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Do Growth Spurts Interfere With Baby's Sleep?

Foot_and_rulerOne of the truly unique challenges about infants is their inability to communicate. (The same could be said for husbands, but in a more nuanced way.)

Between the time they enter the world, to the point where they start to learn some very basic communication skills, the only tool that babies have at their disposal is crying. They cry when they’re hungry, when they’re thirsty, when they’re bored, they’re itchy, they’re too hot or too cold, or they’re just in the mood for a cry.

Of course, we don’t know which one of those ailments they’re trying to convey, so we use the process of elimination. We offer them milk, we check their temperature, we bounce them around, we take them out of their onesie, all the while, checking to see if that improves their situation.

And when nothing remedies the problem, we start questioning, “Why?”

Human beings, it seems, do not like not knowing things, and when we can’t evaluate why something is happening, we turn to the next best thing, and we consider why it might be happening.

When babies won’t sleep, and their parents feel like they’ve tried everything imaginable, they tend to fall back on one of two explanations. Either they’re teething, or they’re going through a growth spurt.

I completely understand the reasoning behind this thinking. A crying baby, who seems inconsolable, could likely be going through some kind of physical discomfort, and teeth breaking through tender gums, or bones and muscles growing at a rapid rate, sound painful.

They both also have the convenience of being unprovable in the short term. If you say your child is experiencing a growth spurt, or is cutting a tooth, who’s to say you’re wrong?

All of this wouldn’t be worth writing about except for the fact that I’ve seen so many parents interrupt or alter an effective, established sleep schedule, which they’ve worked their tails off to build, because they feel that a growth spurt qualifies as “special circumstances.” They think their little one is in pain or hungry and they’re eager to respond to them.

Now, I’m all for responding to your child when they’re in distress. I think just about anyone in their right mind supports that action.

But before we go acting purely on instinct, let’s take a look at the research. Do growth spurts hurt your baby? Is the rapid growth of their tender little bodies causing them agony?

Short answer: No.

Or at least there’s nothing scientific to suggest it.

An article in the May, 2011 issue of Sleep by Michelle Lampl, M.D., Ph.D, showed that infants do, in fact, grow in very sporadic bursts. However, they’re not the 2-3 week episodes we’ve been led to believe they are. In fact, that old saying that your baby “grew an inch overnight” turns out to be not all that far from the truth, but we’ll talk about that in another article. It’s actually really fascinating.

The study seems to indicate that there is a correlation between sleep and growth, but it’s a positive one. Your baby secretes more growth hormone, eats more, and needs more sleep during these growth spurts.

They’re not the 6-8 week stretches of accelerated growth that we’ve been led to believe they are though. They occur over a night or two, and take place frequently and erratically.

“The results demonstrate empirically that growth spurts not only occur during sleep but are significantly influenced by sleep [and] longer sleep [equals] greater growth in body length,” says Lampl.

As such, babies actually need to get more sleep during these growth spurts, as opposed to less.

But what about the idea that this explosive growth is causing them to ache?

A 2012 article, reviewed by Dr. Dan Brennan, MD, pediatrician and contributing writer for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says there’s no indication that growth spurts cause physical discomfort.

“Despite the name ‘growing pains,’ there is no firm evidence that growing pains are linked to growth spurts. Instead, growing pains may simply be muscle aches due to intense childhood activities that can wear your child’s muscles out.”

Babies do tend to eat more when they’re experiencing a growth spurt, which is understandable, since their bodies need some extra nourishment to provide for the extra material they’re developing. This has led a lot of parents I’ve worked with to reintroduce the nighttime feeding.

That’s a big no-no. Not only does it force baby to wake up during a period when she’s supposed to be getting some extra sleep, it can quickly lead to a renewed dependence on feeding as part of the sleep process. Beyond six months of age, providing your baby with some extra calories during the day will do just fine to ensure she’s got the nourishment she needs through the night.

So although you may want to blame a sleep regression on a growth spurt, and might be tempted to alter your strategy until things get back to normal, don’t. Stick to the plan, maintain your routine, and ignore these scenarios that your brain cooks up in order to convince you that there are “extenuating circumstances.”

And while your baby’s sleeping, you might want to get on the phone and see if any of your mommy friends have some hand-me-down onsies, because baby’s going to outgrow her current wardrobe by the time she wakes up.

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Dana’s Sleep Blog

Straight talk about sleep, parenting,
babies, toddlers, relationships… and
just about anything else!
My blog is a great place to find opinions, advice, the occasional rant, and some great videos about sleep.

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