What is a false start?

Have you heard the term “false start?” Many parents, especially if you’re a NEW parent, have never heard of this, although you may have experienced it and just not known what it was called. A false start is when you put your baby to bed for the night and they are up again in less than an hour. 

Typically a false start means your baby is waking again within 30 to 45 minutes. As a tired mama, there is nothing WORSE than a false start! You’re exhausted and have finally gotten your baby down for the night, and JUST as soon as you’re about to jump in the shower or feed yourself dinner, your baby is up again!

Why do false starts happen?

Your baby is overtired.

The most common reason for false starts is an overtired baby. Babies that are up too long or too late for their age tend to be overstimulated when going to bed. Their cortisol will spike, which happens when you miss their wake window and now they are wired. 

Babies that go to bed overtired will be difficult to get to sleep and won’t likely stay asleep for long. This is because cortisol (our stress hormone) is elevated when it should be at its lowest. Cortisol should be highest when your baby wakes in the morning, because cortisol is the hormone that is also responsible for waking us up in the morning. Then as the day goes on, it very slowly declines until we go to bed. It stays low all night until it slowly starts ramping up again shortly before it’s time to wake in the morning.

But when your baby misses his sleep window, cortisol will elevate to help keep your baby awake (since he wasn’t put down for bed when he was first sleepy). But then once you do put him down for bed, cortisol is still fighting to keep him awake. It can easily become a vicious cycle! This is why doing your best to avoid an overtired baby is so very important!  One of the easiest ways to do this is by making sure you understand your baby’s wake windows.

What to do: Monitor your baby’s naps and bedtime carefully. Know that short naps, no catnap (if younger than 8 months), or too much awake time before bed can cause your young baby to become overtired quickly. This is why I am not a fan of having a set bedtime until your baby is older. Don’t ever make the mistake of keeping your young baby up to a set bedtime when they are clearly tired and ready to go to sleep! Nothing good will come from this and it’s completely counterproductive. 

Your baby is still hungry.

If your baby didn’t get a full feed before bed, they may very well have a false start and wake within an hour of being put down. They are simply waking to finish their feed. This typically happens when a baby is so exhausted at bedtime that they are falling asleep at the breast or bottle.

What to do: This is an easy fix! If your baby is falling asleep at the bedtime feed, this is a sign that you need to back up bedtime. Here’s how to know that you timed bedtime right. Your baby can stay awake for the duration of the feed and they are actively sucking for the entirety of the feed. They are relaxed and ready for bed after the feed, but not conked out! 

Now, for a young baby, you may need to help stimulate them for the feeding. This is normal and fine. But if you are stimulating them and there’s NOTHING you can do to keep them awake, and you know they haven’t had a full feed, then that’s typically a sign that you waited too long to start the bedtime routine. 

How to Calculate When Your Baby’s Bedtime Should Start

Let’s take a 3 month old for example. A 3 month old is typically going to have a wake window of one hour and fifteen minutes or one and a half hours. Now, this is IF they’ve had their naps for the day AND they’ve taken their catnap (the last nap of the day that typically falls somewhere around 4:30pm to 5:30pm) 

If your baby’s catnap starts at 5:30pm and he sleeps until 6:15pm, then we know that his bedtime routine should be ending at 7:30pm to 7:45pm at the latest. (That’s an hour and a half from the end of the catnap) This means he should be down by 7:30pm/7:45pm. So now work your way backwards. How long does it take to get your baby ready for bed and do his feeding? Let’s just say half an hour (adjust according to your baby’s bedtime routine). This means that your baby’s bedtime routine should START at 7:00pm to 7:15pm. You don’t want to wait until your baby is showing tired signs to start the bedtime routine. This guarantees an overtired baby going to bed, who will likely be falling asleep at his bedtime feed. 

Your baby’s sleep environment isn’t optimized.

Having a sleep friendly environment is SO important! This is an easy fix and something I recommend parents do BEFORE baby even comes home. You don’t want to have to be figuring this out in those first few months when you’re sleep deprived. 

What to do: If your baby is going down and the room isn’t as conducive to sleep as it should be, your baby may wake. It could be noisy siblings, too much light in the room, or a temperature that is too warm or too cool. I find that many parents keep the baby’s room, or the house in general, too warm for comfortable sleeping. Proper sleeping temperature is between 68-72 degrees. Yes, cooler is BETTER! Dress your baby accordingly.

Here are some of my favorites for setting up a sleep friendly environment:

This list isn’t exhaustive, so if you’re looking for more options, feel free to reach out to me. Sometimes all it takes is some small tweaks to make BIG changes. 

Your baby isn’t in a proper swaddle.

If you have a baby 4 months or younger and they’re not in a swaddle, then this could be the reason they’re waking. Babies need to be swaddled to keep them from startling themselves awake. Young babies have a startle reflex and this reflex WILL wake them prematurely. You can literally lengthen a young baby’s sleep by HOURS by simply having them properly swaddled.

What to do: Get your baby into a proper swaddle. When I say proper, I mean something that is snug enough that they feel secure and cannot break out of. Too much freedom within the swaddle and your baby will fight against it. A good swaddle should calm your baby and make them feel relaxed. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Swaddle Me swaddle – This is good for very young babies and it’s easy to use.
  • Miracle Blanket swaddle – This is great for babies older than 4 weeks as it has an arm capture to keep them from breaking out. 
  • Swaddle Me pod – This comes in smaller and larger sizes and is good for babies that like their hands on their chest while they sleep. This can be used for newborns all the way through to 4 to 6 months old. They also have an option for zip off sleeves to help transition your baby to arms free.
  • Ollie Swaddle – Compressive and stretchy with velcro that holds well. Very long so baby will not outgrow it.
  • Happiest Baby Sleepea Swaddle – This is easy to use and has arms that can be removed once baby transitions out of needing arms in swaddle.

If you’ve tried all these things and your baby is still struggling with false starts, reach out to me and I will help you troubleshoot! It’s generally pretty easy for me to figure out why sleep isn’t happening and exactly what we need to do to fix it. I love to help families find better, EASIER ways to create independent sleepers in their home.

10 Simple Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep Better Tonight

These tips are simple, easy to implement, and created to help your baby slowly step into a healthy, secure relationship with sleep!

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