Reader’s Question: Sleep training during the (8 – 11 month) developmental transition

Let's start this week off with a reader's question about something we haven't talked about for a while… sleep!  Yes, we can still address this thorny, ever-morphing issue even though the blog is no longer fully focused on the topic. The question comes from a mother of a 9-month old, but I think we can consider it more broadly to cover any developmental transition period:

My son was sleeping in his crib with very few interruptions until
he came down with a bad cold a few weeks back.  I'd trained him using
the sleep doula method when he was seven months old.  This involved
sleeping on a matress on his bedroom floor for a week and shhh-patting
him whenever he awoke during the night.  Anyhow, once he got sick I
began to take him out of his crib in the night and take him into my
husband's and my bed to sleep.  Now he won't sleep in his crib
anymore.  I'd like to try the sleep doula training method again but
I've now entered the 9-11 month blackout period.  I'd still be in the
room so he'd know I hadn't abandoned him, but I'm worried that it might
be damaging to him to see me right there, standing in his room but not
responding to his requests to be picked up.

Do you think it would be okay to try this method at this time or should I wait?

So, first off, although the reader is asking about her 9-month old in particular, I think the question can be considered more broadly to cover ANY of the developmental transitions we've talked about on this site. I could have picked from another 4 emails that asked almost the same question (although the particular sleep training methods differed), but were about their 18-month old or 2.5 year old child. So I wanted to mention and review some GENERAL points about transition periods and their impact on sleep training and then get into the specifics of this question.

There are a few, very predictable, developmental transition periods that I've mentioned can be quite problematic for sleep training children. Each of these periods have their own specific character, but what they have in common is that they are developmental transitions during which there are massive reorganizations/changes occurring in multiple domains (cognitive, emotional, social and oftentimes physical). Our approach has been to discourage parents from sleep training during these periods because, no matter what sleep training technique you use, they are less likely to work if the child is adjusting to these huge changes. So, no matter if the child is acquiring object permanence and getting his first real taste of separation anxiety at 8 – 11 months, or is experiencing a burst of language development and understanding social roles at 18 – 21 months, or feeling her first stabs of jealousy at 2.5 years old, or really groc-ing how different people's perceptions can be and feeling the resultant first stings of shame at around 3.5 years old… each of these new stages brings with it a whole lot of upheaval, much of which is related to the social connectedness we have with the ones we love most. Sleep training can be a hard enough battle to win, without stacking the deck against you with all of these new psychological acquisitions added to the mix. So, if there's a way to avoid sleep training during these stages, I've always recommended doing so.

HOWEVER, as we all know, we can have the best-laid plans and then things just don't go our way. Sometimes, like this reader's question typifies, sh*& happens and we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of one of these transitions with little recourse but to forge ahead and try to teach or re-teach our children better sleeping habits. In these cases, my best advice would be: Go for it, try whatever technique you feel will work best for your family, and keep an open mind. The worst that can happen is the child will NOT learn better sleep habits. That sucks, but at LEAST you can feel rest assured that it is NOT your fault. It's not that you didn't learn the most magical, bestest, coolest technique out there to help your kid sleep; it's not that you let her CIO or DIDN'T let her CIO or nursed too much or not enough or that you used the wrong blinds, the wrong music, the wrong pacifier. It's just a sucky developmental period to make these kinds of lessons stick. So I would caution this reader and anyone else trying to forge ahead and sleep train during a sensitive period: it will be hard, possibly harder than if you would have done it earlier or later. And it may not work. BUT! BUT!  Are you all paying attention here? BUT! You are NOT screwing up your child for life if you give it a try. If you feel you must sleep train during a sensitive period, for your sanity, your child's health, whatever, do it and feel no guilt. If it works (after perhaps more work and more time at it) yippee for everyone. If it doesn't work, you have a likely causal explanation and your next plan of action is to wait until this phase runs its course and you can implement the sleep-training method of your choice at that time.

Getting back to the reader's specific concerns about the 9 – 11 month stage, I don't think you will "damage" your child with this sleep training method. Is it ok to try, sure, at least for a couple of days. But because this new stage is all about the child acquiring a more sophisticated understanding of your presence in the world, the same technique that worked at 7 months (before your child really GOT your "permanence" in the world) may simply not work at this stage. The sight of you near, but unattainable, may be too frustrating at this sensitive stage. Sleep training with this "doula" method may just flood your child with too much anxiety, making it difficult to learn any new sleeping skills. But again, I firmly believe you won't damage your child for life if you attempt this method for a few days, even if a few tears are indeed shed (perhaps on both your parts). 

Anyone out there have some supportive words for the original poster of the question? Anyone have great success stories to share from this age? Or how about some words of commiseration… this is a tough age to muddle through (for the whole family).

5 thoughts on “Reader’s Question: Sleep training during the (8 – 11 month) developmental transition

  1. I used Ferber when my son was 10 months old. It worked very well, but probably took longer than if I had waited for a ‘good window’. Unfortunately, my son is now 12 months and his sleeping (or lack thereof) is like a newborn…up every 2 hours and needs me to hold him. I think this is because of ear infections and multiple other colds. So, we are back to square one. But, I’m glad that I’m now in a ‘good window’. Now it’s just waiting until he feels better.
    Isabela – Any thoughts on what to do when your little one is not at the top of his game? It seems that he perpetually has a stuffy nose or slight cough which makes me not want to use any sleep training methods. However, I fear that I will never be able to get him to sleep if I wait until he’s ‘all better’. It seems that may not happen for a few years with the way this fall/winter season has been! Sigh.

  2. @Tina: Ugh. That’s tough. You know, 12 months is actually a pretty common “blip” in kids’ sleeping habits — they often get disrupted by big physical changes. Is your child just starting to learn to walk, or has he JUST learned? This can often be a trigger to sleep disruptions. But of course the sick stuff can always get in the way and disrupt good sleeping habits because OF COURSE they need you more when they feel yucky and you’re more likely to want to provide more support when they’re vulnerable. THen those supports are hard to take back after the snot and coughs have subsided (if indeed they EVER do).
    Personally, I would try to find the lowest ebb in all the sickness and re-train. He’ll probably get it quickly if he’s already learned the skills before… he just needs a little reminding that he can do it. If you wait until he’s totally snot-free, well, as you say, you’ll be waiting a few months. But if the walking stuff may also be disrupting, then think about waiting until he’s really feeling more confident on his feet, that might help too. I’ll get the link up to the blog post I wrote about physical development and its potential disruptions…

  3. @Tina I agree with the 12-month blip. We went through a blip around that time too. About 3-4 weeks of bad sleep. Followed by 3-4 weeks of good sleep, and now back to bad sleep and not-so-great naps (1-2 naps only <1 hr long, and up 2-3 times before midnight; thankfully (touch wood) he usually sleeps from midnight till 7:30am). There is always something – teething, cold, cough, teething, milestone, walking, etc. My husband and I go by the “3 day rule” – if something doesn’t work after 3 days, then we give it a break and take a week or two off and try again. My theory is, you kind of want them to learn to sleep despite of their disruptions, so you try, but if it doesn’t work then there’s an obvious reason and you just try again later. There’s no “perfect” way or time to do it, you can’t really pre-empt every single possible scenario so you just do what you want to do (or have to do, out of need/desperation!)
    I have noticed that at 13 months my son is more sophisticated than he was at 12 months. In the past two weeks he has a) shown that he recognizes certain Chinese words (e.g., body parts, pointing to the picture of whatever thing I’m saying), putting things together (brings me pack of crayons from one side of the room and the colouring book from the other side of the room), etc. Also, my husband and I are much better at distinguishing between his ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ these days. E.g., my 13-month-old seems to be teething (we’ve noticed the white swollen bumps for 3 weeks now). The past week has not been much fun for us, sleep-wise. We usually comfort him for about 10-15 mins and if he is still hysterical, we give him some tylenol (to rule out pain). If he still will not settle, then we give him some hugs, a drink of water, and tell him it’s time for bed. The crying/fussing becomes the “wah-wah-silence, wah-wah-silence” cry (crying and then listening to see if we come), which we know is a “want” cry rather than a “need” cry. That helps us figure out whether he actually needs us or if he just wants our attention. If it’s a want cry then it usually subsides after about 5 mins.

  4. We never sleep trained per se, but we did attempt to nightwean at about 9.5-10 months. Before we started, our daughter was waking 3x/night to nurse. We got her down to one night feeding at that point. We gradually increased the time before the first feeding. Hubby went in to comfort (rock/bounce) my daughter until the time we had agreed upon. She dropped two feedings very quickly but wouldn’t drop the last one- so we gave up. She dropped that one at about 21.5 months. That time, sending Daddy in made her hysterical, so I just went in and said “no, let’s snuggle instead”, and then brought her into bed with us for the rest of the night.
    I wrote posts about both nightweaning attempts:
    She was a difficult sleeper (especially compared with her little sister!) so we were shocked at how well our nightweaning went both times. She eventually started sleeping through the night most nights in her own bed a little after 24 months, about the time we moved her from her crib to a big girl bed.

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