle of the night.

You can further reduce stimulation by not burping if you don’t have to.

Not all newborns need to be burped. In fact in some cultures burping isn’t even practiced.

In fact, a randomized control trial found that burping doesn’t impact a baby’s fussiness and may actually increase the likelihood of spitting up. So if you’re struggling with night feeding leading your baby waking for extended periods during the night, try not burping to reduce stimulation. You may find your little one doesn’t need it, and not doing it may help them fall asleep easily.

Finally, keep overnight interactions to a minimum. This means avoiding playing with your little one, keeping light to a minimum and refraining from watching TV.

If you do need some entertainment to keep you awake, consider watching something on your mobile device with the brightness turned down and with headphones in.

5. Don’t Accidentally Wake Your Baby Prematurely

Newborns spend a significantly larger portion of their sleep in REM sleep which is crucial for their brain development. But unlike adults who experience sleep paralysis during REM sleep, newborns don’t have this protective mechanism.

As a result, they’re more likely to move and make noises or even cry out, grunt, laugh or smile during REM phases of the sleep cycle.

A false start bedtime can happen when carers hear their baby making these noises, assume they’re awake, and go in and pick them up when the baby was actually asleep.

Babies also often wake briefly between sleep cycles. Once they start connecting sleep cycles, they may wake in between, but fall asleep again not long after. If you go in as soon as you hear a noise from them you risk waking them prematurely.

Also, if you continue to regularly wake them up when they’re still sleeping you risk creating sleep associations where your baby will start waking up more frequently because they get used to more regular feeds or having you there to comfort them during the night.

How to Avoid False Start Bedtimes Caused By Waking Your Baby Prematurely

To avoid this it’s essential to be patient and observe when your baby starts making noises in their sleep. When they begin to stir, wait a few minutes to determine whether your baby is genuinely awake, or just transitioning between sleep cycles.

You’ll know if they’re genuinely awake because the noises will get louder and more frequent and may even turn into a cry. On the other hand if they’re still sleeping the noises will gradually decrease and become more spaced out.

mother leaning over crib with newborn baby lying in it crying

6. Don’t Let Your Baby Fall Asleep Elsewhere, Then Transition to Their Cot

A false start bedtime can happen when a baby fell asleep in a different place to where they end up sleeping.

For example, if your baby falls asleep in your arms and you gently put them to bed without them waking.

When this happens, it’s an unexpected surprise for your baby to wake up and no longer be in your arms. This is both confusing and alarming for them. If they drift out of sleep briefly or wake between sleep cycles and realise they’re in a different place, they’re much more likely to wake fully and cry out rather than falling back to sleep.

baby asleep on mother's chest

Preventing False Start Betimes Caused By Transitioning a Sleeping Baby

Avoid your baby falling asleep on you if you’re planning on putting them to bed. Instead, wait until your baby is drowsy but not completely asleep, and then place them down in their cot while still awake.

7. Create an Ideal Sleep Environment

Your baby’s sleep important is crucial to ensure your baby falls asleep easily and that they then stay asleep.

False start bedtimes can happen if their environment isn’t dark and cool, and also if there are lots of loud noises.

It only takes one loud noise, or a bright light to suddenly wake them and create a false start at bedtime.

mother reading her newborn a book while sitting in a chair in a dark, quiet room

Creating a Great Sleep Environment To Avoid False Starts

To create a sleep space that helps prevent false start bedtime, you need three core elements:

  1. Quiet – the room should be quiet, meaning no sudden loud noises. Using a white noise machine is a great way to mask loud noises and I recommend using one to improve your baby’s sleep.
  2. Dark – keeping your baby’s room nice and dark helps remove stimulation, so if they do briefly wake, they are much more likely to fall back asleep. If the room is light, they are more likely to become stimulated by what’s around them.
  3. Cool – keeping your baby’s room at a comfortable temperature is also extremely important for great sleep. Aim forbetween 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit (20-22 degrees celsius).
Emma Hubbard

Emma Hubbard

Emma Hubbard is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience. She received her Bachelor's Degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Newcastle. Emma is the founder of Brightest Beginning & writes about all things child development, sleep, feeding, toilet training and more.

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