We've all heard those horror stories about babies not sleeping for weeks or months or years on end and parents who are desperate to find relief. Perhaps you've experienced a restless baby yourself. Maybe you're the parent whose baby just will not sleep, no matter what you've tried and your only relief is doing something drastic, like going for a drive around the block or putting them in a baby carrier and walking around the house at all hours of the night. But why does your baby sleep better in a carrier? The second you stop walking around and start to think about putting him down, he wakes up and you're right back to square one. If this is you, you must be looking for some relief.
If you really think about it, why wouldn't a baby prefer to sleep strapped to your chest? It's warm and cuddly and they probably feel super safe. Still, you can't spend all night, every night in perpetual babywearing motion. I checked in with Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, a pediatric sleep specialist and the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, to find out exactly what it is that makes babies prefer sleeping in carriers and how you can both get some better sleep.
As Dr. Schneeberg explains to Romper in an email, babies fall into these unwanted sleep habits due to developing a "sleep crutch," or "something that a baby has learned to need in order to fall asleep." A pacifier, motion from a car ride, and yes, even a baby carrier are all examples of sleep crutches. When a baby "has learned to fall asleep only when he or she is upright in a carrier worn by a mom who is walking, this becomes the baby's favorite and preferred way to fall asleep," Dr. Schneeberg continues.
Just like babies develop preferences for other things, like your particular scent, babies can develop preferences around sleep, too. When the sleep crutch is granted by a well-meaning and/or desperate parent, the "baby will protest and stay awake until these conditions are provided again," says Dr. Schneeberg. Sound familiar? Don't worry moms, we've all been there.
In fact, as an article in Parents explained, creating a sleep crutch is one of the most common mistakes parents make. The article adds that by the time your baby reaches 3 or 4 months of age, some of the habits you use to help your baby fall asleep will automatically turn into sleep crutches. Not only that, but some of our go-to sleep crutches aren't always safe or healthy for our babies.
Needless to say, these crutches (such as baby carriers) can create a lot of frustrating nights for mom, dad and baby. Nobody gets any sleep, which is problematic for everyone. Even worse, this isn't a safe bedtime routine, according to Dr. Schneeberg. "Babies need to be moved to a crib as soon as possible if they fall asleep in a car seat, stroller, swing, or infant carrier," she says. Otherwise, she cautions, "the baby's head can flop too far forward which can block the airway."
But what's a mom to do? First of all, you need to make a plan and stick to it. Dr. Schneeberg suggests committing to help your baby "learn to self-comfort" some time around 6 months of age. When she's fed, dry, warm, and "drowsy but still awake," put her into the crib and "allow the baby to learn how to self-soothe to sleep," she says. For some moms, this may seem like an impossible feat, but Dr. Schneeberg says you can accomplish this in a supportive way by sitting nearby or right next to the crib and providing a calm presence... without picking up your baby.
"All babies wake up several times a night," she says. "Babies who don't know how to self-soothe will need whatever sleep crutch they used to fall asleep the first time and every time they wake... several times a night." Which sounds like a literal nightmare. A baby who can self-soothe and learn to put themselves to sleep, on the other hand, will sleep for longer, fuller, deeper cycles.
If you're afraid the damage is done and your baby will sleep in a carrier until high school (and where will you ever find a carrier in a size that large?), don't worry. It's never too late to help your child unlearn those unfavorable sleep habits, it just takes a bit of effort and patience. So if you make the decision to revamp your baby's sleep habits, keep your eye on the prize: A return to pre-baby nights of uninterrupted sleep.