One of the greatest joys of parenthood is watching our children grow. As that first year passes in a blur, we watch our babies develop the skills and abilities that are also known as milestones. Most parents gush with pride the first time Suzy rolls over or Johnny pulls up to a standing position. It’s likely you’ve faithfully recorded these milestones in your child’s baby book but chances are you haven’t written down the whole truth. The whole truth is this: Milestones can interrupt sleep.
To appreciate the impact that milestones can have on sleep it’s important to understand how our children’s young bodies are different than our own. When babies are in active sleep they don’t have muscle paralysis built into their bodies like adults do. This means that if a baby is dreaming of doing something, she is actually doing that something while she sleeps. For instance, when a little one has learned to roll or pull up, she will dream of that skill and perform it in her crib. Milestones affect sleep when a baby rolls and wakes to find herself on her tummy rather than her back or when a little one is startled to find he is standing in his crib instead of lying down. Naturally, our children call for our help and comfort in order to return to sleep.
Proud as we are when our babies sit up, crawl, babble, roll or pull up to stand, we may find ourselves frustrated as sleep is disrupted. The milestone that affects sleep most commonly is rolling. So what can you do if you find your baby is rolling to her tummy in the night and waking up upset?
First, you should know that it is not recommended to promote tummy sleep. Most doctors say that if an infant rolls onto her tummy on her own then it is okay to leave her. Please discuss your own child’s situation with your doctor. Be sure to provide a safe sleep environment complete with a well-ventilated room, firm mattress, snug-fitting crib sheet and no bumper pads or blankets.
Next, be sure to give your child ample opportunity to practise her new skill during the day. If she continues to roll to her tummy and wake up crying you should remove her sleep sack and dress her in warmer sleep wear until she masters rolling back and forth as this will improve her mobility. It’s likely that while she works on mastering this skill she will wake up and need your help to get back to sleep.
The best way to help your child through this phase is to rush into her room as soon as you hear her crying and flip her over onto her back without saying a word. Then leave as quietly as you came in. Your goal is to turn her over without her realizing you were ever there. Do this for a few nights and then allow her to try it on her own. This way, she won’t develop the belief that she needs you in order to fall back to sleep. By doing this you will be guiding her through this milestone while encouraging her to develop the skill of independent sleep. We recommend the use of a video monitor in this situation and of course always move your child out of a position that appears unsafe.
When your child reaches a milestone and her sleep regresses, know that this phase will be short-lived. Practise, practise, practise the new skill during the day so that it has less of an effect on her night time sleep. Know that on average, it can take 5-14 days for a child to transition through this period of disrupted nights. Even when toddlers begin speaking it is common for sleep to go out the window for a short time. If you stay consistent with how you handle night waking you will back on track more quickly.
It’s our hope that the milestones your little one reaches can be a source of pride instead of sleepless nights. Even though the baby book keeps the formal record of our child’s achievements, we should not forget those loving parents, behind the scenes, who help their little one along as she learns how to roll, stand and of course our favourite skill, sleep well.
Alysa Dobson is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant with SleepWell Baby. She works with families to help them get the sleep they need. Alysa offers support to parents with children ages 4 months- 8 years old through both in home and remote consultations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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