As a mother myself, as well as a sleep consultant who has met parents of babies and toddlers from across the globe, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that babies are indeed complicated creatures. And when child's sleep is not where it used to be, identifying the fact that there is a problem is far easier than solving the problem. But of course, solving the problem is what us parents want to do.
Now, if you’re the parent of a baby who’s learning to crawl, or who’s teething, or just figured out how to roll over, it is probably not surprising to you that developmental milestones are likely to cause disruptions in a baby’s sleep.
Night Wakings When Baby Learns a Skill
In a 2015 study published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, researchers looked at the sleep patterns of children 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.”
Simply put, babies appear to have more night wakings 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.”
In other words, 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.
Night Wakings When Baby Starts Teething
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’s got sore gums, that discomfort is probably going to make it a little tougher to get to sleep and stay asleep. But what do the studies say?
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 3 days following, there was a statistical increase in wakefulness and irritability.
My Best Advice to Curb Night Wakings
#1 Stay Consistent
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. To your baby, learning to roll over, learning to crawl, or learning to talk, means trying their new moves till they can nail them down.
The reason I wanted to talk about this is because 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. But the best advice I can give you is to hold steady.
#2 Don't Rely on New Sleep Props
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. You may even have some frustrating nights where your little one is busy babbling.
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 (sleep props) that will last long past the time baby’s figured out how to get themselves readjusted again. 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.
#3 Practice Independent Sleep
Offer baby some comfort, tell baby it’s still bedtime, help baby 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, baby will still have the ability to self-soothe 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.