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. That specific situation is what we’re referring to here.
The reason it’s important to distinguish between this scenario and the regular old “nighttime wake up” is because they’re caused by different things 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.
If your baby’s over six months of age and had a full feed before bed, then hunger likely isn’t the culprit, and if they’re unable to string their sleep cycles together, well, that’s another conversation altogether, and a great reason to start a proper sleep support program.
But false starts, as I mentioned, are a different animal and can often be solved fairly easily. 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
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 just being too warm or too cool can all cause baby to wake up quickly after they first manage to settle.
You can likely find remedies, temporary or permanent, to the first three by talking to your pediatrician. As for the temperature issue, I recommend a room temp of 20 degrees during day and 21-22 overnight. As a general rule, you should dress your child in one layer more than you're wearing.
See my Sleep Sense dressing guide below!
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 it does in the average adult. This is a big part of the reason 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, and it may be time to either drop a nap or reschedule their naps in order to allow that pressure to build up appropriately before bed.
This is where things can get a little challenging, because contrary to popular belief, overtiredness doesn’t look like a more intense version of regular tiredness.
Overtiredness causes cortisol secretion at the time when we want it the least, and actually causes baby to get quite energetic, making it difficult for them to get to sleep.
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 that we were in the earlier scenario, except instead of baby not getting enough awake time before bed, they’ve actually had too much.
Two completely opposite causes resulting in very similar symptoms, but requiring opposite solutions, which makes it difficult to know which course of action to take to remedy the situation.
So, how do you know which scenario you’re dealing with and implement the right fix? Well, if you're not sure then booking a sleep support package is a great way to get on track as soon as possible, or you could try the trial and error approach.
If you do though, I strongly suggest you start with 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 bad sleep at night, and on and on it goes. 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 to ensure you get the support and proper guidance you need.