3 Ways Your Baby Learning To Sleep Is Like Learning To Walk

baby-learning-walkWe 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.

And when it comes to helping our babies learn to take long, restorative naps and sleep through the night, who wouldn’t want to make that process go more smoothly? We’re tired parents, after all! :)

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.


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Comments

  1. Adriana says

    Thanks for this article! I can share that my 8 month old is currently going the sleep regression you talk about in plenty of articles. First he dropped his third nap, and started waking up during the night. Next he learned to stand up at the crib and now he is cat napping again! 30 minute naps and then he stands up and starts to cry. The first day I thought it was nothing and tried to rock him but that did not work, and now I have been pretty consistent yesterday and today in using PU PD but he is still cat napping but as you say, there is hope and I am not alone! I am standing my ground and trying to teach him AGAIN not to catnap!

  2. Lee Anne says

    Thank you for this article, it makes so much sense when you compare learning to sleep with other developmental milestones. I loved reading it. We are ‘re-learning’ the process at the moment after the 8-9 month sleep regression, ear infection, cold, and 3 teeth coming in all at once. Today was day 2 and it was an improvement over yesterday. I also loved reading about the ‘giving them support’ part as I really do beleive this helps my little one out a lot – baby steps instead of harsher methods which have not work for us at all.

  3. JoDee says

    Thank you for this article. My 9mth old son just started crawling this week. He fell off the bed lastnight and I feel so guilty about allowing it to happen. Especially when just a few days ago I was telling my husband he really needs to watch him on the bed or don’t put him there. Article (like others on this site) has great info, but this was perfect timing for me reading that I’m not the worst parent in the world. Other babies fall too. Thank you for sharing your story :)

  4. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Adriana — right on, mama! There is hope, and you are most definitely not alone. :) So glad to hear that you’re staying positive and focusing on remaining consistent in your efforts to help your little one re-learn his healthy sleeping habits.

    Thanks for commenting, Adriana!

    @ Le Anne — ouch! Sounds like you and your baby have endured some rough stuff lately. Glad to hear, though, that things are slowly improving, and that your baby steps are working. Hang in there!

    Thanks for sharing a bit about your situation, Le Anne. :)

    @ JoDee — truth? Both of my boys fell off my bed at one point during their babyhood. Like you, it made me feel like an AWFUL mom for a day or two! But you’re right; there’s such comfort in knowing that other moms and dads are going through exactly the same thing, and that little mishaps like this don’t reflect at all on our ability to parent.

    Glad you liked the article, JoDee! Thanks for commenting. :)

  5. Jen says

    Thank you for this article! My question is, what do you do wtih an almost 1 year old that goes down around 6/7 pm and generally wakes up once per night between midnight and 5 am, and then wakes for good around 6/6:30 am? Should we consider this the best we can get for now? Or should we be doing something to get him to NOT wake up that one time per night?

  6. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Jen — good question! Have you done any sleep training with your one year old yet?

  7. Kadija says

    This article was a great reminder to me that all is not lost and that I need to keep working on my baby’s sleep. I have always felt like my baby fights sleep. Now that she is 7 months it is getting worst. It can take 40 minutes to get her down for a nap. I have regressed to nursing and rocking her to sleep. I wish I could lay her down drowsy and then have her fall asleep but if I do that then she will just pop her head back up or roll over. Why is this so hard?!

  8. Emily DeJeu says

    @ Kadija — I’m so sorry to hear that you’re struggling with your daughter’s sleep! Sleep challenges can feel so, so difficult, especially considering how exhausted you must be after months of sleep deprivation yourself!

    Take heart, though; even the toughest of sleepers come around eventually, provided their parents stay the course and work to help them build healthy sleep habits. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest checking out our free guide on baby sleep (find it here: http://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/) If you’re starting to feel like this is something you don’t want to handle on your own, though, I’d urge you to check out our consultation packages (find more info here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-toddler-sleep-consulting-services/)

    Hope this helps a little, Kadija! Thanks for reaching out, and do keep us posted on your progress. :)