It is common that parents come to me because their baby wakes up every time they try to put baby down. No matter how gently, slowly or quietly they put baby down, they suddenly wake up!
It can be so frustrating for parents. It is an exhausting endeavor. Parents work so hard to get their sweet baby to sleep. They finally think they have accomplished the task and then the moment baby’s head and body touch the mattress, they are suddenly wide awake!
“My sound asleep baby seems to KNOW when I have put them down.” I hear this remark from parents on a regular basis.
Well, these parents are correct. Baby does KNOW that you put them down. But how do they know?
How your sleeping baby knows when you put them down
Your baby is informed by multiple systems and factors when you put them down. Then consequentially, they can wake up from it.
The vestibular system is responsible for providing information to our brains about our movement and balance, specifically head movement. Additionally, it provides information about where our body is in space to help us stay balanced and stabilized through movement.[i] A system of organs in the inner ear primarily comprises the vestibular system.
By 5 months in utero, the vestibular system is one of the first senses that is fully developed. Mom’s movements provide sensory information to stimulate the vestibular system and the baby’s growing brain. Our sense of spatial orientation is provided by the information received by this system.
This system knows when our balance is altered or a spatial orientation has changed. Then it tells our brain about the movement.
The proprioceptive system is a continuous feedback loop that between sensory receptors in the body and our nervous system to tell us how our bodies are moving. Proprioception tells us where our body parts, specifically our trunk and limbs, are in relation to other body parts, the rate and timing of movement and the movement of our muscles and joints. [ii]
Your baby’s proprioception is present at birth but is still maturing. As babies are growing rapidly their proprioceptive system is rapidly gaining new information based on the baby’s movements and growth.
Think about it – if you close your eyes, you still know where your left foot or right thumb are in relation to your other body parts and even in relation to the environment, you are currently present in, even though you cannot see them.
Due to proprioception, we can move freely without having to think about each movement our body makes. Such as walking down the hall – do you think about each movement?
…Pick up my right foot move it 14.5 inches in front by bending my knee and using my quads, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles together to lift the foot. Also, my left foot needs to…
Nope, we just walk.
The mind-body connection
Through the sensory input from their inner ear and the sensory receptors in their skin, muscles and joints, otherwise known as their vestibular and proprioceptive senses, your baby knows where their head, body and limbs are in space and in relation to each other. They also know when their bodies are moving, and when their position has been changed.
So yes, when you put your baby down, no matter how gently, slowly or calmly, their brains and bodies know you put them down. Your child’s vestibular sense senses the sudden change in position. Through sensory inputs from the skin, joints and muscles their proprioception tells them their body is in a different place in relation to their environment.
Understandably, a sudden change in position and movement can wake a person up.
Let’s answer some other questions that commonly come up
Why do some babies wake up when put down and others do not?
Some people are more sensitive to vestibular changes. Think about someone who gets easily motion sick from spinning around twice versus the person who can spin around and around without feeling dizzy or sick at all.
Why did my baby start waking up when put them down even though they did not previously do this?
Your baby’s vestibular system is mature in utero. However, their proprioception is present at birth but still immature. It is maturing constantly due to receiving more information and input through baby’s movements and growth. As the system becomes more mature and baby becomes more aware of where their body and limbs are in relation to each other, it could lead to baby becoming more sensitive to those movements. Then when baby is put down, it can trigger them to wake up.
Eventually, I am able to lay my baby down while asleep and they don’t wake up. Why does this happen?
Your baby’s body and brain still know that you have put them down. However, after a period of time it is likely that their body’s natural drive to sleep keeps them asleep even through the change in position and movements to put them down.
What you can do if your baby always wakes up when put down
Your baby’s brain and body are going to know when you put them down. Avoiding having to put your sleeping baby down will help prevent wake ups from being put down. By helping baby fall asleep in their own sleep space, you can avoid the ‘put down’ and the often frustrating process of putting baby down, baby waking up and you starting over with the ‘going to sleep’ process.
There are many roads to this and many factors involved including what and where baby’s sleep space is (for more on safe sleep guidelines, check this out), how motivated parents are to change their current situation and what parenting values they hold.
Falling Asleep independently
There are many paths to help baby fall asleep independently in their sleep space. However, it can be a confusing venture to determine what is best for you, your baby and your family.
If you want your baby to be able to fall asleep independently, but don’t know how to help them get to this point, reach out. I help families every day go from the frustrating up and down of baby waking up when they are put down to being able to lay baby down and have baby peacefully fall asleep. You can schedule a free evaluation call here for us to learn more about each other and how we can work together to reach your family’s sleep goals.
Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!