Article by doula Claire Anne Gallagher

4 months old, 6 months old, 9 months old, 12 months old, 18 months, and then 24 months?!  And for weeks at a time?  When is a baby NOT going through a sleep regression?
I believe that the words we choose have power, so we should choose them wisely.  The term “sleep regression” implies that a baby or toddler is going backwards.  Quite the opposite is true!
The reason for changes in a baby or toddler’s sleep behaviour are due to exciting developments in their brains.  A human brain has the greatest, fastest growth and hard-wiring occurring within the first 3 years of their life! As a baby is going through cognitive developments, such as learning that he and parent are two separate beings (6 months), or physical milestones such as learning how to roll over, crawl, pull up and walk, this effects his sleep and wake patterns naturally. It might be more accurate to call these times “developmental progressions” instead!

The reason for interruptions in sleep at these exciting milestones is for protective reasons.  Tiny tummies need to feed frequently, through the night for maximum growth.   As a baby begins their journey into separateness, their growing independence (for example, crawling) is balanced by some separation anxiety in a securely attached infant.  If a baby was not hardwired to check that their primary caregiver was still close by, there would be nothing to stop them from continuing to crawl far away into danger.  Nighttime represents the most vulnerable time for any human, never mind a tiny baby who is completely reliant on another person to keep them safe. One of many arguments against the behaviourist approach that is sleep-training, is that it assumes sleep is linear, and that self-soothing is a skill that can be learned and mastered. The truth is that with each developmental change, sleep patterns change as well.  For optimal bonding and development, we want to support our babies during these challenging times, rather than leave them alone to figure things out –besides, what message does that send?

To foster empathy, when the going gets tough we let our children know we are there to support them and keep them safe.
Why this can be so very challenging for parents, is that it can be incredibly challenging to care for others 24 hours a day if you are not at the top of your game.  When then pendulum swings too far in one direction, we start to put ourselves last, and that is not a very functional or effective way of being.  Fortunately there are many small adjustments you can make to keep yourself well during times of nighttime parenting intensity –it can just be tough to remember all the power you have when you are in the throes of things, a great reason for seeking outside support from someone like a Sleep Educator.

Here are a few suggestions for you, though your strategy may vary depending on a variety of factors:
  • go on a social media fast
  • don’t check the time when you get awakened at night
  • re-read up on infant/child development to be reminded about what  baby’s experience is on his end
  • get people over for play time with older child or children so you can sleep with the baby
  • make a list of your responsibilities and see what can be delegated, dropped altogether, or done another time (this will make you feel much less stressed so you can be more focused and present

Sometimes just doing one of those things above will help a great deal!

Tiny changes are often all that is required to feel a whole lot better. The weeks on end of 4:00am wake ups might feel like an eternity, but you will look back on them with weepy nostalgia in the years to come.  Enjoy the snuggles! And besides, 4:00 am is almost morning for many!

Claire Anne is a birth and postpartum doula on the Discover Birth team and is also a Sleep Educator. She is available to support families in Durham and Toronto. Contact us to book Claire Anne.