How Your Baby’s Developmental Changes Affect Sleep

The Bumpy Road to Sleep: How to weather your baby's developments changes and still get some sleep.

By Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack

Sleep?The first year of a baby’s life is a time of tremendous change for everyone in the family. These 12 months can be both exciting and challenging, as babies learn how to communicate their needs and parents learn how to meet them.

You might think that your baby’s developmental changes (such as hitting motor milestones like rolling and crawling) have little to do with sleep. In fact, the two go together like bread and butter. Each time your baby reaches a new milestone, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she’s doing a victory dance. “This is amazing!” she thinks. “I can move my body in this cool new way, and it’s all I wanna do!”

On the other hand, she’s now able to move her body farther away from you, which is a mixed blessing in her eyes. She’s thrilled with her new independence and skills, but she really starts to feel her separateness from you. It’s a mad dance between separation and attachment, and she’ll fluctuate back and forth between the two seemingly from moment to moment.

Problem: Separation Anxiety

You’ll probably notice that you have some mixed feelings about your baby’s new independence, too. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed with pride at your baby’s new abilities on the one hand … and sharing some strong tugs on your heartstrings as you realize that she’s starting to grow up and away from you.

Separation anxiety, whether for baby or for a parent (usually Mom), is nature’s way of preparing us for the inevitable increasing individuation – that’s a fancy, clinical term for “feelings of separateness” – in a parent-child relationship. The sooner you can get comfortable with it – and encourage your baby to do the same – the easier it’ll be the next time it comes up.

Tried and True Solutions

Play peek-a-boo games. Play lots of games with your baby during the day that allow her to practice object permanence, or learning that when people or things are out of sight, they still exist. Engage her in activities such as peek-a-boo, jack-in-the-box, or hiding a toy under a blanket and then taking away the blanket so she can see it again. This way she’ll learn that Mommy and Daddy, too, go away but always come back.

Always tell your child when you’re leaving. Although it can be tempting to sneak out of the house to avoid a traumatic, tear-filled separation of Scarlett and Rhett proportions, doing so will only make your baby’s anxiety worse. At some point he’ll look to find you, won’t be able to, and won’t understand where you’ve gone, why you’ve gone, or whether you’re ever coming back. Instead, be sure to tell him that you’re leaving – and if his anxiety is very strong, you’ll want to do so even if you’re just going to the bathroom or into the kitchen to make dinner.

It’s not a good idea to keep him attached to your hip all throughout the day, because if he has no chance to practice feeling apart from you during the day, you can bet he’ll save it all up for sleep time.

Give your child a lovey. If you don’t already have one, this is an excellent time to introduce a transitional object or a lovey (small blanket or stuffed animal) that your child forms an attachment to because it reminds her of you.

Lengthen your bedtime routine. Spend a little extra time with your baby at naptime and bedtime, tacking on an extra five to 15 minutes to your normal routine. Give him lots of lap time; hold and cuddle and kiss him so he really feels your closeness. The extra time will also help him wind down his busy body before sleep.

Problem: Teething

here are really two kinds of teething: chronic teething and acute teething. Chronic teething is ongoing; during the first two years of life, your child’s teeth are almost always moving through his gums, albeit slowly. But he will continue to eat and drink normally during chronic teething, and his mood should remain stable (unless he’s overtired!).

Acute teething looks markedly different. During acute teething, a tooth is actively cutting through the gum, which is a very painful process for most children. During acute teething, your child’s sleep – night and day – will likely be bumpy, until the tooth cuts through the gum.

Tried and True Solutions

Be supportive and available while she’s in pain. During acute teething, your baby will likely have a hard time sleeping through the night or taking good naps. For naps, you can try using motion (swing, car or stroller) for a couple of days, or holding her while she drifts off, until the tooth cuts through.

Use pain relievers. At nighttime, consider using pain medication (with your doctor’s supervision), a topical pain reliever in liquid form, or some nonmedicated teething tablets.

Don’t work on sleep problems until the tooth appears. Above all, be sure not to work on sleep or let your baby cry while he’s cutting a tooth; he needs your comfort and help at this time, so it’s appropriate to give it to him.

Problem: Starting Solids

Has anyone said to you, “Oh, just start giving the baby cereal – then he’ll sleep through the night!” It’s amazing how this myth has persisted over decades and generations. Once and for all, it is not true that if you feed your child solid food during the day, he will magically start sleeping through the night.

Adding solids to your baby’s diet could affect his sleep – potentially causing night wakings or short naps – only if he has a bad reaction, develops an allergy or has unusual amounts of gas.

Tried and True Solutions

Make a plan for solids with your doctor’s guidance. Follow your doctor’s advice on how to start and what to start with. Go slowly, waiting a few days before trying a new food, to gauge any adverse reactions or constipation. We do recommend starting solids during the day (as opposed to dinnertime), so the baby has a chance to “work it out” (poop) during his awake hours and won’t be up with a tummy ache at night if he does have a bad reaction.

Don’t introduce new foods while working on sleep. When doing sleep learning, hold off on introducing any new foods to your baby until she’s successfully sleeping through the night. This way, you won’t wonder if she’s crying out of pain or discomfort. If you just started giving your baby solids a week ago but are desperate for sleep, stop feeding her solids and come back to it when she’s sleeping just fine.

Problem: Hitting a Developmental Milestone

Imagine learning how to fly. You’d be amazed at your new ability – and you’d want to spend every waking moment practicing, exploring, and soaring! Every time your baby hits a new milestone, it feels to him like he’s learned how to fly, and it will be awfully hard for him to feel like slowing down.

Tried and True Solutions

Offer lots of floor time. To help her do her best at sleep time, you’ll want to give your baby plenty of floor time to practice all of her new skills during the day. This is not the time to have her confined in a stroller or car seat for long periods. She needs to move her body as much as possible while awake, so she won’t be as tempted to do so when it’s time to sleep. Make sure you’ve babyproofed your home enough that she can explore without your constant supervision, which quickly becomes exhausting.

Give him room to roam. Let your child have as much space as possible to roam, wander and discover. Parks, playgrounds, indoor gyms and other spaces where babies can crawl, climb, slide and dart around are excellent places to burn off energy. Excerpted with permission from The SleepEasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep – From Birth to Age 5, by Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW, and Jill Spivack, LMSW; Health Communications Inc., 2007.