Is baby sleep developmental? – All The Sleeps

Is baby sleep developmental? How do we respond to people who claim baby sleep is developmental? This was a recent question in my DMs and I realized I needed more space to unpack this question! This blog will walk through this popular question and the many different rabbit holes that correspond to answering it.

First we have to get clear about what is actually being claimed with this statement: Baby sleep is developmental. Is the person saying baby sleep patterns and needs develop and change as your child ages? Or are they trying to say that baby sleep is a developmental milestone so you can’t “rush” it? These are 2 very different questions with very different answers. Next time someone claims baby sleep is developmental- ask them what exactly they mean by that. You may find you agree with them!

To address the first possible meaning of this claim, let’s dig in!

This is TRUE! ⤴

Of course our children’s sleep needs change over time! We see the total amount of sleep our children need decreasing slowly over the months and years. Your child will go through 4 major nap transitions in their life as a result of these changing needs and we see the number of daily naps decreasing until they’re gone around the age of 3-5 years. Along with that we see night sleep consolidating more over the first few months of life.

As far as development goes, your child will go through the 4 month sleep regression (sometime between 3 and 5 months) and this marks a permanent maturing of their sleep cycles. This is the point where your baby’s sleep changes from newborn sleep to adult-like sleep. Their sleep is now comprised of 5 different stages and they can spend more of their sleep in a lighter stage than before. This their chances of waking more frequently, maybe increases every 45 minutes overnight and during naps!

For more info about this regression, check out this blog about preparing for it and this blog for my list of dos and don’ts.

This is FALSE! ⤴

With this claim, you’ll often see people compare the skill of walking to better baby sleep. “You can try and practice walking as much as you want, but you can’t teach a young baby to walk before they are developmentally ready. Same thing with sleep.”

Unfortunately this is a terrible comparison for so many reasons.

If they are trying to claim that sleep (falling asleep with less help and just better sleep in general) is a developmental milestone like walking and talking, Unfortunately, that doesn’t really hold up to much push back. With developmental milestones (walking, talking, rolling, sitting, etc.) we see children achieving these right around the same age. Not at the exact same age of course but we have certain parameters in place and if you’ve got an 18 month old who still isn’t walking, you have cause for concern and know that your child needs more support from a professional.

When looking at sleep, we have newborns who are able to put themselves to sleep successfully and we have 5 year olds who still can’t. That is HUGE variability and not what we would expect to see if sleep was truly a developmental milestone.

Also worthy of note, if sleep was a developmental milestone, then we would NOT be able to train a child to fall asleep on their own before they reached this “magical” age- whatever that age is. Just like you can’t teach a 6 month old to walk no matter how hard you try, you also wouldn’t be able to teach a baby to fall asleep on their own before this “magical age.” And yet, The research shows time and again that sleep training is extremely effective and beneficial.

Now, are there aspects of sleep that are affected by development? Of course! Newborn sleep is very different from 4+ month old sleep (as mentioned above). Sleep is bound to be bound by the development of object permanence (hello separation anxiety!), limit testing, imagination and night time fears. Not to mention the effect that new motor skills have on sleep.

But that does not mean that we can’t support our babies on a path to better sleep or that they are incapable of falling asleep without outside help.

This one is TRUE and FALSE! ⤴

I 100% agree that we cannot expect newborns to go 12 hours without a feed (although many do). And a 12 month old feeding every 2 hours at night is not what we would expect either.

Decreasing night feeds IS something that comes with age and efficiency of feeding. I find after years of working with families that after the age of 6 months we can start actively working towards zero night feeds (as long as the pediatrician agrees, solids are being established, and there are no weight gain/feeding issues). But obviously we wouldn’t expect or push a newborn to sleep 12 hours without a feed (although if yours naturally does this- count yourself lucky)!

However, people who make the above claim often forget that just because a child wakes and feeds at night it does not mean that feed is nutritionally necessary.

The elusive “sleeping through the night” is a misnomer anyways- nobody sleeps through the night without brief awakenings! We are all designed to briefly wake at night between sleep cycles, assess our surroundings, and then fall back asleep if all is well.

But if your baby is used to being helped to sleep, they are having these wakings and realizing things are NOT ok. They’re all alone and that is not how they initially fell asleep. Or they no longer have a bottle or breast in their mouth like they did the last time they were awake.

When we build these habits in, night after night, that teach our children they need something outside of themselves to go back to sleep, is it any wonder they keep waking? Research shows us that babies who are put down already asleep are more likely to need help to go back to sleep in the night than babies who are put down awake and fall asleep themselves. If we aren’t giving them the tools to regulate their own sleep, then it will be quite a while until they start to “sleep through the night.” This doesn’t make “sleeping through the night” a developmental milestone. It makes it a skill set.

There is no magical time when your child will start sleeping through the night or is suddenly ready to fall asleep without your help…. If you’re waiting for that “developmental milestone” to occur, you may be waiting for a loooong time.

Instead, falling asleep independently and sleeping longer stretches at night is often a direct result of building more sustainable sleep habits for your child.

In my professional experience (working with 5 year olds who have never slept independently before working with me), parents tell me they kept waiting for their child to just “figure it out” but the habits they had spent years building (laying with, nursing to sleep, rocking, etc.) were keeping that from happening. They wished they had addressed sleep issues sooner instead of subjecting their family to years of sleeplessness waiting for this non-existent developmental milestone.

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