Our 8 top strategies to manage Sleep Regressions
Does it ever feel like your baby’s sleep might actually be improving; your bedtime routine is becoming easier; they fall asleep more smoothly; you’re all getting more sleep at night and you might even be telling your friends that sleep is improving…. only for it to all fall apart in a single night and then your sleep problems are as bad as ever for the next few weeks?
The difficult bedtimes, the frequent night waking, the shorter naps. If so, then your baby has probably went through, or is going through, a sleep regression.
WHAT IS A SLEEP REGRESSION?
A sleep regression is when a baby goes through developmental milestones which can either be cognitive (brain development) or physical, and they usually impact their sleep as this is when the development is happening, hence the importance of sleep for children.
A baby will suddenly stay awake at bedtime when they may have been able to self soothe prior to the sleep regression; they may be showing signs of extreme fussiness around all sleep, including frequent wakings at night, short naps and more inconsistent sleep patterns.
Some of the big milestones which lead to a sleep regression are:
- Growth Spurts
- Learning to roll, stand, crawl or walk
- Language development
- Separation anxiety
- Desire for independence
Whilst it’s usually driven by physical or cognitive leaps, there are other things which will drive a negative change in infant sleep:
- Teething symptoms
- Starting nursery or parent(s) going back to work
- Change in leep schedule such as dropping a nap.
There is nothing you can do stop sleep regressions happening as most of it is a normal part of your baby or toddler’s development.
Instead, it’s more about how you manage the sleep regression when it arrives and trying avoid slipping back into sleep patterns you’ve previously tried to remove or have managed to avoid.
What are the key Sleep Regression signs?
The signs of sleep regression for a baby can vary depending on their age and what change(s) they are going through.
Not all babies will show the followings sleep regression signs, but the below are what most babies and many parents will experience:
- Difficulty falling asleep at bedtime
- Infant suddenly appears unable to self-soothe
- Frequent wakings and not sleeping as soundly
- Sudden resistance to daytime naps and/or short naps
- Sleep schedule has changed and nap times are inconsistent
- Irritable mood; more clingy than usual
You may not be surprised to read that most babies show the majority of these signs during a sleep regression, albeit many babies can actually still sleep at night without the night wakings, whilst fighting the bedtime routine or naps.
In addition, it’s very rare for a baby to give their parents a bit of advanced noticed!
It literally does usually happen one night out of nowhere so there isn’t much you can do as a parent to prepare for the sudden change in your baby’s sleep.
HOW LONG DO SLEEP REGRESSIONs LAST?
Sleep regression last anything from 2-6 weeks but our experience shows that it’s more typical to last around 1-2 weeks.
This is where it can often become difficult for some parents to differentiate between their child’s sleep patterns being related to a sleep regression, baby sleep habits generally, or the after-effects of a previous regression.
Therefore, our advice is for you to think about how your infant sleeps 90% of the time – is it good? Are you happy with it?
If you are, but there is a sudden change and you think it’s related a sleep regression, then follow our top strategies below to help it pass.
If you think your child’s sleep isn’t how you would like it to be 90% of the time, then our advice is that it might be worth looking at getting support from a sleep consultant, irrespective of whether your baby is going through a sleep regression or is expected to go through one soon.
Like teething, if you wait for the “perfect” moment to try and fix your baby’s sleep habits, then you might never do.
We have gentle Online Sleep Plans that can help you resolve most sleep troubles and sleep associations with your baby in just a couple of weeks – learn more here.
WHAT ARE THE COMMON SLEEP REGRESSION AGES?
Sleep regressions can happen at any age as babies all develop at different rates.
Our second child had a terrible time falling asleep at bedtime and for naps for about a week when he was 7 months as he had learned to stand in his cot and was enjoying the extra mobility, whilst frustrated that he couldn’t get himself back down!
People would ask if that was a 7 month sleep regression, but really it was down to the huge development he was going through.
The most common and impactful sleep regression stages happen around 4 months, 8 months and 18 months with a few other ones in there as mentioned above. Here are the main reasons for each of these.
4 MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION
The 4 month sleep regression is one of the most google searched phrases around baby sleep, and the reason is that often has just started sleeping better; parents are starting to cope a little more with things – maybe even getting a good night’s sleep! – and overnight it changes an instant.
Suddenly the tiny baby is struggling to fall asleep and staying asleep, waking multiple times overnight, not sleeping enough over a 24 hour period, and won’t nap anywhere but on parent or the buggy.
But why does the 4 month sleep regression happen? Check out our 4 month sleep regression blog for more, but in short, it’s the biggest sleep physiology change your baby will have as they will transition from newborn sleep to sleeping in cycles, something they will carry all their way into adulthood.
The other drivers of the this sleep regression are:
- Growth spurt
- Increased social awareness
- Learning to roll
- Teething starting
Whilst a parent doesn’t have any control over a baby going through growth spurts, and the development of their social awareness, probably one of the most difficult parts of the 4 month sleep regression is when a baby is also learning to roll which parents do have to manage.
Not only are their sleeping patterns often hugely challenging during this regression period, parents are now also having to cope with watching their baby learn to roll during the night and the natural worries around sleep safety that will come with this development.
Unfortunately, quite a high proportion of our private clients have had babies that slept quite well up until 3 months which all changed once the 4 month sleep regression occurred and they went into full survival mode which usually means less sleep for everyone longer-term.
8 MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION
There may be lots of changes and developments after the 4 month sleep regression, but the next big change is the 8 month sleep regression.
Whilst the main drivers of this regression is different to the regression at 4 months, it’s still related to your baby’s developmental milestones, including:
- Separation anxiety is developing
- Your baby is likely becoming more mobile, i.e. learning to crawl or stand
- Increased teething pain preventing them sleeping as well
- Your baby is moving from 3 naps to 2 naps
One of the biggest drivers of anxiety arising is the gradual development of object permanence for a baby, which becomes more evident around the 8-12 months mark.
Object permanence describes a child’s ability to know that objects continue to exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard.
If you have ever played a game of “peek-a-boo” with a very young child, then you probably understand how this works.
When an object is hidden from sight, infants around a certain age often become upset that the item has vanished.
This is because they are too young to understand that the object continues to exist even though it cannot be seen.
This is particularly prevalent when the ‘object’ becomes parent or caregiver.
The other link from the 8 month sleep regression we want to explore is the challenges which arise in the transition from a baby napping (normally) 3 times per day to only napping twice and being awake for longer periods.
We explain more about this transition here, but one of the biggest reasons for nap transitions being a factor in sleep regressions is the overtiredness which usually arises during this transition period.
In the 3 to 2 nap transition, despite a baby being able to go longer periods awake, they are often not ready for the length of awake periods needed to cope with only 2 naps, but then fight 3 naps.
They are not getting enough sleep, wake windows into bedtime can be come longer leading to overtiredness going into night sleep which can then result in more frequent night wakings and early wakings.
12 Month Sleep Regression
Of the four sleep regression ages listed in this article, the sleep regression at 12 months one is the least “concrete” one to happen. Often the 12-month sleep regression is just a result of a baby learning to walk, which often happens around this age. It can also happen earlier which can lead to an “11 month sleep regression”.
The sleep regression at 12 months shouldn’t be treated any differently to any of the other sleep regressions. It just might be that the baby learns to walk around their cot a little more and can get frustrated that they want to practice their new skill but are tired!
18 MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION
The first two regressions are primarily baby sleep regressions, but the final main regression – also known as the toddler sleep regression – is the 18 month sleep regression. It can also be delayed and become the 19 month sleep regression! That’s sleep regressions for you!
This regression occurs from the development and transition of a toddler into a more independent world, where they want to do more themselves and their language is developing rapidly (even if this is not necessarily being reflected in what is coming out of their mouth initially).
The increased separation anxiety comes from the object permanency theory, explained above, developing even more.
Our middle child was very impacted around this age as he had a deep desire to be independent and the frustration around his language was evident – he wanted to communicate effectively but just couldn’t.
It can also coincide with a parent’s decision to move their child to a toddler bed, as it gives them the extra independence they crave.
But that can be too much independence for what they can handle at still such a tender age.
Another factor which may input into this sleep regression is potty training, as many parents often think about doing this around the 18 month mark.
Given the significant change involved in potty training, it can impact toddler sleep patterns.
Moreover, just like with the 3 to 2 nap transition around 8 months, some children hold out to around 18 months to drop to one nap which can lead to the overtiredness issue which is often encountered by parents in the 8 month regression.
Dropping to one nap can take a couple of months to fully integrate, so it’s important to remain patient during this period.
Out of all of the sleep regressions, this can often be the most difficult regression for parents to cope with because it may come after months and months of very good good sleep and then it hits you like a steam train.
It can also be more difficult to manage as your toddler is able to communicate more effectively, which on the face of it may seem positive, but it can lead to many instances of toddlers bribing their parents to get them out of their cot for a bowl of Coco Pops and an episode of Peppa Pig at 2am!
WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP MY BABY SLEEP DURING A REGRESSION?
As outlined at the beginning of the article, whilst 4, 8 and 18 months are main ages that sleep regressions are likely to occur, sleep regressions can happen at various different stages depending on the development of your child.
However, it doesn’t matter what age they happen, the key is understanding how to cope with them when they do.
Below we have listed the key strategies to follow for when sleep regressions occur:
Comfort your baby first and foremost
Don’t think you shouldn’t comfort them when they are going through a sleep regression – they are going through a big change and need your support. There is, however, a balance between comforting and then introducing sleep associations that you don’t want longer term.
Let them fuss initially before you respond
If your baby suddenly starts crying in the middle of the night, give them a few minutes to fuss before you respond; you may find that they are able to self-soothe back to sleep.
Think about how you help them fall asleep when they wake in the night
If you don’t think your baby is hungry or needing anything in particular when they wake up, try not to use feeding, rocking, or another sleep association as a way of comforting them back to sleep as it can then become a longer-term habit they depend on. What baby wouldn’t enjoy a nice warm milk or soothing rocking motion in the middle of the night?!
Keep them in their sleep space
Unless you are happy with co-sleeping, we would recommend to try and keep your baby in their own sleeping space – you will all be better for it longer-term (unless your goal is co-sleeping of coursE). If you do, make sure you follow safe sleeping guidance on co-sleeping.
Be consistent with your baby’s routine
Be as consistent as possible with your baby’s routine, especially their bedtime routine. There’s already lots of change happening, so keeping everything else as consistent as possible is important. For bedtime, it can often be worthwhile introducing a nice, soothing massage as part of the routine to help your baby wind down even more before night time.
Don’t change your infant’s sleep environment during sleep regressions
Like with your child’s routine, try not to change their sleep environment when a regression occurs. For example, if you use a white noise machine before a regression happens, continue to use it throughout.
Pay extra attention to your child’s sleep signs
Keep a close eye on your baby’s sleepy cues and try to put them down for their naps or bedtime when they are ready, rather than sticking to a fixed time. They may be more tired and need some extra daytime sleep or an earlier bedtime – this will also reduce overtiredness which can lead to a more difficult bedtimes and more increased night wakings.
Ask for help
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it be from your partner, relative or friend. It’s a tough time for the whole family so getting help, even it’s just to allow for a daytime nap for yourself, can be crucial to helping you cope with the difficult nights and days for the next couple of weeks.
It’s very difficult during a sleep regression, even for us sleep consultants, but our key advice is to try and maintain health sleep habits that you want in the long-term. Sleep regressions are a short term issue, and whilst it is difficult, it will pass so try to be consistent in what you are doing IF it’s previously been working for you.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SEEK HELP FROM A SLEEP CONSULTANT
If you feel like the baby sleep regression has passed and it’s now a different issue impacting your child’s sleep – maybe they need to be fed or rocked to sleep – our Online Sleep Plans will help your child be able to fall asleep independently in just 12-14 days with our gentle sleep training method Comforting Through Change™, a method that’s helped over 5000 families sleep better.
We are a husband and wife business, and are leading sleep consultants based in the UK. If you are having issues with your little one’s sleep, have a look at our sleep plans which range from an online plan to one-to-one coaching. If it feels like you’ve tried everything, then come and try the one thing you haven’t which we know works – that’s our proven sleep method Comforting Through Change™.
We also train people to become sleep consultants. So if you fancy a career change, one where you can be at home ALL the time, contact us via our Academy. We would love to hear from you.