Healthy Sleeping Habits

What It Really Means To ‘Sleep Like a Baby,’ According to Doctors—And, Crucially, How To Do It

Photo: Getty Images/Fizkes
The phrase “sleep like a baby” is often used to describe having a really great nap or getting a full night's sleep. But, to most new parents, this understanding of the idiom doesn't track and might even land as triggering. That's because many babies aren't, in fact, good sleepers. So what does it actually mean to sleep like a baby?

While newborns may sleep up to 19 hours a day, they usually wake up every few hours to eat. As a result, they—and their parents—often don’t end up sleeping all that well, or at least in uninterrupted stretches. And even past that newborn stage, plenty of parents find themselves searching for tips and tricks to keep their little one sleeping through the night.

With all of this in mind, there’s no official definition for this expression, but it’s generally used “to imply peaceful, quiet, refreshing sleep, like one might observe when an infant is sleeping silently in their crib,” says sleep medicine specialist W Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. As a whole, “it's meant to designate excellent sleep,” he says.

But as for what “sleeping like a baby” means like in reality? “It depends upon the parent you ask,” Dr. Winter jokes. That said, it's possible to take steps to help you get closer to that accepted definition of the phrase by taking stock of what barriers might be blocking you from that peaceful, quiet, refreshing, excellent sleep that Dr. Winter references.

There are number of reasons that someone might not be sleeping like a baby, but a top concern Dr. Winter and other mental health professionals point to is stress and anxiety. The good news is that it's possible to address the causes of those sleep-stealing culprits and sleep as if you're a tiny human, without a care in the world.

How worry and stress can get in the way of sleeping like a baby

Feeling anxious or worried “is a barrier to sleep for some people,” says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. “If you’re anxious and on edge, it can be harder to slow down and relax the body,” she adds. Cue: You, having difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.

“If you’re anxious and on edge, it can be harder to slow down and relax the body.” —Thea Gallagher, PsyD

Even after identifying anxiety or stress that might be compromising your sleep, dealing with those symptoms can also affect your shut-eye quality. According to Dr. Winter, highly anxious people tend to sleep less soundly than those who have fewer worries, and they may also underestimate how much sleep they're actually getting—sometimes by many hours. This might lead folks to be stressed about feeling as though they didn't get a lot of sleep, which Dr. Winter says might lead to even more stress.

So, how do you know stress or anxiety could be compromising your ability to sleep like a baby? Dr. Winter says to look for the following six signs.

  1. It takes you a long time to fall asleep.
  2. You wake up a lot during the night.
  3. You have trouble getting back to sleep when you wake up.
  4. You feel wiped during the day.
  5. You’re not satisfied with your sleep.
  6. You have negative dreams, like drowning or being chased.

After identifying any number of those situations being true, you can then begin to take steps to change the situation by lowering your stress levels and hopefully beginning to sleep at a higher-quality level.

4 tips for how to sleep worry-free

While learning to sleep worry-free sounds great and may well contribute to less stress in worry in your waking hours as well, pulling it off is easier said than done. If it were easy, we'd all just… do it, right? Still, doctors say there are a few strategies you can employ to calm down and clear your mind before bed. And then, you'll be all the more likely to peacefully sleep, like a baby.

  1. Avoid stressful situations before bed. That means taking a pass on watching the news, reading political information, or looking at stressful emails, Winter says.
  2. Increase your daytime exercise. “Vent your anxiety via physical activity,” Dr. Winter suggests. Just try not to do this before bed, since exercising before you go to sleep can actually make you feel more ramped up.
  3. Try breathing exercises. Breath training, where you breathe in for a count, hold it, and breathe out, “helps your mind come back to the present and slow down,” Dr. Gallagher says. This can help calm your mind for sleep, she says.
  4. Practice mindfulness. That may include meditation, prayer, or yoga before you hop in bed to help you “let go of the day’s stresses,” Dr. Winter says.

If you’re still struggling to settle down your mind for sleep, or you feel like worries are keeping you up at night, it may be time to speak with a mental-health professional. “Anxiety is a medical problem,” Dr. Winter points out. “Seek help for it if your own measures are not successful.”

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