8 – 11 months part I: What’s happening in the baby’s mind

I've had a few questions about this period and how dramatically it effects sleep. Tomorrow, I'll feature one "typical" question about this period and its impact on sleep. But I think it's also important to know the "good news": the cool new skills that are being acquired during this incredible transition stage. You'll probably hear me say this again and again: one of the only things that got me through the roughest of the transition periods in my boys' development was knowing that underlying the crazy sleep disruptions and general neediness were these almost magical changes in the way that kids think and feel about their world, especially their social world.  So here are some of the details about the developmental leaps kids are making around 9 months, taken from our book.

FROM Bed Timing: "Starting at around 8-9 months, babies learn to point, an operation that combines a hand gesture directed at an object with attention to the target of the other person’s gaze. They also learn to look where someone else is pointing, combining their attention to the pointing hand with their attention to objects at some distance out there in the world. Before this, children act like your cat: if you point at something, they look at the tip of your finger, not at the object you were trying to refer to. Pointing doesn’t make sense unless someone is looking where you’re pointing, or you’re looking where someone else is pointing, and it is not until this age that the infant’s working memory can hold onto both parts of this equation. Babies also learn to find objects that are hidden…  The capacity to retrieve hidden objects makes it sensible to search for them, just as the capacity to look where someone is pointing makes it sensible to point… As we will see, the 8-11-month old’s obsession with retrieving hidden objects is fundamental to a major change in social development: the onset of separation distress, based on an obsession with retrieving hidden parents.

Another social habit that emerges at this age is gazing at other people, usually parents, for cues as to the meaning of a situation. This is called "social referencing." The classic experiment to test social referencing involves a piece of apparatus called the visual cliff. Visual cliff This is a plexiglass (see-through) surface that covers an actual cliff—a drop of several feet in a plastic surface, often composed of brightly coloured checks for easy visibility. In the classic experiment (yes, we like to mess with babies), the infant is invited to crawl across the flat, plexiglass surface, which he very often does with little prompting anyway. Then he arrives at the cliff. Although there is no real danger, it appears to the infant that the floor is about to drop away from under him. Should he proceed or not?  Before the baby is 8-9 months, she (at least those who can creep or crawl) usually move blithely across the visual cliff, whether trusting in some divine protection or just plain oblivious. But now, at 8-9 months, they generally stop and look around for their mother. Once they catch sight of her, they look at her facial expression. The experiment is usually designed with instructions for mother to either smile encouragingly or to frown and look discouraging. Before 8 months, babies don't care what their mother's face looks like at that point; they go on their merry way or not. But starting at 8-9 months, infants’ actions depend very much on mother’s expression. If she is smiling, they proceed across the visual cliff. If she is frowning, they stop, and treat the cliff as dangerous. The point of the experiment is to show that the older infant decides whether to cross or not based on the parent’s nonverbal communication. Their interpretation of a situation is completely based on the reaction/signals of their parent." END QUOTE

Does this amaze other people as much as it does the geeky developmental academics?  We completely FREAK OUT about how consistently you can find this new skill at 9 months and how non-existent it is in 7-month olds. This new "social awareness" is linked to the emergence of "separation anxiety or distress" and "stranger anxiety."

The specific implications for changing babies' sleep habits are HUGE…

5 thoughts on “8 – 11 months part I: What’s happening in the baby’s mind

  1. Thanks for sharing this study. I love that you share real academic research to help us know our children better, and I cannot wait to hear about the implications for changing sleep habits.
    I have one question: our 6 month old bub is very good at putting himself to sleep during the day and for bedtime, but he still wakes up in the middle of the night and is unable to settle himself. We’ve tried soothing him back to sleep without nursing, but usually I have to resort to breastfeeding him. Lately we’ve noticed that this interferes with his daytime feeding – as in, he doesn’t nurse well in the day but nurses hungrily at night. Do you know if the traditional “sleep training” methods that involve a bit of crying is effective for this? We thought that the let-cry methods are to correct “wrong” sleep associations, but we’re not sure that he has a sleep association problem because he is unable to re-settle only at night, but settles very easily for naps in the day. We are not sure that letting him cry in the night (after checking in on him) when him has been a champ at falling asleep during the day is the right method. But we are at our wits end! I would love to hear your thoughts if you have any to share.

  2. Yes, there are many sleep-training methods that could address this issue and 6 months is a good developmental window to try something. It sounds like you’re basically talking about night-weaning. He has a “go back to sleep in middle of night” sleep association with nursing. He also has a “I’m hungry in the middle of the night because I’m used to getting fed” association. All that is fine for a 6 month old… unless you don’t want to be nursing at night anymore. If that’s the case, you can try gradually night-weaning by offering less and less milk at night, giving him comfort instead of nursing later on, then providing less and less of that comfort/support gradually. Or some form of modified Ferberizing also can work. I’d also add in a VERY good feeding just before he goes to sleep and try upping his caloric intake in the day.
    Maybe other readers will contribute some other suggestions…

  3. Hi Isabela, thanks for your feedback. The only thing we don’t understand is that he has slept through the night a couple of times – just enough times for me to get a glimmer of hope that he is just on his way out of being night weaned, but not often enough that it still kind of p**ses me off when he does wake up in the middle of the night (you know, the “You’ve slept through before, so why not do it again??” thought runs through my mind every time he wakes up in the middle of the night).
    I’ve tried to shorten the length of the feed but at if I try to stop him half way (or 3/4 of the way), he gets mad :P So usually, at 1am (or 2am, 3am, 4am – whenever he wakes up and can’t go back to sleep). So usually I just give in and let him nurse while I doze off, then put him back in bed and I crawl back to sleep myself.
    We have started solids but because of the whole “breastmilk should be their primary diet” thing I always refrain from giving him too much. He gets 1 meal of solids – at dinner time – and then a big feed right before bed time. But he has never ever turned solids away, so I wonder if upping solids might be a good way to go. Food is a tricky thing with the bub, because he won’t eat if he’s not hungry (turns away and arches his back) so I’ve tried increasing number of feeds in the day which has just resulted in frustration – of him not eating!
    We will try some night weaning methods and see where that takes us…Thanks!

  4. anon, that has been the story of my child’s life so far! I have noticed it seems to come and go. My daughter is nearly 11 months now. At times it’s been just once a night (perfect for me), but right now its about 2-3 times a night (exhausting).
    I’m a bit of a wimp about fixing this one. I have no patience in the middle of the night and nursing her back to sleep seems to be the easiest path for us both since I am able to go back to sleep quickly after each nurse. Still I look forward to the next pause in night nursing.

  5. Isabela, I just wanted to say I love your description of the child. It really helped me get into her mind. The ‘obsession with retrieving hidden parents’ just makes me smile.

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