Or should we say the 8-10 months developmental stage?
I decided to write this for you because this is – by far – the stage I get most questions about. Sleep consultants talk a lot about the 4-month sleep “regression/progression” but in my opinion, it’s between 8-10 months when parents find the biggest challenges. Why? Because their babies are usually mobile by this time, and they are in a stage of adaptation (again!!!). Adapting the house to make it safer, always on the lookout to make sure there’s no potential harm around their little explorers, and on top… sleep (because for babies, it’s hard to take a break from exploration mode.) Ok, let’s talk about this more in-depth!
A couple of months ago, I surveyed the Responsive Parents Project community on Instagram and most of them found this stage the most challenging. I narrowed down the survey and asked them what they were experiencing in terms of sleep changes, the answers confirmed what I was seeing supporting families with sleep since 2016… This might be the most trying developmental stage for parents (and usually when they come to me for support.) A combination of all these months diving deep into parenthood, with an explosion of gross motor development and more physical exploration. Imagine that babies were just observing all the interesting things around them and now they get to get closer and experiment with them. So much to do, right!? They are busy!
Let’s talk about what’s happening for your little one between around 8-10 months
Your baby is in exploration mode, working hard to make sense of the world. And that’s the time when your house must be safe for your little one. Maybe you’ve been noticing that your little one enjoys holding objects more closely, banging toys together – and even laughing with the noise they make (or getting scared… that’s possible too), dropping things on the floor in order to test that gravity thing, right? And yes… almost everything goes into the mouth.
Your baby is practicing fine motor skills by picking up things and using his/her fingers to catch and drag objects towards him/her. Most babies are mobile at this stage, meaning that they might be moving around by rolling, crawling, or shuffling.
You may also have noticed that the baby interacts and plays, copying sounds, babbling, laughing, and simply enjoying being with you.
At this stage, parents report that their babies are expressing more and more their emotions, clearly letting you know when they are upset, and that’s when you will also see a strong attachment with the primary caregiver. Your baby might start showing signs of being uncomfortable in the presence of those she/he is not familiar with or doesn’t have much contact with. separation anxiety and stranger anxiety are part of human development and are super challenging for both parents and children.
It is important to acknowledge that we are constantly adapting, learning, and being challenged by the constant changes happening to our little ones, especially during the early years. It’s OK to ask for help when you are overwhelmed, and actually, this is something that whenever you have the chance (if you do, because as an immigrant parent who doesn’t have a village of support around, I don’t really have those breaks myself and I truly believe they are fundamental for our mental health).
When we don’t have these breaks, even for 15 minutes, we completely forget to look after ourselves. If you don’t have someone you trust to carve these little breaks for yourself throughout the day, I highly recommend that you child-proof your house and find a corner in the living room or any other room that’s safe and install a gate. Not to leave your child crying for you, but to start practicing staying with your little one inside then saying “I’m going to the kitchen to get water,” getting up for a second and getting the water, or taking a deep breath… whatever you need to feel grounded and present for your child (in the beginning, go as quickly as possible so you can reassure your baby you will be back.) As your little one feels more and more comfortable in his/her space – and I believe in slow transitions instead of letting babies cry because “they are allowed to express frustration” (there must be a balance, right?) – then you can start extending the time you take a little break. You can read more about RIE’s take on gated spaces, aka YES spaces coined by Janet Lansbury for Magda Gerber, and put into practice what you feel comfortable with and adapt what you don’t. I personally used YES spaces, I am trained in the RIE approach and appreciate Janet Lansbury and Magda Gerber more than I can put into words. I did not put him into his YES space and left him crying when I knew he needed support, and as advised by Janet Lansbury in her latest blog post, it was part of our routine since he was a newborn, to spend some time in his space while I was with his brother. I adapted to my child’s temperament and ability to regulate his nervousness, which means that I co-regulated with him first, so he was calm before I let him in to then get what I had to do done (taking care of my older child, studying for my masters…)
Some days he would not stay in his space even when that was part of our daily routine or it would take a bit longer for him to get comfortable playing without me, especially during developmental changes or when I had to work out of the house when my mom was visiting. Which meant, the next day he would want to be closer and spend less time playing on his own. A day after, he was fine in his space again. There was a time when I moved his YES space to a place where he could see me, which helped a lot! This is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be “leave them there crying because it’s ok/healthy to express emotions when they are unhappy” or “hold them all day long”.
Now, with my older child, we lived in a very small apartment and it was impossible to gate any area because there wasn’t any available (yep!) I child-proofed the entire house, locked what I could and he would follow me where I was. We do what we can! There is always a better balance that can fit your reality, considering your culture, financial situation, and values.
But what about the Sleep Progression/Regression everyone talks about?
Let me start by saying that not all babies experience sleep challenges related to developmental changes happening around 8-10 months, and some may not even show any signs of going through changes at all.
The main reason for challenges around this stage is rapid brain development and acquiring new gross motor skills. Babies may wake up more often at night to practice their new skills and then need help falling back asleep. That’s totally normal and not an indicator that there’s something wrong with your baby or that you should be doing something different to “fix” wakings because this is part of your little one’s development and not under our control.
Things to keep in mind:
- Object Permanence and Separation Anxiety: Babies begin to understand that objects and people still exist even when they are not in sight. It is VERY normal that they will want more proximity, contact naps, cuddles, and simply be in your presence.
- Teething: This is a sleep disrupter for many babies. Some children are more sensitive to others and you may notice a few days of irritability, more night wakings, and shorter naps. If you already experienced toothache, laying in a flat position can be even more uncomfortable which can explain why your little ones are more unsettled in their sleep.
- Motor Development: If your little one is working on new motor skills, such as pulling themselves to standing and crawling, sleep can be impacted. By now you know pretty much everything impacts sleep, and although it sounds like this will never end, it won’t last forever. Understanding what’s happening helps us let go of the “I’ve done something wrong, or I should have done this differently” and shift towards “My baby has gone through SO MUCH during this first year!”
- Feeding Solids: The more babies are introduced to new foods, the more we need to observe if there are food sensitivities impacting sleep (gas, constipation, discomfort).
- Language Acquisition/Communication Skills: Children begin to work on communication skills way before we realize it. Gestures, glances, sounds, cries… These are all communication skills your child has been mastering while observing YOU and your responses. Now, things are starting to make more and more sense to your little one and they are now beginning to understand that what they communicate impacts our responses, also called causality, meaning that they see they have an impact on the world through their actions. For example, they realize their coos and cries bring a parent close to them.
Things you can do to support your child through this stage – and yourself
- Provide your child with a “yes space” as mentioned above, where you can sit and watch them play while sipping a coffee. An exploration-free environment where they can practice motor skills (You can read more about Yes Spaces on Janet Lansbury’s website and Magda Gerber’s books)
- You can help your little one by playing peek-a-boo or saying “I’ll get X and will be right back” and come back to reassure them you follow through.
- When you leave, say goodbye and reassure them you will be back. It’s a slow process but part of child development.
- Normalize asking for help when you can. It’s not easy to be a parent and you are not alone in all these feelings.
Read more about Play Spaces (Remember, your play space does not need to be instagram or pinterest perfect).
I hope this helps, my friend!
July 18th, 2021
Hi! I’m Mariana. A mom to three, published author, Early Years Consultant, and 4x Certified Sleep Specialist (having worked with thousands of families over the last 7.5 years). My background is in Child Development and Psychology, specializing in Infants and Toddlers. I’m here to support families slow down childhood and simplify parenting.