What Is A Sleep Regression?
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.
Or it might be that your baby does always struggle with poor sleep, they are always fighting sleep, it feels never-ending and everyone keeps saying “it’s probably just a sleep regression, it will pass”, but it never does pass for your baby?
So was it a sleep regression or not? How do I know if it’s a sleep regression?
I am one of the UK’s leading pediatric sleep experts and will explain more about what sleep regressions are, how to identify if it is indeed a sleep regression – or sleep problems generally – and how best to handle the sleep regression when it happens.
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 because this is when the development is happening.
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:
Learning to roll, stand, crawl or walk
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:
Starting nursery or parent(s) going back to work
Change in sleep schedule such as dropping to two naps or one 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 bad sleep habits you’ve previously tried to erase or have managed to avoid.
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS A SLEEP REGRESSION IS HAPPENING?
The signs that a baby is going through a sleep regression can vary depending on their age and what change(s) they are going through.
Not all babies will show the followings signs of a sleep regressions, 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 DOES A SLEEP REGRESSION LAST?
A sleep regression can last anything from two to six weeks but my experience shows that it’s more typical to last around two 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, my 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 my tips below to help it pass and hopefully your baby’s sleep will return to normal.
If you think your child’s sleep isn’t how you would like it to be 90% of the time, then my advice is that it might be worth looking at getting support, 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.
I have online gentle sleep courses that can help you resolve most sleep troubles and sleep associations with your baby in just a couple of weeks – find out more.
WHAT ARE THE COMMON SLEEP REGRESSION AGES?
Quite simply, sleep regressions 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!
However, the most common and impactful sleep regression ages are at 4 months, 8 months and 18 months. 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? For full details, check out my 4 month sleep regression article, 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:
Increased social awareness
Learning to roll
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 this regression period, parents – already not getting as much sleep as previously – 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 my clients I work with on a one-to-one coaching basis have had babies that slept quite well up until 3 months but that all changed once the 4 month sleep regression occurred and bad habits were introduced in order for the family to survive during this period.
So read on for my top tips on how to try and navigate sleep regressions as successfully as possible.
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 I 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 aware for longer periods.
I 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 only need 2 naps get from morning to bedtime comfortably.
They are not getting enough sleep, leading to overtiredness which can then result in more frequent night wakings and early wakings.
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 one.
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.
My 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 it can be too much independence for what they can handle at still such a tender age.
Regarding moving a child to a toddler bed, my advice is simple: do it when they begin to climb out of the cot and you have no other option from a safety perspective.
I don’t believe that you should move them just to improve their sleeping patterns.
A change may improve their sleeping initially, but longer-term, the original sleep problems will generally arise again at some point.
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 your child’s sleeping 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 of good sleep and hits you like 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 the above are the main ages that sleep regressions occur, other 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 parents cope with them when they do.
Therefore, below I have listed the key strategies to follow for most sleep regressions that occur:
Comfort your baby first and foremost
Don’t think you shouldn’t comfort them when they are going through one – they are going through a big change and need your support. There is, however, a balance between comforting and 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, I would recommend to try and keep your baby in their own sleeping space – you will all be better for it longer-term. 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 bedtime 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 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 my key advice is to try and not introduce sleep habits that you don’t 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.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SEEK HELP FROM A SLEEP CONSULTANT
If you feel like the 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 – my online courses will help your child be able to fall asleep independently in just 10 days with my gentle sleep training method.
You can also follow me on Instagram or Facebook for lots of tips, practical advice and a weekly Q&A on child sleep.
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