My son was about 6 months old when I read something that made me feel so relieved about my parenting:
Feeling annoyed with your child is not only normal but could be a sign that they are ready to gain a new skill and develop.
It makes sense when you think about it. Has there been a time when you have felt okay with something — like your child not getting dressed by themselves or waking in the night and then one day you realize you aren’t fine with it any longer? Could your annoyance be a sign that your child is ready to progress? Maybe somewhere deep down you realize that they are capable of sleeping through the night or putting on their shoes and you start demanding more of them. When you create that higher demand, you are helping your child gain those new skills and develop.
I originally read about this idea in the book (affiliate link) The Wonder Weeks: How to Stimulate Your Baby’s Mental Development and Help Him Turn His 10 Predictable, Great, Fussy Phases into Magical Leaps Forward:
“At first parents worry when their baby enters a fussy phase. They get annoyed when they discover nothing is wrong with their baby and, to the contrary, he is in fact ready to be more independent. It is then that start demanding that their baby do thing that feel he is able to do. As a consequence, they promote progress.” pg. 195
I had always felt so guilty when I felt annoyed by my little bundle of joy. Seriously, how could I feel annoyed with such a little person who has brought me every joy in the world? But thinking about it this way helped me so much. My annoyance was simply a symptom of change. It’s time to shake things up and move onto the next stage and with that transition comes temporary chaos before things settle down again.
As a mom, I was relieved and as a developmental psychologist, I was intrigued. There isn’t any research out there that shows that annoyance drives development except for the observations of Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooij, the authors of Wonder Weeks. They did a series of descriptive studies and found that mothers often report their own irritability and annoyance when their children enter into a growth spurt. It is difficult to pin down something like this in research because the annoyance we are talking about is mild and relatively fleeting. It is also difficult to study the ups and downs of developmental periods for many reasons — the research is there, but it is sparse.
There are some things we do know about development. And as a mom, knowing these things has helped my perspective during those irritable periods so much. While I think I could write a list of about 20 things, I narrowed it down to four:
Top Four Things to Know about Development
Development is made up of leaps, spurts, bumps, and curves.
Only rarely do we see straight lines of progression in development. Rather, development is made up of gains and losses, progression and regression, and leaps and spurts! Tracking these spurts is difficult and the research is limited — especially as children get older.
Van de Rijt and Plooij outlined 10 growth spurts (or as they call them leaps) in their descriptive studies and have plotted them out by the age of your baby in weeks. Of those 10 leaps, four have been replicated in other studies: 12 weeks, 17 weeks, 20 weeks, and 26 weeks old. Your baby will likely experience other periods of growth as well, but these weeks are the strongest effects across several infants. This means that most likely the majority of babies will go through growth at these times.
Before and during developmental leaps children are more fussy and demanding. They are even more likely to get sick during these periods. You may be more annoyed and frazzled. Hang in there Mama! A period of relatively calm development will follow each one.
Major developmental changes = sleep disruption.
There are several studies that show a relationship between growth hormones and sleep. The onset of crawling is also linked with temporary sleep disruption. In addition to crawling, infants are also more aware of whether the parent is nearby or not. Some parents even report that when their child starts standing or crawling for the first time, they will find their child standing in their crib. It is as if the skill is so new that they can’t control it and their brain is telling them to practice it even when asleep.
Babies need extra soothing at during these periods. What is the good news? This sleep disruption will pass. Once the new skill is organized and the growth spurt has ended equilibrium will return.
YOU play a large role in development.
Development does not occur on its own. It is deeply affected by genetic inheritance and the environment. We, as parents, are a huge part of our children’s environment. Time and time again research shows that children of sensitive parents have better long-term developmental outcomes. This suggests that how we handle periods of instability is important. So, while mild annoyance may signal a developmental leap is occurring (and may even help propel progress), the really important things is how we soothe and settle until this stage passes.
Our children are vulnerable during those periods of instability – their systems are disorganized and their immune system depressed. How we respond may shape the way our children are able to handle periods of stress in the future.
Development is a powerful force in its own right.
All that I said above about how development doesn’t happen on its own is true, but we often forget about the force of development on its own. Ever wonder why the phrase “this too shall pass” has a ring of truth to it? Or why people say, “Don’t worry, it’s probably just a stage.”
In developmental psychology we measure time as its own variable — it is possible that whatever development is occurring would have occurred simply due to maturation and the passage of time. Think about sleep training. All of the books say it will work in a week or so. Is that because the method worked or the developmental leap and fussiness simply passed? Sometimes it is probably one or the other, sometimes probably both. Which makes understanding the effects of sleep training difficult to understand.
When we think about what makes our children grow– it is their world (relationships and experiences), their genes, and the process of development itself. I find this so comforting as a mom. When your baby stops sleeping through the night, it’s most likely a leap — a growth spurt. It’s not because of anything you did or didn’t do, it most likely isn’t a bad habit that you created or that something is wrong — it’s just part of the process. Yes, our actions matter, but we should realize that development is a strong force itself. Micro-analyzing every little thing we do– did we rock too long or too short, hold too much or too little, feed too much or not enough — may be all for naught– it may come down this simple philosophy: This too shall pass.
Once that fussiness it passes, you’ll see the new little person they have become. Have you ever noticed that? That after a period of your child being off — cranky, tired and hungry — all of a sudden that happy little laugh and smiling face is back and you say to yourself– “there he is!” But then you notice he is suddenly speaking in sentences and better coordinated!
He’s grown and you simultaneously miss the babyishness and are proud of the new found skills. Perhaps, part of the reason transitions are hard is so we don’t miss those baby days too much. We feel relieved when they are back to themselves and excited for their newfound skills. Maybe if we didn’t feel a little annoyed sometimes, we wouldn’t be able to handle them growing up.
For more on the leaps and how it may affect you and your baby, check out The Wonder Weeks. While not all of the information in it has been corroborated, I recommend it to all my friends. I think it does a good job of giving your perspective through the fussy phases.
There is also a Wonder Weeks App for tracking your baby’s leaps.
As a final note, growth spurts don’t end at age 2, but we know far less about them. Partly because the timing seems to be more individual — so it’s even harder to study. I’m going to look into though and I’ll let you know what I find out!
What things do you notice when your child goes through a leap? Comment below!