Three to four months old Part I: (Maybe) the first window of opportunity for sleep-training

After all this talk about the dreaded developmental transition periods and why it might be best to avoid sleep training during these stages, it seems important to also start talking about the windows of opportunity. These are the ages and stages that children are more resilient, have less going on in terms of cognitive and emotional changes and they may be most open to changes in bedtime routines. For the next few weeks, I'll intersperse readers' questions about their sleep dilemmas with some posts about these more robust stages of emotional development.

I kinda, sorta hate to start with this first window of opportunity because I've got mixed feelings about it. It's the only "stable" stage that I suggest a lot of caution and leave the possibility of abandoning the sleep-training ship as soon as you start it if things just don't feel right. Your gut matters all the time, but with this young, young age, your sense of how your child is coping is perhaps the most critical. Not because I think horrible, irreparable damage is likely… more because, well, it's just a "feeling" I have. There you are, my totally ridiculous, patently unscientific reason for my ambivalence. But hey… the comments section on this blog are generally very sparse, so maybe this will incite some of you to throw some virtual rotten tomatoes my way.

There are some good developmental reasons why 2 1/2 months to 4 months is a safe window for some
people to sleep train their baby. It is a time when bodily habits, coordinated between mother and baby, have finally become consolidated, and the infant can now turn his attention to the most exciting things in the world outside his body: other people. Day and night cycles have become firmly established. At this age, babies are skilled at grasping, sucking, and gazing at objects and people for long periods. Baby-mobile This is why mobiles rock your 3 month-olds' world. But most importantly, this age is marked by the initiation of “reciprocal exchange” because it involves prolonged gazing at the mother and other family members who inevitably gaze back at the infant. Babies now gaze at mother, smile, coo, and delight in the ensuing changes in her face and voice. Mother, in turn, becomes fascinated by her baby’s facial expressions, especially smiles, and especially the smiles that seem to be a response to her own expressions and actions. As described by Daniel Stern, this feeling of being noticed, being important, being a source of excitement and pleasure for the baby, is a huge turn on to the mother, who gazes at the baby while cooing and gooing in exactly the way babies find most interesting (develpmentalists actually call this vocalizing "Motherese"). The baby notices mother’s gaze and sounds, as well as the changing facial expressions that accompany them, and seems to know intuitively that they are directed at him or her. This interpersonal connection is practically irresistible to most babies, who will stare at mother’s face for long periods while cooing and gooing. From about 2.5 to 4 months, episodes of mutual gazing stretch out longer and longer, and they become a fundamental source of excitement and joy for both partners. Scottish theorist Colwyn Trevarthen describes this as a state of “intersubjectivity” between the infant and caregiver (if you click on the Trevarthen link and are bored by the theory, scroll down and check out the pictures of parents and babies interacting… it might be interesting just to get a glimpse of how some of this research is conducted). There is a sense, not only of each partner responding to the other, but also of both partners sharing a world in which “we are here together.” The baby at this age is developing a secure sense of her environment, she's curious about her surrounds and can often calm herself down if not overly aroused. As a result, this may indeed be one of the first periods you can attempt some gentle form of sleep training.

Up next, a reader's question about how to regain her sanity after being sleep-deprived with her 3-month old. What are some of the unique considerations for helping these young babies sleep?

One thought on “Three to four months old Part I: (Maybe) the first window of opportunity for sleep-training

  1. I think your comments section might be sparse due to a technical glitch. On AskMoxie, you can post if you put down a fake email and website. I’ve tried that here, and my comment shows up initially, but then is gone if I come back to the comments section. I wonder how many other people are having a similar experience. I really value your site and your tips, and would like to see it thrive. (I will send this to you as an email as well, so you are sure to get it.)

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