5 Developmental Milestones that May Affect Your Child’s Sleep and How You Can Help

5 Developmental Milestones that May Affect Your Child’s Sleep and How You Can Help


Just when you think you have settled into a routine in your young child’s sleep patterns something comes along to turn it upside down.  As you search for answers to these frustrating interruptions you may likely find developmental milestones to be the culprit.  A developmental milestone is essentially a newly acquired skill or behavior.  These include smiling, rolling over, sitting up, walking, talking etc.  Not all sleep issues can be blamed on these milestones but in a child who has otherwise had healthy sleep habits they are worth considering.   Here are a few that tend to cause the most disruption and tips on how you can ease the impact.

1)      Rolling over:  Babies typically learn to roll over between 4 and 6 months.  Rolling over may cause an interruption in sleep when baby learns to roll from her back to her tummy but has not yet mastered rolling back the other direction.  The problem here is twofold- one, baby wakes up upset at being stuck; and two, parents worry about baby sleeping on her tummy as we know the safest sleep position for baby is on her back.

What you can do:  Be sure to include lots of supervised tummy time during wakeful periods early on in your baby’s life to help strengthen muscles.  Opportunity to learn to roll over under adult supervision can make this transition easier.  It is generally considered safe for a child to sleep on their tummy if they have gotten there on their own, however you should check with your child’s pediatrician for his or her recommendation.  Be patient it may take a few days for your baby to settle into her new found freedom.   An important note: if your child shows signs of beginning to move or roll over be sure she is no longer swaddled and the crib is free of everything but a fitted sheet.

2)      Standing up:  Standing up is such an exciting skill for little ones- you can see the joy on their faces when they first pull up on a table or your leg.  They are so proud of themselves they will want to do it ALL the time- even in their cribs.  Just when you think you have a drowsy kiddo and you lay them in their crib, UP they pop!   This can lead to power struggles at bedtime, prolonged night wakings and seemingly endless frustration.

What you can do:  Be sure to encourage plenty of time to practice this important skill during the day and don’t forget to help her learn how to sit down from standing.  Practice makes perfect here so keep at it.  In no time your little one will learn to sit back down in her crib and eventually lay down again to sleep.  The key is to be as consistent as possible with your routine, your expectations and your response.  You may want to go in and lay her down once but set a limit on doing this as it could quickly lead to a power struggle and then make the sleep issue worse.  In fact, constantly returning her to sitting or lying down may actually cause her to struggle more at bedtime or wake more often at night.

3)       Language:  From the sweet babbling to her first words to the first full sentence, listening to your child’s little voice is amazing… unless it is 3am!  This milestone may be the most disruptive simply because once they learn they can make noise they also learn how loud they can make that noise.  Language acquisition may not only interfere with falling asleep at bedtime and naptime, but also with your child’s ability to fall back to sleep during normal night wakings.  That is, they will practice this new skill any chance they get- even in the middle of the night.   This excitement may cause them to become fully awake making it more difficult to fall back to sleep.

What you can do:  Be patient, be consistent with your schedule and expectations and it will pass.  If you can ignore it do so.  When you child gets a bit older you can talk about sleep rules and include a discussion about staying quiet in bed.

4)      Teething:  Swollen and painful gums can lead to irritability and night wakings causing overtiredness and more irritability-ugh!  Teething can be really disruptive for some kids while others show no signs they are teething until one day you notice the new tooth.

What you can do:  Comfort, soothe and even medicate if necessary.  Do whatever works until it passes, this is not the time for tough love- they need you and you should respond.   Be sure to pay close attention to your child’s behavior to know when teething pain has stopped and a new habit is beginning to form.   If they seem happy and pain free during wakeful times chances are they are through the painful stage and it is time to get back on track.  Snap right back into your schedule and routine, it may take a few days to get there but doing so will prevent bad habits from forming.

5)      Separation anxiety:  This increased neediness can pop up as early as 6 months and reappear throughout toddlerhood.  Characterized by a fear of being apart from mom and dad, separation anxiety can make bedtime an exhausting battle filled with tears.  Just like other stages this too will pass but it is nonetheless heart wrenching while you are in its throes.

What you can do: Prepare them ahead of time by talking about what will happen- this is important even for younger children who may not be talking yet- they understand more than we know.  You might also want to make your exit a gradual one rather than abrupt- for example have your sitter arrive early and then spend some time with your child and the sitter to get them comfortable.  Additionally, while it may be easier to sneak out when your child is not looking it is better to say goodbye and let them know when you will be back and then be sure to follow through- this builds trust while sneaking away may cause more anxiety.


A final note:  If your child is experiencing a minor sleep disruption be sure to get them to bed earlier than usual to make up for the sleep they are losing and to avoid a sleep debt that may be difficult to reverse.

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