Sleep Begets Sleep? The Truth About Baby Sleep

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The more baby sleeps, the better baby will sleep. Sleep begets sleep. Do not think you can keep baby up for hours and then get a nice long nap or long night sleep. Baby needs lots of sleep.

The more baby sleeps, the better baby will sleep. Sleep begets sleep. Do not think you can keep baby up for hours and then get long sleep.

Many moms worry that if their child gets too much sleep in the day, they won’t sleep well in the night. It seems like a good idea to prevent daytime sleep so baby will sleep better at night.

Part of that idea is true. Too much sleep can cause nighttime sleep disruptions. However, you are unlikely to run into that issue until possibly 5 months of age or older, and only if you aren’t dropping a nap when your baby needs to.

But the thing you need to tell yourself and assure yourself of over and over again is that sleep begets sleep.

Sleep Begets Sleep

What does sleep begets sleep even mean? It essentially means you need sleep in order to have future sleep. It means that when your baby sleeps well for naps, night sleep will be better. The inverse is also true. If baby doesn’t sleep well for naps, night sleep will suffer.

A common trend among modern parents is to keep baby up all day in order to get baby to sleep well at night. This just doesn’t work. Preventing a baby from sleeping actually leads so to sleep problems. Look what these well-know baby sleep experts have to say on the topic:

  • Tracy Hogg, in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, says “…being overtired will actually ruin her sleep” (page 168).
  • Ezzo and Buckman in On Becoming Babywise assure parents their babies need to sleep. They need to sleep for physical, emotional, and intellectual reasons.
  • Marc Weissbluth states in Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child that “…sleep begets sleep. This is a true statement. Even though it is not logical, it is biological!” (page 229). 

It isn’t logical, it is biological.

I love that! 

The better rested your baby and child is, the better they will sleep overall. That is one reason I suggest you use alternative methods of sleeping during sleep training (so long as it doesn’t interfere with the overall process) see What to do When Baby Wakes Early From Naps or Won’t Fall Asleep For Naps. 

If your child gets overly tired, she will have a hard time falling asleep, will cry longer before naps, and have a harder time sleeping through the nap. Hogg says, “…when she finally does sleep, it’s fitful and abbreviated, sometimes no more than twenty minutes, so she’s cranky practically all the time” (page 168).

Parents Need to Ensure Sleep Happens

As the parent, you are in charge of establishing these good sleep patterns. You can’t wait for your child to ask to take a nap (some children might, but a small percentage, and only when they are really tired). And of course, a baby can’t tell you with words she needs a nap.

Now at some point, your overly tired child will crash and crash hard. He will finally sleep long and hard. But this is a rare occurrence in the overly tired child.

Don’t just wait until your child falls asleep. Be proactive about sleep and have a consistent sleep schedule. 

Let me illustrate this point with an experience we had when Brayden was three and Kaitlyn was 16 months old.

We traveled to Yellowstone National Park. We left our home at 3:30 in the afternoon, which was later than we had anticipated. We had hoped to leave by 2:00 or 2:30. Because of that, we had decided to not put the kids down for a nap. We then drove to Yellowstone and arrived at 9:00 PM. Our kids did not sleep in thee car, so despite the fact that they had missed a nap and were late for bed, they still hadn’t fallen asleep.

We got settled and they were finally both in bed at about 10 PM (Kaitlyn was a bit earlier). They both slept fine that night.

The next day, we had Kaitlyn take her morning nap in her bed, then set off for seeing the sights. Brayden (3) again missed his nap that day. Around 6 PM, Brayden actually fell asleep in the car for about 20 minutes, and woke up crying. That is the third time since he turned one he had fallen asleep in the car. We were there with friends (who incidentally don’t do schedules or naps) and the dad observed that our kids probably don’t sleep in the car because they know they will get to sleep in their beds.

We got back to camp and the kids were put to bed in good time. My husband and I went to bed at 10:30. A few minutes later, Brayden woke up crying. He woke up almost every hour that night. That had never happened in his lifetime. He wasn’t sick or scared or cold, he was just tired. He wasn’t even really fully waking, just crying for a minute then going back to sleep.

We decided that from then on, he needed his nap. We had Kaitlyn skip her morning nap one day to get more sightseeing in, but only once she was rested enough. After a couple of days of naps and good bedtimes, the kids were both back up to par.

There was one day Kaitlyn asked for an extra nap. We were cooking dinner so I gave it to her–she is one of the small percentages of children who will ask for a nap.

When we got home, poor Kaitlyn was so tired. She had independent playtime at 5 PM but instead took a 1.5 hour nap (woke because I woke her) then went to bed at 7:30.

Frequent Questions from Parents about Sleep

Remember what Weissbluth said? It isn’t logical? Because of that, people can have a hard time believing sleep begets sleep. Here are some common questions.

Q: Do babies sleep better at night if they nap during the day?

A: YES! They absolutely do. If your child doesn’t get enough sleep, a sleep deficit builds up over time, which leads to your baby or little one having a hard time sleep. I often say to focus on getting your naps down and night sleep will follow.

Q: How long after the last nap should bedtime be?

A: This one can really vary from child to child. I had one who was up for maybe an hour between the final nap and bedtime. I had others who had a couple of hours between the last nap and bedtime. I have a post full of Tips for Finding Your Child’s Ideal Bedtime here.

Q: Should you wake a sleeping baby in the morning?

A: YES! If it is time to get up according to your schedule, get up and get going. Consistency is so key. See What Time to Start Baby’s Day and Should You Wake Up a Sleeping Child? for more. 

How to Know if Baby is Overtired

If you aren’t sure if your child is overtired or if it is something else, consider the following:

  • Was your little one’s sleep schedule or daily routine recently disrupted? 
  • Is your little one unusually fussy?
  • Is your little one waking at night and inconsolable?
  • Is your little one having a hard time falling asleep for naps or night?
  • Is your little one falling asleep while eating, sitting still, or driving (and this isn’t usual)?
  • Is your little one waking from naps early or early in the morning?

If the answer to most of these is yes, your little one is probably overly tired and needs more sleep to solve these sleep problems. If your baby won’t sleep, you probably have a problem with your baby sleep schedule. 

How To Get an Overtired Baby To Sleep

Despite your best efforts, there will be times your baby or child just doesn’t get the sleep needed and ends up being overtired. That happens! Do not beat yourself up. There are things you can do.

Do not expect your overly tired baby or toddler to be the same sleeper he is when he is well-rested. He will likely have a harder time falling asleep, take a shorter nap than usual, and/or wake up more often in the night. 

Do not be afraid of some sleep props or helps if you need them to help your baby get back to well-rested. Even holding your baby through a nap is fine if that is what you need to do for getting baby back to being well-rested. 

See my tips on How to Calm Your Overstimulated Baby and My Sleep Hierarchy for Newborns to help you know what to do. If you are working with an overstimulated toddler, see my post on Overstimulation for Toddlers

Conclusion

Sleep begets sleep. Believe it. If my 3 year old boy who had good sleeping habits for 3 solid years can get that disrupted after a couple of days of lack of sleep, be confident your newborn can also. Believe that enough sleep is good and important for your child. Set up a solid sleep schedule for your little one. Do not be afraid of naps.

It’s not logical, it’s biological.

The more baby sleeps, the better baby will sleep. Sleep begets sleep. Do not think you can keep baby up for hours and then get long sleep.

Reader Thank Yous and Comments

  • The Traveling Turtle said…
    This is so true. The other day I was trying to keep my little one up a little longer and she was clearly tired. It took her a long time to get settled back down and when she did – she only took maybe 1 hour naps all day. She is 6 months old and usually takes 2 two hour naps and then one 1 hour nap in the late afternoon – then goes to bed at about 7:00 at night. When I put her to bed that night she screamed and cried for a little while (maybe 15 minutes, which is a long time for her – she usually doesn’t cry when going down anymore). I got her up, changed her diaper and sat with her for a moment to calm her down. When I put her down again, she screamed like I have never heard before. She was SO overtired. It took maybe 3 minutes of that and she was fast asleep. What a great post. I can’t even count the number of times older moms (mostly grandmothers) have told me to keep my baby up later if I want her to sleep in later. As we know – that is not the case.
    August 27, 2008 2:36 PM
    Plowmanators said…
    Thanks for your added experience Traveling Turtle!
    September 2, 2008 10:57 AM

  • Abby’s Mom said…
    When Abby was a month old her doctor actually suggested that I keep her up during the day to help her sleep at night. Can you imagine keeping a one month old awake all day? Needless to say, I ignored that advice!
    August 28, 2008 10:51 AM

  • Mockabee News said…
    I agree so much with sleep being needed in the day. A lot of my friends call my kids “coma” kids because they sleep so well day and night. Although it’s a bit offensive, I know that they love their sleep and need it so much developmentally. (well the second doesn’t love his as much as my first!)
    August 30, 2008 3:28 PM

  • Rachel Stella said…
    Research has shown that if you keep a baby/child up late or skip naps in the hopes of getting them to sleep longer at night they might at first, BUT over a short period of time will then start to sleep much worse at night. Maybe this is why some people thing this method will work, because it sometimes does at first.
    September 2, 2008 1:54 PM

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