Key Milestones & Sleep: Gross Motor Skill Development

When our babies learn to roll over, sit, crawl, stand and walk, some interesting things can happen to their sleep and it sure can be confusing!

This blog is part of our ongoing series about key milestones and impact to sleep. As always, feel free to drop questions or share experiences in the comments.

You might be thinking, ‘hold on, why do one post on all of these when they happen at such different ages?!’. While this is true, there are patterns of impacts you will see when it comes to sleep so we will cover these as one topic. We will refer to some ‘typical’ ages in this post but of course just remember you will find some babies doing it much earlier and others doing it much later.

Firstly it’s important to understand a couple of fascinating things about what happens with our babies sleep for each of these physical milestones.

- URGE TO PRACTICE: We describe it as an uncontrollable neurological urge to practice their developing skills in their sleep. Typically these disruptions will peak just prior to your child mastering their new skill as all that practice in their sleep gets in the way of their sleep! You may in fact have a period of disrupted sleep and then suddenly BOOM they achieve a new skill and it all makes sense in hindsight.

- ACTIVE IN REM PHASE: When babies are in the ‘dream’ or REM phase of sleep, they don’t experience muscle paralysis like we do as adults. You may have observed this already that they can be quite active in that REM phase. So each time they pass through a significant leap of development, the REM phases becomes even more active. They can find themselves suddenly having moved into a position in their sleep as per that urge to practice and this can wake them. It can create disorientation and they can wake up very distressed.

Now let's take a look at each of the major gross motor development milestones and what you might see happening.

1. ROLLING Rolling over can happen around 4 months but as any parent who is going through this right now, it is one thing for them to roll from back to tummy but it’s altogether another thing for them to roll from their tummy to their back!

Impacts and Considerations

a) As per our above paragraph this can mean that suddenly your baby is rolling onto their tummy while sleeping and then waking up a bit startled and unable to get back to their back. This can be frustrating for bub.

b) Alternatively your bub can realise they actually enjoy sleeping on their tummy and move into this position and get really annoyed/wake up when you keep putting them on their back again

c) Perhaps it’s that your bub is enjoying being on their tummy but then when they do want to get on their back they are unable and then get upset

d) It can be both confusing and alarming for parents when their baby is on their tummy in their bed. They can look quite helpless sometimes and of course we worry about their safety.

e) What can look like flailing can actually be what settling to sleep now looks like in this newfound position if the move to their stomach

What to do?

ARMS OUT: ENSURE BOTH ARMS are unswaddled and free. It’s ABSOLUTELY critical that if your baby is rolling that they have their arms out of any swaddling. They must have both their arms free.

BABY INTO BED ON BACK: ALWAYS ensure to place your baby into their sleep space on their back when they go to bed

IF SAFE, WATCH AND WAIT: If your baby rolls to their tummy and they are safe, watch and wait –the process of settling back to sleep when on their tummy can sometimes look like they are stuck whereas they are just getting themselves back to sleep. Your involvement may actually disrupt their sleep

IF INTERVENING, KEEP IT CHILLED: If you want to return your baby onto their back then do this with minimal fuss by entering the room without any lights, stay low and quiet to respect their sleep space, turn them gently and then move away without fuss

MAKE YOUR CHOICE: If you find your baby continues to return to their tummy then it’s your choice whether you feel they prefer this position for sleep so make your assessment on safety and choose your response accordingly

HELP THEM WITH THEIR LOVEY: If you find that your baby is now unable to reach their lovey (that you have safely introduced) you may want to go in quietly and again staying low, place the lovey close to them

REMAIN PATIENT AND CONSISTENT: being calm in your approach with wake ups is important and it helps to remember you baby’s brain is doing some wonderful things as they sleep and move through this milestone

SLEEP PROPS: While you want to be responsive to your babies needs you want to avoid establishing new or reestablishing external sleep props because they will move through this. Adding or reintroducing sleep props can make it really tough for your little one.

TIREDNESS: Consider that they may be more tired in the daytime because of more frequent night wakings and disrupted day sleeps so bare that in mind when planning your days and how you manage the nap and bedtime routines. They may need some additional wind down and less stimulation/business in their days.

PRACTICE: Enable and encourage plenty of practice for rolling during awake time in the day. Have fun with your little one as they discover how to use their body to roll both ways and from tummy to back.


The next milestones of sitting up, crawling, standing and walking are all variations of what we have described for rolling so just a few extra points to consider.

SAFETY: If you feel there is a safety issue with your child’s position then of course you intervene but keep it in line with the situation. For example, if your child has learned to stand but cannot get themselves down and they tend to come crashing down you may move in quickly and calmly if they wake in the night and are standing. However, if you know they are able to get themselves down fairly safely then you may want to wait a few minutes before going in and perhaps not at all if they are not distressed.

CONFUSION ABOUT NIGHTMARES/NIGHT TERRORS: Often as babies are moving through these gross motor skill milestones we get parents asking us if their child is having nightmares or night terrors. It’s very understandable why they are asking this because when babies do experience the more frequent night wakings as they pass through these milestones it can at first appear they are having a nightmare. They can seem a bit disoriented, confused and their movements can appear as if they are having a nightmare or night terror. Typically nightmares and night terrors are not experienced by babies and it’s not until around the age of 3 that these may begin to occur.

Remember that there is a huge amount of activity going on in their brains as they learn these new skills and process all the new information that comes along with each milestone. Stay patient, calm, consistent and remember to step back for a moment and remember that there is something quite beautiful happening for your little one as they learn something wonderful and new.

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