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Navigating the Mysterious World of Baby and Toddler Sleep Products: What to Buy and What to Avoid

We get a lot of questions about sleep products. There are some that are great innovations that do promote healthy sleep, but the vast majority of baby sleep products are either useless or harmful.

The Good: Your baby needs less to sleep than you think she needs. We generally recommend products that promote a quality sleep environment, like black out shades, continuous white noise machines, and lightweight pajamas (see our blog on sleep environment). These items are not meant to make your baby sleep, they are meant to protect your baby’s sleep from things that we know cause problems. When light leaks into your baby’s room in the early morning that resets her biological clock and causes her to ‘lock in’ to an early morning waking (see our blog on that here). When the newspaper truck goes by or the neighbor’s dog barks at 5:00 AM and sleep is light, a white noise machine will dampen those sounds and prevent your baby from having an alerting response. When your baby’s body temperature drops and then rises during the course of the night, dressing her in lightweight, breathable fabric will allow her temperature to regulate and will prevent her from getting too hot or too cold during the natural drop and rise in nighttime body temperature. For babies under four months and not yet rolling, a lightweight swaddle will help protect sleep from the startle reflex and wandering arms (see our blog on swaddles).

The Bad: On the other hand, we generally don’t recommend the latest and greatest sleep product on the market. Manufacturers know that parents will try anything to get their children to sleep and they’ve taken full advantage of promoting the promise of sleep. Although many sleep products claim to ‘soothe your baby to sleep,’ through sound, lights or motion, these devices can actually disrupt sleep and should be avoided. Since light has a direct impact on the circadian rhythm and is immediately alerting, it is never a good idea to introduce anything with lights in your baby’s crib. She might enjoy looking at a toy that lights up, but it won’t help her sleep. Music is commonly used as a sleep cue, but some manufacturers recommend you play music all night. This isn’t a great idea, because the dynamic changes that happen in most music could cause your baby to wake up in the early morning when sleep is lightest. Many babies do love to sleep while in motion and you don’t need to avoid letting your baby sleep on the go, but when you are home it’s always safer to have your baby sleep in a crib free of loose objects and bumpers rather than in a motion-inducing device.

The REALLY Bad: Although there are many products that are “approved” for sleep, we’ve watched many come and go due to tragic accidents, including the Amby Baby Hammock, the Nap Nanny, crib positioners and drop-side cribs to name a few. If you are using any of these products, you should stop immediately. Babies sleep well when elevated and cradled, which is what these and similar products attempt to mimic. Although there are currently other similar products that are available and sold as “alternative sleep locations,” it’s important to know that such devices should be used with extreme caution, only as directed and should never be used beyond the recommended age and weight limits. Babies with reflux are generally the only ones who may truly benefit from these types of elevated sleep devices. We would not recommend such products for otherwise healthy babies except during supervised sleep (e.g. naps with a parent constantly monitoring sleep) and only if absolutely necessary. If you are using such a device, make sure you discuss your purchase with your pediatrician for guidance on when to stop. Check the status of recalled products at the CPSC website on sleep safety here and sign up for updates to make sure you aren’t using any currently recalled baby products.

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