If your baby is older than 3 months, I’m willing to bet you might be dreaming of the newborn days when your sleepy little baby spent most of their time snoozing. What a leisurely time it was!
And then, suddenly, things changed.
And you have NO IDEA what happened!
You didn’t do anything differently, but quite rapidly, what used to work to get your baby to sleep, just didn’t work anymore.
And now you spend hours upon hours
Getting your baby to sleep
Keeping your baby asleep
Helping your baby fall back to sleep
It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s exhausting!
Why is this happening?!
The Development of Object Permanence and Maturation of Sleep Cycles
You’ve heard of the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind,” right? Well, after a certain point in your baby’s development, this isn’t the case anymore.
Object permanence - the ability to recognize and comprehend that something that’s not within view can still exist - is closely related to your baby’s sleep.
It’s also closely related to separation anxiety - something that rears it’s head with many babies and young children that is totally developmentally normal and appropriate.
While object permanence was previously believed to develop around 8 months old, more recent research has shown that it can develop as early as 3.5 months…right around the time your sweet little newborn baby is entering full-on infanthood! This 3.5-5 month mark is also when your child’s sleep gets reorganized and goes through a physiological change; as a newborn, they had two stages of sleep - active (REM) and quiet sleep (NREM), but now they have four stages of sleep, just like us as adults - three stages of NREM and one of REM. Let’s also not forget that their circadian rhythm is maturing. There’s A LOT going on with sleep, and development, between 12-20 weeks.
Object permanence is also the reason babies LOVE peek-a-boo. When you cover your face (their favorite thing!) and suddenly it reappears…it’s extremely humorous and engaging!
On the other hand, more stages of sleep now means the potential for more wakes ups at night along with what was working works no longer - because something that was there when they fell asleep initially is no longer there. And they’re left wondering, “Where did it go?”
And more often than not, at this age, it’s you! Your baby misses YOU! How sweet is that?
Okay, maybe not so sweet at 1:00, 2:00, 4:00 in the morning…
The circumstances from when your baby fell asleep have changed, and they now have the ability to recognize that something is different. And that’s pretty alarming for them.
If you want to read more on this subject, and sleep training in general, I’d highly recommend the book, Precious Little Sleep by Alexis Dubief, which I recently read that prompted me to write this post for you.
Why This Development Affects Sleep
There are a few examples you might think about with sleep and the development of object permanence:
You (the parent) were there when your baby fell asleep at bedtime - probably rocking, holding, patting, or nursing them - and when they woke up, you were gone and none of those things were happening anymore
After your baby fell asleep in your arms, they woke up somewhere else - in their crib
You used a timer of some sort for a mobile or lullaby or white noise machine and it was on when they fell asleep and it’s since turned off
The pacifier that they were sucking on when they fell asleep has now fallen out of their mouth
Before, these things weren’t such a big deal, because your baby didn’t know any better. But with this development, they now recognize that there is a change. Something’s different. And they’re NOT okay with that!
Think about it…if you fell asleep in your bed, but woke up on your neighbor’s porch, you’d be pretty concerned, right? Or, how about if you fell asleep with the window open and the rain falling, but then it fades away and you’re awoken by some other night time sounds - an owl hooting or a critter rustling in the leaves outside the window. You’d wake up and notice that something was different.
How to Handle This Development
It all comes down to what your baby associates with sleep.
Sleep associations can include: a consistent bedtime routine (a string of activities that is always repeated leading up to sleep), the environment (crib or bassinet, white noise playing, music, a fan or humidifier running, a mobile gently spinning around, etc), rocking, swaying, feeding, bouncing, sucking, when what your baby wears to sleep (a swaddle or sleep sack), snuggling, singing, rubbing, patting, twirling mom’s hair, etc.
You can also see how a lot of these associations involve the presence of mom or dad.
All associations are just that - things that are associated with sleep. They can be independent or dependent. As your baby gets older - and if your goal is to help them attain healthy sleep skills - you’ll want to move away from dependent associations to independent associations.
And this is where the whole notion of sleep training comes from - teaching your baby or child to sleep without depending on someone or something to help them fall, and stay, asleep.
We want to give your child tools to help them sleep that are within their control.
Independent Sleep Associations
Here are a few things you and your child CAN control when it comes to their sleep:
Crafting a soothing bedtime routine that is completed in the same steps, night after night
Going to bed around the same time every night (and, if 6-months or older, putting them on a set daytime schedule too!)
Sleeping in the same place for every nap or every night
Utilizing darkness for sleep
Using white noise constantly during the duration of sleep
Providing a swaddle (for babies not yet showing any signs of rolling)
Providing a sleep sack (for babies out of the swaddle)
Using a pacifier (for babies 0-4 months, consider removing by 6 months before it becomes a dependent association)
Giving your baby a lovey item (for babies older than 12 months)
All of these things will set your baby up for sleep success.
Also, when your baby is little, like 0-4 months, allowing them to practice independent sleep will help solidify this skill as they get older. The more they can fall asleep on their own, the less they’ll wake up between sleep cycles and realize nothing has changed since when they initially fell asleep as object permanence develops.
I also want to note that newborns babies will need help going to sleep at times. This is normal because they do not yet have mature sleep rhythms. But, giving them more than one way to fall asleep can be helpful.
For example, if for one nap you hold them, try to lay them down for the next one. Or if you nurse them to sleep for a nap, maybe you’ll rock them instead of feeding them to sleep at bedtime. Practicing other ways to fall asleep gives your baby more tools - more associations - when it comes to falling asleep.
By 5-6 months, you can start sleep training because they have gone through all of this development.
This may be the reason you’re having trouble with your baby’s sleep. If you’ve found that your baby may be going through this development, or has gone through it and now they need some dependent associations to go back to sleep, I can help! I can help you undo some of the old ways and bring in some new strategies to help your little one become a happy, healthy independent little sleeper. Browse our services page to learn more about working together.