If you’re the parent of a baby who’s learning to roll, crawl, walk or talk you will not be surprised by what I am about to say – developmental milestones affect 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: 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.)
To quote that same study, “In dynamic systems, downward trends in performance and in behavioral control often mark the emergence of new abilities. This pattern has been identified in diverse domains of infant development including manual reaching, vocal production, and language acquisition.” Or, in layman’s terms, things tend to get worse before they get better, and when your little one starts learning to talk, you can expect some random blathering sessions in the middle of the night.”
Let’s look more at language and movement skills and why they might be responsible for some more frequent nighttime wakeups. Much like the rest of us, babies get excited when they start to learn a new skill. 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.
So how do you navigate these exciting times? 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 batty with their babbling at 3:00am.
What you want to avoid is introducing ‘quick fixes’ that become new habits. It can be tempting to move bedtimes around, start rocking or feeding baby back to sleep, change up the bedtime routine, anything you think might help. But remember adopting a bunch of quick-fixes in order to get your baby sleeping quickly when they wake up at night is very likely to 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 selfsoothe when they wake up at night. It’s likely to be a bit of a challenge, and it may feel at times like one skill gets mastered just in time for another one to start developing, but hang in there. The whole time this is going on, your baby is also developing the ability to better consolidate nighttime sleep, so stay consistent and you can expect even more of those glorious sleep-filled nights once the storm has passed.