May 15, 2015

Mental Leaps, Wonder Weeks and Sleep - oh my!

I've talked a bit before about mental leaps and The Wonder Weeks but lately I've been thinking more about the science of all of it and why it isn't a more widely known concept. It makes so much sense and has thus far been so accurate for us that I feel like I need to spread the word!

So, what is this Wonder Weeks thing all about?

Years ago Dr. Hetty van de Rijt and Dr. Frans Plooij wrote this fantastic book about baby development after 35 years of research. The Wonder Weeks is the most clear cut guide to baby behavior that I've found. It helped us understand why our otherwise lovely twins turn into absolute nightmares every six weeks or so. They "forget" how to sleep, they won't let me walk away for even a second, they hate the car and their cribs and my arms and each other, nothing makes them happy except nursing and sometimes walking around. It was during our first week of real hell with new babies and we thought for sure we had broken them that I went searching for answers.

Somehow I discovered the Wonder Weeks App. I think my exact google search was for "Why the hell is my baby insane all of a sudden?" According to this app they were experiencing their first "mental leap" in development and after a few weeks of hell I could expect a whole new baby as they completed the cycle and they would "leap forward." I immediately bought the e-book and signed up for the updates so I could know when to expect the next one. I now knew when my girls would be crazy but also when they would be more cheerful and independent. It promised me that eventually there would be a "delightful" time for all of us. And there was! It got better just like the book said it would! I watched as they made the "one small step back" and then the "giant leap forward." Not only that, the book provided coping mechanisms and tools to make the "fussy periods" easier on all of us and to facilitate development! I remember thinking, "What sorcery is this and where has it been all my life?!"

See, what struck me then was is that I had never heard of anything like this before. I actually have a B.A. in Psychology and although it seems like a million years ago now, once upon a time I was a spry young psych student at a really nice (read: $$$) Jesuit college in Syracuse. It was a liberal arts school so along with the fifty or so psychology courses I was also required to take philosophy, religion and science, history and arts classes. I always knew I wanted to work with kids so I took a few Child Development classes including Learning and Cognition, Therapeutic Methods and Disorders of Childhood. Not once do I recall learning about mental leaps in childhood that influence everything from temperament and behavior to sleep and eating patterns. In fact, despite my degree and working in childcare forever, I never even heard of them until I became a mother myself.

Why the hell is that? Wouldn't you think this information would widely known and accepted. Why aren't we distributing it in every hospital after a baby is born? It's as close as we've got to that parenting manual people are always wishing they had! Pediatricians should make sure every parent leaves those monthly appointments with a clean cut explanation! And yet they're not! Why is that?

I finally realized why. I've actually heard of these leaps all along just described as phases or stages. How many of us heard that as kids or about siblings or cousins growing up? "She's going through a phase, it'll pass." But instead of just chalking it up to this and dealing wouldn't we all be better off if we had some sort of knowledge as to why this phase was happening, what we could expect and how to help it? The Wonder Weeks provides all that insight and more! It's brilliant! But how come more people don't know about them and why do some people still think it's a bunch of bs?

I suspect one reason it's not talked about all that much is that while it is based on well researched and reviewed science it's hard to be exact. The old adage every child is different is very true when attempting to predict baby behavior. I know better than most the influence that even just a few more weeks in utero can have on development. Case in point, as a result of coming just five weeks early my girls didn't experience their first mental leaps, which usually occur at week five until they were closer to 3 months old. Prior to that they didn't do much at all but eat, poop and sleep. After the leap though they started smiling, looking around more and were awake for longer periods but slept better when they did sleep. They really did "leap" forward! It was amazing to watch and helped us figure out early on that they definitely followed their due date rather than their birth date. This helped calm some of my fears as they "missed" developmental milestones for their real age. The best part for us parents is that the Wonder Weeks allows for these differences by advising you to go by the baby's due date rather than birth date. From what I've observed it seems to be right almost all the time if people are aware of this difference - even just a few days can effect baby's developmental timing.

But what about the science of it? I hear people saying that there's got to be something concrete, things that parents can read and think, oh, that explains it. I don't know why people don't trust 35 years of observation on thousands of infants. Or the fact that nearly every parent struggles with one of the issues that always occurs during a leap - rough sleep. Yes, one common thread among the mental leaps is sleep issues. Boy oh boy can we attest to that. Every time they're in a leap these kids sleep like crap.  And it's like clockwork! We can know they're in a leap without the app just by paying attention to their sleep (or lack thereof). That's all the scientific evidence that I need. The authors explain that babies who have trouble sleeping often want to practice their new skills that they've mentally mastered. So a baby figures out she can crawl in her head but can't quite get the mechanics of it. She feels this drive to do it hence fighting sleep and being more irritable. We're watching Viv do this now so it makes sense to me. Knowing this is happening we can help her practice her skills during her wake times and actually help her sleep better! It's a win-win all around!

Given that almost all babies "forget" how to sleep right around a leap there has to be some sort of mind-body connection that we can prove going on here, right? I guess the science gets muddied with the fact that these leaps often coincide or occur around growth spurts and sleep "regressions" (read here why I hate that word) so maybe that's why people aren't keen to accept the idea that it's actually a leap. But it makes so much sense to me: their brains are growing - both physically and metaphorically - as they bridge connections and learn. Hasn't someone figured out how to show this? Are there no images of the brain lighting up to prove the connection or something like that? Forgive me, I took psych but quit pre-med after the first week. I just feel like if we could get some more really good easy to understand infographics into the hands of parents, other than this great book, then we would all be better off. People could stop googling WHY WON'T MY BABY SLEEP or thinking that their child is broken. I think we would all rest a little easier (pun intended) if we were able to really understand our babies brains and why sleep is so hard to come by sometimes. This struggle might be a little easier if we all understood that it's not a problem to be fixed but an exciting time of change for baby and that it will get better!

Discovering this book has eased my mind so much. It's helped me to understand and connect with my babies on a deeper level and truly created more peace in our home. We no longer cry out why why why at 3am when we're on our third wake-up of the night or bash our heads against the wall when they just won't be put down for a second. "It's the leap," we say, or, "I wonder what she's working on now?" We are able to meet their needs and support them because we know what to expect, we have some idea of what is going on both mentally and physically and we are all happier for it!

What do you think about the idea of mental leaps and the wonder weeks? Does it effect your babies obviously like ours or do you think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy?


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