Understanding your baby’s sleep progression

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Expecting and New Parents / Infant Sleep / Parenting

Understanding your baby’s sleep progression

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Sleep Regression and the tools to help you survive it! Written by Parent Cloud Infant Sleep Specialist, Emma Gawne

When I set about writing this blog on the so called infamous infant sleep regression, my primary goal was to bring reassurance and hope that it is not all as bad as it is made out to be.

While it is not uncommon to see changes to your baby’s sleep patterns at various times during the first three years of their lives, it is worth noting that these periods almost always coincide with major milestones that are key to your baby’s developmental progress.

It would therefore be fitting to describe these so-called periods as “sleep progressions” as opposed to” sleep regressions”. But of course, progression is far too positive and unlike regression it does not really sell sleep books and miracle sleep products which claim to be the answer to something that is in fact so normal and important for your baby’s development.

Interestingly, if you run a Google search on sleep regression it comes up with over 200 million hits but if you delve in to the evidence based literature on infant sleep, there is very little to suggest that sleep regressions actually exists.

Developmental milestones that can affect sleep

Yes it goes without saying that developmental milestones and leaps are a constant in the first three years of a baby’s life and even the slightest change in development such as learning to roll over between the ages of 4-6 months can cause sleep to become disturbed a lot or a little.  We can also see disturbances to sleep between the ages of 8-10 months when your baby is learning to crawl and stand and then again at 12 months when they begin to walk.  This is followed by yet another potential hiccup between 18-24 months as they grapple with their ever-expanding vocabulary.

For a full list of the developmental milestones your baby goes through click here.

The main reason why you may see a so-called regression to your child’s sleep during these times, is because your baby, like adults, processes lots of new skills in their sleep. Their little brains are so busy working overtime perceiving, exploring, and experimenting during waking hours they often have difficulty switching off when it is time to sleep. What’s more it is not uncommon for a baby who has gone without night feeds for several weeks to suddenly wake in the night in the need of a feed as the sugars in the form of oligosaccharides found in milk provide vital food to fuel the developing brain.

During times of developmental changes it is also common for children to become progressively overstimulated and overtired throughout the day and at these times it is not uncommon for babies to wake more frequently at night sometimes for between one to three hours at a time. Neither is it uncommon for them to resist bedtime or naptime due to an overwhelming desire to practice their new skills (e.g. rolling, rocking on all fours, standing babbling, or talking)

This is widely prevalent and although not all babies will be affected by each developmental leap when their nights are disrupted it can sometimes last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

I would be lying if I said that these periods of developmental change are easy and why they might not last for ever when you are in the midst of a particularly challenging leap it can often seem like there is no end in sight to the continual broken nights.

6 proven ways to minimise the impact of developmental change:

ONE: Be mindful that periods of change are synonymous with an increase in fear and anxiety and your child might feel the need to release their upset and frustration more than normal. During these emotional outbursts it is important that you can support your baby to release their tensions and their fears.  While it might be tempting to continually distract them with the breast or dummy, or by bouncing or rocking them, you are going to do them more of a service by listening to them and validating their upset. After all baby who can release their emotions during the day is less likely to need to do so at night.

“Crying not only removes toxins from the body but it also reduces tension” 

TWO: If you can see that your child is desperately trying to learn new skills such as going from standing to lying or rolling from their front to their back try and help them as much as possible to practice these skills during the day so they able to transition by themselves at night and are not so reliant on you to help them when they wake.

THREE: Awake windows are crucial when it comes to developing healthy sleep but even more so during periods of developmental change.  You may even find that your baby has been so busy during the day learning their new skills, that they need slightly shorter than usual awake windows by 10-15 minutes to prevent them from getting overtired and struggling to fall and stay asleep. For an idea of age appropriate awake windows you might like to check out my blog on the ideal conditions for naps or alternatively my blog on building healthy sleep foundations.

FOUR: Incorporating quality one to one time into your child’s day, anything that promotes laughter, is a brilliant antidote to the fear and anxiety that goes hand in hand with periods of rapid change and unfamiliarity.

FIVE: Optimise your child’s sleep environment to promote a calm and secure space. Ideally the room should be cool and dark with a temperature of between 18-20 degrees. You might also like to use pink noise to block out any external or household noises that could wake your baby.

Lastly, when your child is going through these major developmental milestones and you find that your intervention to help them fall back to sleep is required more than usual, remember that how you respond to their upset during the day will help set the tone in regards to how you respond to them at night. Rather than always going to them  and picking them as your first port of call try responding to them in a variety of other ways first such as speaking to them in soft reassuring tones or using gently touch and movement to help soothe them while you stay at their level.