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April 28, 2021
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September 29, 2021

Baby and Toddler Sleep – An Encouraging Perspective

By Cozette Laubser |

Sleep is probably the number one topic parents read about, talk about, complain about and sadly lie about. This article isn’t about ‘to do’s’, averages, policies and best practices. This article aims to share some insights into what happens in a little brain and body in the first 2 years of life and how this might impact sleep.  We also aim to share the marvel of the human design and encourage parents to observe their child’s sleeping patterns as something to derive meaning from, rather than something that constantly needs fixing.




In the book The Wonder Weeks, authors Hetty van der Rijt, Frans Plooij and Xaviera Plas-Plooij state, “Our research has shown that from time to time all parents are plagued by a baby who won’t stop crying. In fact, we found that, surprisingly, all normal healthy babies are more tearful, troublesome, demanding, and fussy at the same ages, and when this occurs, they may drive the entire household to despair. From our research, we now are able to predict, almost to the week, when parents can expect their babies to go through one of these “fussy phases”.

During these periods, a baby cries for a good reason. They are suddenly undergoing drastic changes in their development, which is upsetting to them. These changes enable them to learn many new skills and should therefore be a reason for celebration. After all, it’s a sign they are making wonderful progress. But as far as the baby is concerned, these changes are bewildering. They are taken aback – everything has changed overnight. It’s as if they have entered a whole new world.

It is well known that a child’s physical development progresses in what we commonly call “growth spurts”. A baby may not grow at all for some time, but then they’ll grow a quarter of an inch in just one night. Research has shown that essentially the same thing happens in a child’s mental development. Neurological studies have shown that there are times when major, dramatic changes take place in the brains of children younger than 20 months. Shortly after each of them, there is a parallel leap forward in mental development. Wonder Weeks focuses on the 10 major leaps that every baby takes in their first 20 months of life. It tells you what each of these developments mean for your baby’s understanding of the world around them and how they use their understanding to develop the new skills that they need at each stage in their development.”

The development of the brain and therefore mental development starts in the womb and not after birth. The due date is therefore important when calculating these leaps.

  • Leap 1: The world of sensations, Week 5
  • Leap 2: The world of patterns, Week 8
  • Leap 3: The world of smooth transitions, Week 12
  • Leap 4: The world of events, Week 19
  • Leap 5: The world of relationships, Week 26
  • Leap 6: The world of categories, Week 37
  • Leap 7: The world of sequences, Week 46
  • Leap 8: The world of programs, Week 55
  • Leap 9: The world of principles, Week 64
  • Leap 10: The world of systems, Week 75

These mental leaps are often accompanied by so called sleep regressions. But, although a leap might mean more crying, crankiness and night waking’s it is by no means a regression, it is a huge mental advancement!


According to Dr. Melodie de Jager, the reflex system is essential to the baby’s survival since reflexes act as basic wiring for all later skills such as playing, talking, drawing, reading, writing, paying attention and performing. In the course of normal development, reflexes emerge in a systematic manner to fulfil a function before being inhibited again, and pass the responsibility for continued development on to the next reflex. This process is like a relay race where individual athletes run flat out, pass the baton to the next athlete and then relax on the track.

There are many reflexes, and more specifically primitive reflexes, but in light of a baby and toddler, we would like to single out the Moro reflex.

The Moro reflex emerges 9–12 weeks in utero and is present at birth. Ideally, it should go to rest at 2–6 months of life. The Moro reflex is also called the startle reflex as it startles baby’s entire nervous system awake. Amazingly, the Moro reflex assists in the development of the breathing reflex and is the result of the baby’s first breath at birth. It is also this reflex that makes sure a baby jolts awake and breathes, when breathing stops for some reason.

The Moro reflex startles all the baby’s senses and his muscles into awareness when he flings his eyes, mouth, arms and legs wide open with a quick intake of breath and the fingers and toes are splayed. The Moro reflex also triggers stress hormones to prime the baby’s muscles in readiness for action and keep them rigid in eager anticipation of action for a short while. All the senses are also on hyper alert to spot any danger. The rigid muscles and alert senses only stay like that for a short time and then they relax, but while they are rigid and alert, intense wiring and mapping of the sensory cortex and the motor cortex occurs.

In the early weeks and months after birth the Moro reflex literally is a life-saving reflex, so we want to celebrate its existence. However, if the Moro reflex remains active long after 6 months, it can mean baby will startle awake at the slightest change in environment – be it touch, smell, sound or light. For an older baby or toddler with an active Moro reflex, reaching deep sleep can be challenging, be it night or day, as an active Moro reflex does not switch off after hours.

How will you know if your baby or toddler has an active Moro reflex? These are some of the signs:

  • Irregular breathing
  • Breath-holding
  • Startles easily and frequently (inappropriately so)
  • Hypersensitivity to bright light, noise, temperature, pain and sudden movement
  • Delayed milestones
  • Gets motion sick
  • Tires easily
  • Stiff posture


The senses continually provide the brain with sensory information. Day and night the senses will signal the brain to gear up or gear down. If the brain is bombarded with stimulating sensory information such as bright lights, loud music or sounds, changing smell and moving faces, it is certainly going to gear up and engage. If a baby is surrounded by a sensory environment that is known, warm, low light and muffled sounds the senses communicate to the brain, “this is all known, nothing new here, you can relax and drift off to sleep”.

Babies and toddlers are wired to learn, if you offer them the choice between experiencing something new or drifting off to sleep, guess what they are going to choose? Who wants to miss out, right!

In the same breath, it is also healthy for any nervous system to learn what sensory information does not need response and can be ignored. By controlling a sleep environment to perfection, we might be starving the nervous system from opportunity to regulate itself and develop the ability to register environmental changes without waking from it.

One mom says, “my husbands snoring at night is quite something. I was really worried about how this would affect our newborns sleep. Yet, to this day, he sleeps soundly through Dad’s snoring, but awakes to any other sound that is out of the ordinary.”

In her book Play Learn Grow, Dr. Melodie de Jager says, “Just like the brain, babies and toddlers need excitement to grow and develop, but they also need routine to settle down and relax”. So next time your baby struggles to slow down on the way to bed time, ask yourself whether the home environment is helping the nervous system to gear up or gear down.

From Play Learn Grow (Birth to 3)



Pregnancy, birth and the first few weeks of life play an important role in how a baby responds to their environment and their ability to feel calm and connected. If a baby is in a constant state of fight or flight it is almost impossible to feel safe enough to drift off to sleep, let alone to do so away from mom.

A baby who was born prematurely, separated from mom or spent weeks in the NICU might need a lot more cuddles, time and attention to feel safe and secure enough to enter deep sleep.

Being in close contact with Mom has a strong neurological and hormonal effect on baby:

  • Scientific studies of Western infants show that skin-to-skin contact, also known as “kangaroo care,” has a painkilling effect on babies (Gray et al 2000).
  • It is also likely to boost an infant’s levels of oxytocin, a natural hormone with sedative effects (Uvnas-Moberg 2003).
  • And skin-to-skin contact appears to help premature babies calm down. In one study, kangaroo care reduced agitation, rapid heart rate and apnea in preterm infants (Messmer et al 1997).

Associate Professor of Pediatrics Katarina Michelsson (Michelsson, 1996) and her colleagues observed the number of times a newborn baby cried. In the first 90 minutes after birth, babies separated from their mothers cried almost 10 times more than babies in body contact with their mothers.

For a baby who is severely underweight, poorly and has little energy, simply being close to mom can be lifesaving, certainly also relationship-saving.


Like us, babies have circadian rhythms, or biological processes that cycle about once every 24-hours. When babies are born, their internal clocks aren’t yet synchronized with the external 24-hour cycle of daylight and darkness, as life in the womb does not require it. It takes time for babies to get in sync.

The easiest way to help baby adjust to this rhythm of night and day is to introduce them to sunlight in the morning and keep artificial light (electric light) to a minimum after sunset. Day naps can also be deep and restful without converting the sleeping environment to a pitch-black room.

Exposure to sunlight will signal to the brain that it is awake-time, and as light decreases in the late afternoon melatonin, the darkness hormone, helps the brain and nervous system to gear down again.


Babies and toddlers go through so much in the first two years of life. They learn to regulate their own body temperature, they learn to digest milk and later solids, they teethe (oh the teeth!), they consistently grow (yes grow pains are real), they consistently learn to use their muscles in new ways (yes muscle ache exists), they grow (more stretching and aching!), they learn they have a voice and can communicate – even at different volumes, they learn about physical and emotional needs, they fall and get hurt, sometimes they hit their heads and have lasting headaches, and the list goes on and on…

Your baby constantly communicates with you. What are they trying to tell you?


One mom says, “I clearly remember the parameters I set for my little one even before being born. He would sleep through at 3 months. Where did I get that timeframe? No idea. On what was it based? No idea. Did it happen? Absolutely not.”

When you interview parents on their frustrations and sometimes even plain aggression around sleep, or the lack thereof, you often find the underlying question, “What are we doing wrong??!!”.

There is no doubt that everyone needs sleep and that the physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of sleep are unparalleled. But, if the vast majority of families experience night waking’s in the first two years, wouldn’t it be more supportive and practical if we talked about it as if it were okay behavior, perhaps biologically even normal? Note, we didn’t say fun!


One Finnish study which involved 5,700 families concluded, “Now we know that the individual differences are very large, and that patterns relating to falling asleep, waking up, staying awake at night and sleeping rhythms often develop at different rates.”

Another study notes, “The main criterion for determining a sleep problem is parental distress regarding infants who do not fall asleep without their parents’ help”.

Netmums in conjuction with The Children’s Sleep Charity asked UK parents to complete an online survey. 10 766 Parents took part in the survey. The results showed:

  • More than 50% of parents get up at least once a night.
  • 11.1% get up three or more times a night.
  • 36% of parents said their babies did not sleep through the night at one year of age.
  • 25.7% said their baby slept through the night at 3 months of age.
  • 38% of families said the most effective way to get their baby to sleep was a set bedtime routine.

What this survey also shows is how often parents lie about their children’s sleeping habits. This includes lying about the time their child goes to bed or wakes up, when their youngster first slept through the night and how well their children sleep.



If new parents were to expect night waking’s in the first year or two of life, and knew what monumental changes took place in their little ones in this time, wouldn’t it affect the way we approached sleep? Wouldn’t it change expectations, lower stress levels and reduce anxiety around sleep? And wouldn’t if affect the way we talked about sleep and the universal need for support?

Sleep deprivation affects everyone differently, but there is no doubt that at some point every family will need a supportive gran or family friend to step in and sleep-over, so mom and dad can catch up on some much needed shut-eye.

What is that marvelous saying? It takes a village to raise a child.

De Jager, M. 2017. Play Learn Grow (Birth to 3). Johannesburg: Mind Moves Publishing.

De Jager, M. 2018. Brain development, milestones and learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Publishing.

De Jager, M. 2019. Mind Moves – Removing barriers to learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Publishing.

van de Rijt, Plooij, Plas-Plooij, 2017. The Wonder Weeks. The Netherlands: Kiddy World Publishing.

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