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Sweet Dreams Disrupted: The Influence of Developmental Milestones on Sleep

Updated: Feb 6

By Anna Clifford- Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Tummy Time Instructor

The Influence of Developmental Milestones on Sleep

The influence of developmental milestones on sleep is imperative to understand for our children. Development milestones can significantly impact a child's sleep patterns, leading to what is commonly known as sleep regressions. These milestones encompass various physical, social, emotional, and cognitive advancements that a child achieves during their growth journey.

A sleep regression occurs when your child, who has been sleeping well, suddenly experiences difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Does this sound familiar for your little one? Interestingly, sleep regressions often align with major developmental milestones in a child's growth journey.

As infants and toddlers reach developmental milestones such as rolling over, crawling, teething, or learning to walk, their brains undergo significant changes. While these advancements are crucial for their overall development, they can disrupt established sleep routines. The process of mastering new skills may result in increased nighttime awakenings, changes in sleep duration, or difficulty falling asleep.

Understanding this relationship between sleep and development is essential for parents, as it allows them to anticipate potential sleep challenges during periods of significant developmental progress.

Here are some of the physical skills your little one is learning at each sleep regression age:

  • 4 months- bring hands to mouth, pushes up on elbows during tummy time, holds head steady when being held, transitions to more sleep cycles similar to adults (5 rather than 2 newborn sleep cycles)

  • 6 months- rolls from tummy to back, pushes up with straight arms, learning to sit up by leaning on hands,

  • 9 months- beginning stages of talking (mamama, dadada), gets to sitting position by themself, passes objects from one hand to the other, sits up without support, beginning stages of crawling

  • 12 months- pulls up to standing, walks while holding onto furniture, picks objects up with pointer finger and thumb (pincer grasp), saying “mama” & “dada”

  • 18 months- walks without any assistance, feeds themselves with fingers, climbs on and off couch or chair without help

  • 2-2.5 years old- kicks a ball, runs, walks up a few stairs, eats with a spoon

While there are numerous social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones, our emphasis will remain on the physical aspects.

Infants and toddlers are perpetual learners, consistently exploring the world around them, which provides constant stimulation to their developing brains. Could you imagine learning and exploring a new world as soon as you’re awake and until you fall asleep? Every day? This is what your little one is experiencing even through toddlerhood!

Continuous brain stimulation throughout the day can naturally induce fatigue, paving the way for the potential of better quality sleep. While learning is inherently stimulating and can enhance sleep quality, excessive stimulation can disrupt sleep patterns.

As we learn new skills, the brain retains information during sleep, processing it for enhanced memory and skill performance. During a sleep regression, the brain works overtime due to the demands of acquiring and mastering new skills. Therefore, a sleep regression and/or developmental milestone can affect sleep due to the brain working overtime during the day and can’t switch off when it's time to sleep.

Sleep regressions, lasting for 2+ weeks, can be attributed to the challenge of acquiring new skills. When a child doesn't receive the recommended amount of sleep, the brain's processing and retention capabilities are compromised, delaying the learning process. This phenomenon explains why it takes days, weeks, or even months for children to master new skills and why sleep can be affected over an extended period during these developmental phases.

Here are my top tips to survive during your little one’s (many) sleep regressions:

  • Ideal sleep environment

  • Age-appropriate daytime AND nighttime schedule

  • Stay as consistent as possible with a routine and daily schedule

  • Put your child to sleep the same way every time (including bedtime, middle of the night, early mornings, and naps)

  • DO NOT add in a bunch of desperate additions to the routine in order to help them fall asleep

  • DO NOT add in anything that you don’t want to become a new habit if they didn’t already need it to fall asleep (i.e. feeding/motion to sleep, co-sleeping if didn’t do it before, etc)

  • Give yourself grace!

Early exposure to activities like NinjaZone can significantly contribute to the development of coordination, balance, gross motor skills, strength, and confidence in your little one. Providing ample opportunities for practicing these skills during the day can mitigate potential sleep disruptions, fostering a healthier sleep routine.

At NinjaZone, your little one will learn to explore and understand their body's movements at their own pace, fostering a sense of self-awareness and safety.

In essence, understanding the intricate connection between learning, developmental milestones, and sleep is crucial for fostering well-rounded and healthy growth for your little one. Activities like NinjaZone not only enhance physical abilities but also contribute to overall well-being by instilling confidence, safety awareness, and the joy of movement. As your child navigates the exciting process of acquiring new skills, maintaining a supportive environment with ample opportunities for practice during the day can positively influence their sleep, fostering a harmonious and thriving developmental experience.

Anna Clifford, with Happy Little Ones, is a pediatric sleep consultant, wife, and mom of 3 based in Johnson City, Tennessee. With over two decades of gymnastics teaching experience, Anna draws on her expertise to support families navigating sleep challenges. Anna specializes in toddler sleep, offering her expertise to families in East Tennessee and nationwide. Her goal is to guide parents in creating enjoyable bedtime routines, reducing night wakings, conquering naps, and waking up to happy little ones. In addition, Anna has developed her own Tummy Time virtual class, making valuable information about tummy time and its benefits easily accessible for parents seeking to enhance their child's development.

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Wishing you sleep-full nights,

Anna Clifford

The Influence of Developmental Milestones on Sleep



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