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Why Developmental Milestones are Disrupting your Baby's Sleep

As a stay at home mom and a sleep consultant, I have the privilege of working with, spending time with and talking about babies and children…well…constantly. Something that holds true with every child, 100% of the time, is that they are always changing! One minute you think you’ve got their eating, sleeping and mannerisms figured out and then the next moment, everything is turned upside down.

When I was a new mom, this was very frustrating to me! I would finally get into a manageable, predictable schedule and then all of a sudden, my son's 2 hour morning nap was only 1 hour. Or he would be consistently sleeping through the night until suddenly he started to wake in the middle of the night! Nothing made me more frustrated than these constant changes with no explanation.

Looking back, I was a bit naïve to think that there was no explanation for these changes I was noticing. Now, let me be clear, sometimes there truly is no explanation. Babies have off days just like we do. You can’t look at one day and make an assumption about what is going on. But, when you look at the bigger picture and see some patterns emerge, the good news is – there IS an explanation!

If your baby is learning to crawl, getting some new teeth, just figured out how to roll over, or starting to develop his/her language, these developmental milestones are likely to cause disruptions in your baby’s sleep.

In a 2015 study published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, researchers looked at the sleep patterns of babies before they started crawling, while they were learning to crawl, and a few months after learning to crawl.

The results stated that, “Along with the overall improvement in sleep consolidation, periods of increased long wake episodes were also manifested; the rise in sleep disruption was temporally linked to crawling onset. The results of the study highlight the dynamic interrelations between domains of development, indicate that emerging motor skills may involve periods of disrupted sleep, and point to the moderating effect of age.”

To sum it up, babies appear to have more nighttime wake-ups around the time that they learn to crawl. (Nighttime wake-ups were monitored by a motion sensor on baby’s ankle and were only counted if baby was moving around for more than five minutes.)

Teething is another one of the usual suspects when it comes to disruptions in baby’s sleep, and again, it seems like common sense. If baby has sore gums, that discomfort is probably going to make it a little tougher to get to sleep and stay asleep.

A study from the April 2000 issue of Pediatrics found that during the 4 days before a tooth emerged, the day it popped out, and for the three days following, there was a statistical increase in wakefulness and irritability. Of course this discomfort is going to be disruptive to your child’s sleep!

Now let’s talk about the development of language and gross motor skills.

Much like the rest of us, babies get excited when they start to learn a new skill. To your baby, learning to roll over, crawl, or talk elicits quite a bit of excitement and eagerness to practice. They get a real thrill out of this newfound ability and they are going to practice it over and over. In the morning, in the afternoon, and when they wake up in the middle of the night, and that excitement is going to make it a little more difficult for them to get back to sleep.

I see a lot of parents looking for a “solution” in this scenario, and in trying to get their baby’s sleep back on track, they tend to lose consistency. They’ll move bedtimes around, start rocking or feeding baby back to sleep, change up the bedtime routine, anything they think might help. I certainly did this when my son’s sleep was disrupted. I was desperate to fix it!

The best advice I can give you is to hold steady. You’re probably going to have to go in and soothe your baby a little more often during this period, and you’ll have to help get them out of the uncomfortable positions they manage to get themselves into, and you’ll likely have some frustrating nights where your little one will drive you a little crazy with their babbling. And although you can’t fix the situation, you CAN avoid make things much harder for both you and your baby.

Adopting a bunch of quick-fixes in order to get your baby sleeping quickly when they wake up at night will very likely end up creating dependencies that will last long past the time baby’s figured out how to get themselves readjusted when they wake up in the night.

So don’t give in to the temptation to rock or bounce them to sleep, don’t let them sleep in the swing, don’t take them for car rides, and above all, don’t nurse or feed them back to sleep. Offer them some comfort, tell them it’s still bedtime, help them get back into a comfortable position if they’ve gotten themselves pushed up against the side of the crib, or roll them onto their backs if they’ve flipped, but make sure to let them get back to sleep on their own. That way, once they’ve got this new skill mastered, they’ll still have the ability to self-soothe when they wake up at night.

These stages aren’t easy – ask any mom. Sometimes it feels like your baby finally masters one skill just in time for another one to develop. Hang in there. These changes are absolutely normal and throughout everything, your baby is also developing the ability to better consolidate nighttime sleep! So stay consistent and rest assured that more sleep-filled nights are headed your way!


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