How Developmental Milestones Affect Sleep

You have probably been there before. Your baby has been sleeping really well for a few weeks, and then suddenly, without rhyme or reason, they start waking in the night again. This often happens around the 6, 12, and 18 month marks. They aren’t sick, you haven’t changed anything in their routine, so what is going on?

It is likely that your little one is experiencing a developmental milestone!

Big skills like learning to roll, crawl, walk, and the vocabulary explosions that happens into the toddler years are proven to disrupt night sleep. Check out this study that documents the associations between the onset of crawling and sleep changes. When families I have worked with contact me a few months later telling me they haven’t changed a thing and that their little one was randomly up at night one of the first things I ask is “Is he learning something new?” Usually the answer is yes.

So why does this happen?

Your little one is SO excited about their new skill. Their brain is in overdrive making all the connections and your baby wants to PRACTICE THEM AT NIGHT. This might look like pulling up on the crib, babbling in the middle of the night, rolling onto their belly and then struggling to make it back onto their back.

Alright, so what are you supposed to do when you hit these milestones and sleep becomes disrupted?

The first and most important thing you should NOT do is revert to your old ways of feeding, rocking, or holding to sleep because then this one milestone is going to turn into a full fledged sleep problem that continues weeks after the milestone is achieved.

What SHOULD you do?

If they are just babbling or sitting in the night, let them be. They are confident in their sleep environment and exploring their new skill. It isn’t your job to put them to sleep, your job is only to offer the opportunity to sleep.

If they are crying for you, then go in and offer some comfort. You can of course get them out of whatever uncomfortable position they have gotten stuck in. If they flipped onto their bellies you can roll them back, if they are stuck standing, lay them back down (fun right, they know how to pull up first, but not how to get back down). Once they are back in a comfortable position, allow them the space to put themselves back to sleep.

The most helpful thing you can do for them is practice their new skill during the day. Whenever I work with 5 month old’s , there is a 50% chance that during our time together, the baby will be working on their rolling skills. More often than not, they get stuck (and mad) on their belly. This is when I send over information from pediatric therapists on how to practice rolling from belly to back. The more they do it during the day, the better they will be at doing it at night when it is dark and they are a little more disoriented. Some of my favorite Pediatric PT accounts are candokiddo and milestones.and.motherhood . Give them a follow, they cover a wide range of milestones and give great exercises you can do at home.

I also suggest giving them some time during the night to figure it out themselves. I find that if we rush in immedietly to flip them back at 3am, then you will likely have to do that again at 5am. If you can give them a little time to try (say 5 minutes, and gradually increase), the baby will either learn to get comfortable and feel safe on their belly, making this their new sleep position, or become more proficient in flipping back onto their side and back.

The same thing goes for skills like sitting, crawling, pulling up and walking.

  1. Offer comfort during the night, but make sure they are the ones putting themselves back to sleep
  2. Do NOT bring back night feeds unless they are sick and need the hydration
  3. Practice the skill during the day
  4. Give them space at night to try out the skill by waiting a few minutes before responding

After a week or two, your baby will have figured out their new skill, and gone back to sleeping well. If you went back to feeding at night, or making a mess of the bedtime routine, don’t despair. You will just need to get back to your sleep training foundations. Your little one will pick it back up in just a few days.

If your little one just started consolidating sleep and sleeping through the night it is really likely they will be learning a new skill soon. Why? Because during sleep is when we process all the new things we absorbed during the day and sort them out in our brain, forming connections with skills and knowledge we already have. Have you ever studied for a big test, gone to sleep, and suddenly made new connections with the material you studied the next day? You can thank restful sleep for allowing that to happen.

If independent sleep skills aren’t part of your baby’s repertoire, reach out to me to see how I can help make sleep a constant for your family.

With Love,