When babies and toddlers are still processing their early experiences, it can have an effect on sleep!
When I work with families on sleep challenges and difficult behaviors, this is something that has come up so consistently it’s now a core aspect of how I work with folks.
Babies and toddlers need to process their experiences, just like we do. Birth and early experiences can have a huge impact on sleep.
When you have something on your mind, how does it affect you? Maybe it’s tension in your body, or do you ever lay awake at night thinking about something?
Babies do indeed remember their birth
There are different kinds of memory—some more literal and some more like ‘felt sense’ or learned habit.
Sometimes little ones will show us exactly what happened during their birth in their words and movements, and sometimes it’s more like something ‘on the back burner—something happened and they’re trying to make sense of it.
Either way, if this is the case for your child, a portion of his/her attention will always be focused there—on the thing no one can really put their finger on, trying to work out what happened.
How can you tell if your baby or toddler is still processing early experiences?
One way both babies and toddlers show us is through movement, such as pushing with their feet and arching at the same time. Or you might see an arm or leg habitually in a certain position that mirrors how s/he was positioned in your womb. Sometimes babies who had the cord wrapped around their neck will consistently put items around their head or neck.
If you see any of these signs, it means the particular movements of their experience are still expressing in their bodies. In the case of arching, it can feel as if they’re still looking for something, or an urge that hasn’t been satisfied.
For babies and some toddlers working through early experiences, most families see extended crying beyond immediate needs.
If you’re not currently noticing this, think about how you respond when your baby cries. Do you do something to actively “soothe,” such as shush, bounce, pacifier, or nurse for comfort? If you didn’t do that, would your baby continue crying? Or, was there a time in the past, perhaps before some routines or habits developed, when you saw crying beyond needs?
Processing the birth experience is not the only reason for extended crying, but it is very, very common! If you see this, it means they need to let out some big feelings and share their story with you.
Behaviors and actions
You may also see certain behavior patterns that seem intense or seem to stick and not resolve beyond a ‘phase.’ This happens particularly with toddlers, although also with babies depending on what it is.
Some tendencies I’ve seen include becoming very demanding or bossy, nothing’s ever right, pulling hair as a way to interact, extra difficulty with transitions, intense separation anxiety, strange or intense fears, or crying consistently during a specific activity, such as diaper changing or bath.
These indicate either “imprints”—ways your child has learned to interact with people and the environment—or memories being triggered.
In terms of your relationship with your child, unresolved experiences can feel nebulous, like there’s something going on, but you’re not sure why. Or there seems to be some strife or disconnect, or difficulty bonding.
Very often, there’s a sense that something feels off, for the child and parents, but you can’t put your finger on it. Sometimes parents assume the strain is a matter of personality difference—but I find there’s usually much more to it.
You may not know if you’re seeing signs
Some mamas feel like they can’t see any clear signs. This is okay too. I find that all babies attempt to process their birth sooner or later, in some way. If you have a gut feeling about it or something in particular about the birth is still on your mind, it’s most likely still in the “field” for your child as well.
To delve deeper
Here are a couple more resources for you.
Talk I gave in APPPAH’s Monday Live (Association for Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology), for parents and birth professionals. Resolving Birth Experience to Help Baby Sleep Watch/listen here >
I speak with Laura Bruner on the Modern Mamas podcast about how birth can affect sleep, crying, & behavior Here >