We have a treat for you today, readers! Miriam, one of our sleep consultants, has written today’s article, and it’s a good one — full of fascinating information about your baby’s growth and development, as well as some insights that are sure to give you a better understanding of how to effectively sleep-train your baby.
You may remember Miriam from a previous article, published a few months ago. In that article, Miriam (who’s also a lactation consultant and a registered nurse) shared her considerable wisdom about breastfeeding and sleep training.
In today’s article, Miriam’s sharing some fascinating information about how our babies learn to do new things — from crawling to walking to (you guessed it!) sleeping. The insights she shares will help you understand not only how your baby learns to do something new, but also how you, as mommy or daddy, can help the learning process along.
Are Our Babies Smarter Than We Realize? Well, Yes…But It Might Not Always Seem That Way.
I remember bed-sharing with my son just after he had learned to crawl. It was exhausting to bed-share with a crawling baby who was completely unaware of edges! (I guess that is why experts on co-sleeping recommend putting the mattress on the floor.) Once, he escaped me and tumbled off the bed! Yikes! Thankfully, he wasn’t injured. I brought him back into bed with me, determined to be more careful and thinking he would be more aware of falling, but he didn’t seem the least afraid. I was constantly chasing after him, grabbing a leg or ankle! Again and again, over the course of half an hour, it truly seemed that he:
a. had forgotten
b. didn’t understand gravity
c. was a little adrenaline junky!
Turns out that both “a” and “b” were true. Maybe, like me, you’ve frequently heard the phrase, “Babies are smarter than you think.” And I believe this is true. So why is it that our babies sometimes make the same mistakes over and over, or need to re-learn a new skill many times before it actually sticks? The answer is simple, and it relates not only to a baby’s mobility (and thrill seeking :)), but also to sleep coaching.
What Baby Rats and Baby Chicks Can Teach You About Your Baby’s Development
Baby chickens and baby rats seem to have an instinctual knowledge of gravity. Little rats that grow up in an environment where they are never exposed to dangerous ledges and gaps are still able to jump with the appropriate amount of force to cross the gaps on the first try later in life. Baby chicks, in turn, seem to have an inborn fear of edges and naturally avoid them.
Human babies, however, don’t have that kind of inborn fear (as anyone with a newly-mobile baby can tell you!) Our babies aren’t born with gravity instincts. In fact, human babies will continually attempt impossible gaps when they are first learning to sit, crawl, and walk.
Even more interesting is that their ability to avoid falls seems to be forgotten with each new milestone. This means that a baby who can crawl will be able to avoid falls (after practicing for a few weeks), but when he learns to walk he will consistently fall in the very same gap he learned to either navigate or avoid as a crawler. His ability to avoid falls has to be relearned, and the learning is a little different each time, since the wiring changes as his brain develops.
Now, before you become worried that perhaps your baby isn’t quite as bright as a newborn rat or a baby chick, let me assure you that’s not the case! You see, if babies were wired like chicks or baby rats, they wouldn’t be able to adapt to their rapidly changing bodies and abilities. Their knowledge is based on learned behavior and experimentation instead of instinct. Learning things in small bits over a period of weeks allows a baby to do far more than develop more mobility; they are actually little scientists experimenting with their bodies and environments, which are ever changing. One week a baby might fall down a slope that the next week he can manage, because his body is changing so rapidly. This way of learning is flexible and adaptable and very smart indeed!
So, How Is Learning to Crawl and Walk Like Learning to Sleep?
How does this tie in with developing healthy sleep habits? It turns out there are some similarities between learning mobility skills and learning sleep skills.
- Babies need to learn the same skill multiple times! Both good sleep and safe mobility require relearning at major milestones.
Babies need to relearn their ability to navigate and/or avoid drops when they learn to sit, crawl, and walk. Similarly, babies experience sleep regressions that closely track with developing mobility and other major milestones. During these sleep regressions, it may seem like your baby is re-learning how to self-soothe, and how to sleep through the night. Common times for sleep challenges are 4 months, 8 months, 11 months (some babies), and 18-22 months. The brain undergoes a lot of learning and wiring at these ages, and that influences sleep.
- Babies need practice! Sleep skills and mobility skills are best learned over a period of several weeks, a little at a time.
Just like my son didn’t learn from his tumble off the bed, other babies don’t learn from big, traumatic events very well either. Instead, they learn bit by bit as they go about their normal activities doing things like reaching for a far-off rattle, crawling over a threshold, or stepping over a wooden block. Babies who have been crawling for three weeks have vastly different skills than those who have only been crawling for one week!
Similarly, learning to go to sleep and sleep through a sleep cycle also takes time. This is why, when doing sleep consultations, we ask families to commit to a 1-3 week process, depending on their child’s sleep challenges. Babies need time to practice the skill of going to sleep just like they need practice with sitting, crawling, and walking. Some babies don’t get the opportunity to practice going to sleep, because their parents are lovingly doing all the work. This would be like a parent lifting the baby over every threshold, or constantly moving obstacles out of the baby’s way. In both cases, what the parent is doing works short-term, but it’s not a good solution long-term, since it doesn’t provide the baby with the time and space she needs to practice her new sleeping and mobility skills.
- Babies need support from their parents as they learn mobility and sleep skills.
Each baby develops at his or her own pace, and there is a wide range of normal; however we do know that many babies who are encouraged to sit, crawl, and walk tend to do so earlier than babies who are left in the pack-n-play all day long. It is well documented that caregivers can have an impact on a baby’s mobility. I remember my mother-in-law teaching each of my toddlers how to get off of the couch safely. She would work with them over several days, and by the end of that time, they always knew how to dismount feet first! The same is true of learning to sleep. What you do for your baby and the expectations you set will influence not only his mobility, but also sleeping patterns. Babies who receive support, opportunity, and encouragement will be more likely to develop optimum mobility for learning and healthy sleep habits for life.
Watching your baby learn to sit, cruise, crawl, and walk are amazing experiences! We all understand that babies need parental support along the way, as well as many opportunities to experiment independently, learning a little at a time. When it comes to sleep, however, it can be more difficult to know when to give support (as well as the type of support needed) and when to allow learning opportunities. At the Baby Sleep Site™, we are here to help you find a solution to your unique baby’s needs – a solution that will take into account your baby’s personality and development as well as your parenting philosophy.
What has sleep training been like for you and your baby? Have you noticed that your baby needs plenty of time to practice, and may seem to “forget” how to sleep from time to time? Share your sleep training stories with us!
Whether your baby’s learning a new mobility skill or not, sleep training can bring even the toughest parent to tears! If you need some help and guidance in sleep coaching your little one, please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.