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Is sleep developmental?

This is something I see discussed a lot, and something I'd like to de-bunk. I often see on social media and blogs, the debate of “is sleep is developmental?” – and there are always mixed responses here and I'm going to give you my more scientific take on it!

Can sleep change in line with a child's development - yes, it is true to the extent that sleep changes a lot in line with developmental changes.

For example – when babies hit around 13-15 weeks they go through a huge developmental shift. This is where they start to realise their sleep habits and environments more predominantly. They start to recognise where and how they fall asleep, and if they wake up in a different place. For example, if they fall asleep in one room being held and wake in the cot – they are very aware of the change.

As they start to hit other developmental leaps and phases, often we see their sleep associations grow stronger. The biggest catalyst of them all – being the 4-month leap. As above, the changes in their sleep recognition and how they understand sleep habits are growing exponentially, so when we hit that lovely 4 month “sleep regression” we are often trying to do everything in our power to get them back to sleep.

And they are still so little! So of course, we are keeping lots of the new-born essential soothers such as rocking and suckling to sleep and feeding more.

Toddler learning to walk, outside surrounded by trees.
Development Milestones

The truth is, their little brains are more wired to be awake during these phases, and often our efforts of resettle can be wasted. But what does happen – is that these sleep cues that we are adding in during this leap become more prominent. So, when they come out the phase itself, those sleep associations have become stronger than they may have been before. This will be covered in later chapters, but this gives a good understanding of developmental changes.

Beyond this, we do see more changes in line with development shifts. For example, when they start to resist being rocked! This often comes where they start to developmentally seek more independence, but they don’t know how to independently sleep yet. Or when they start cruising, as of course their favourite time to practice this is in their cot right at bedtime.

But do they just “learn to sleep when they are developmentally ready”? This is a question I’m often asked. To be completely truthful, I have no say no! Yes, it can happen, where suddenly it all clicks into place, the sleep pressure is right, the settles are there, they feel contented and all the things connect at the right time!  

What I usually see though, is that sleep associations can often becoming stronger, and many babies are happy to keep going or just too alert to their settle rhythms to want to change that.

I don’t just work with babies and toddlers, I work with older children as well. And an 8-year-old struggling in sleep didn’t just “miss” a magic milestone moment. The chances are, the parents were told to believe that it will all happen one day, and it’s developmental, and one day it will happen. So, you can also see where that can be damaging too? How long do parents need to wait before it comes together? At the risk of their children’s sleep needs, their own, their marriages and mental health too. 

Sleep is a learnt skill – it can be learned, unlearnt and re-learned. Which is also why we also see self-settling or other habits at one stage, but something happens, and it can change to another quickly.

The way in which our brain develop “habits” isn’t about giving ourselves a hard time of “creating a rod for our own back” (another one I hear often, and I want no judgement on ourselves in anything when it comes to our baby’s sleep!). Habits form through repetition, in any aspect of life. Sleep associations are very much the same.

So, when we start to change these habits – our bodies very naturally resist change. You’ve maybe resisted changing things yourself, because it feels uncomfortable. It’s easier to keep to the safe path. Our baby feels exactly the same when we make changes. It isn’t about that they aren’t developmentally ready – they don’t understand what this new rhythm is yet and the upset builds. But once it feels comfortable again, their adaptability shines through.

With the vast majority of families I work with, we do often need to make some changes in their learning to sleep, even gradually - to support in their learning of sleep.

If you are stuck in the thick of it - be rest assured you are not alone in it all. If you are happy where you are at, and want to give your child all the time they need and lean into their natural settle rhythms, I think that's amazing and I'm totally behind you.

However, I know first hand how hard it is to wait and for nothing to change either, as we slowly get into the downward spiral of sleep deprivation with no end in sight. And it's ok to change that too and gently encourage their sleep! This is what I do - you don't need to feel alone in this - I'm here for you.

If what you're going through just isn't sustainable anymore, reach out below or visit my online resources for more support.

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