Child DevelopmentParenting

Play to Sleep

hvanmil2 comments2913 views

I had the opportunity to attend an Infant Sleep workshop last week hosted by Modern Mama North Shore featuring Jennifer Garden from SleepDreams.

As I’m going through some specific sleep issues fairly unique to our families situation I wasn’t necessarily sure that I would get any help from a 2 hour workshop with many other moms with many different sleep situations. Not only was I pleasantly surprised with a lot of useful tips that I could implement simply and immediately, but I learned so much information that I couldn’t wait to share with my teachers at Gymboree that would be perfectly relevant to everyone who came to play with us!

I always knew that play was related to sleep in that when babies and children get out and about, can exercise and stretch their limbs and tire themselves out, they will sleep better! That is pretty evident and straightforward. We always like to joke with our families about how all their kids go home and have a “Gymboree Nap” – extra long and deep because their so tuckered out after all the fun! But I learned two specific reasons why that is the case, things we’ve been doing all along, but just now are realizing the science behind it and why it’s so important to incorporate into our play to help our little ones sleep. Here were my two favorite takeaways from the workshop – my “aha” moments if you will:

Vestibular Balance and Proprioception

The Free Dictionary defines Vestibular Sense as a sensory system located in structures of the inner ear that registers the orientation of the head and proprioception as the ability to sense the position and location and orientation and movement of the body and its parts. These are key sensory experiences for our babies and having this stimulation is essential for good sleep. So what does that look like? Some of the different movements that your body registers through proprioception and it’s vestibular sense are vertical and horizontal movement, twisting and inverting the body (upside down). How does this translate at Gymboree? Have you every done the Gymbo Dance? “Gymbo the Clown goes up and down/side to side/twist twist twist”. It’s all there in the first 3 verses! Aside from that it’s sliding and jumping and swinging. Crawling through tunnels, over play structures and under parachute forts. Hanging on the monkey bars and rolling on the squishy GymCushion. Basically everything we do at Gymboree. Hence the “Gymboree Nap” that follows!

Navigating through a tight space is a great way to develop and stimulate your vestibular sense
Navigating through a tight space is a great way to develop and stimulate your vestibular sense
Watch, Wait, Wonder

My second “aha” moment came when Jennifer talked about “Watch, Wait, Wonder”. A quote from their website describes it as “A child led psychotherapeutic approach that specifically and directly uses the infant’s spontaneous activity in a free play format to enhance maternal sensitivity and responsiveness, the child’s sense of self and self-efficacy, emotion regulation, and the child-parent attachment relationship. The approach provides space for the infant/child and parent to work through developmental and relational struggles through play. Also central to the process is engaging the parent to be reflective about the child’s inner world of feelings, thoughts and desires, through which the parent recognizes the separate self of the infant and gains an understanding of her own emotional responses to her child”.
That’s a lot to digest I realize, but what Jennifer highlighted was that often nap and bedtime struggles arise as babies mature and begin to assert their desire for control over their environment. By giving them ample, genuine opportunities during waking hours to have control, this will lessen the power struggle over sleep. Additionally this approach is a way to increase the bond between the parent and child. Jennifer says “Given that children need to be ‘attached’ during sleep, it is a way to move the attachment away from the bedtime to awake time so that bedtime is more harmonious”.
What does this look like? Quite simply this:
Watch the child in play, doing nothing
Wait for the child to engage you – handing you a block perhaps. Respond to the invitation but do not take over the interaction.
Wonder about what the child is thinking and feeling. Notice how you respond internally to your baby.

It seems simple enough, but can be surprisingly difficult to put into practice as many parents, with the noble intention of teaching, are often very directive in a babies play.

What does this look like at Gymboree? The heart of watch, wait, wonder is child directed play. This concept permeates everything we do at Gymboree! While our programming is themed, with overarching developmental goals for each age group, children still guide the play within the framework. Additionally, we provide up to 10 hours of unstructured PlayGym time FREE to active members who can bring their babies and children in, outside the class experience to allow children the opportunity to completely control and lead their play experience.

Increased attachment during waking hours and play time is a key outcome of Watch, Wait and Wonder and an important step to improved sleeping habits
Increased attachment during waking hours and play time is a key outcome of Watch, Wait and Wonder and an important step to improved sleeping habits

I can’t wait to share this with our families, see it in practice and hear about the difference parents notice in their babies! One of the many reasons that I LOVE my job!


  1. Hi Heather! Thanks for taking the time to stop by our blog although I feel bad that I have been so busy that I have not been blogging as much as I used to. I for sure appreciate you taking the time to read it and share a little of your story. It is so wonderful to hear how well your daughter is doing. I am so very happy for you all! Please keep in touch! I look forward to reading more about you as well!

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