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Your Guide to False Starts

When I hear the phrase “false start” I usually think of Football. But that is not what I am referring to here, lol (but I want add that I am so excited Football season is here!! Anyone else,??).

The false start I’m talking about here is as follows: 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. It can, rightfully, be the cause of parental anxiety and frustration because it’s not like baby was asleep for a few hours and then woke like a regular night waking, this is different. Why is baby waking up when I JUST put her down??

False Start vs. Night Waking

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 (need help night weaning, click here), and if they’re unable to string their sleep cycles together, well, that’s another conversation altogether, and a great reason to hire a pediatric sleep coach. *Wink wink*

And, as another side note, remember that everyone wakes up at the end of their sleep cycles, but adults (and babies who have worked with me ;-) know how to string the sleep cycles together and they go back to sleep pretty quickly. The 5-9 minute wake up between sleep cycles where your baby goes back to sleep on their own after a sleep cycle is again not what we are talking about here.

Common Causes of False Starts

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.

1. Discomfort

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 have a really handy guide to dressing your baby appropriately for different temperature nurseries. Ideally your child’s room will be a steady 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Lack of Sleep 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 (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.

3. Overtiredness

 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 (aka a second wind). 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.

Which one is it?

So, how do you know which scenario you’re dealing with and implement the right fix? Here is a general guide to wake windows that may help guide you or you could try the trial and error approach. If you do though, I suggest you start with moving bedtime up and tackle the chance of baby being overtired first. 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. Any change you make, hold fast for 3-4 days before making a new change to give the body a chance to adjust and correct if necessary.


Hopefully one of these solutions takes care of your little one’s false starts. If the problem persists, it might be time to consider some one-on-one help from a pediatric sleep coach who will look at the situation from a 360 perspective. It just so happens, I know a great one and you can make your Free 15 Minute Evaluation Appointment Call here :)


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