Sleep regression is a term that we hear thrown around constantly. People are frequently warning you about any and all potential regressions and it seems like there is one for every month. That can’t be true, so how do you know what’s really going on? To help put your mind at ease and give you ideas for how to handle any regression that does pop up, we are going to address what sleep regression are, when they happen, and what to do about them.
What does sleep regression mean?
A true sleep regression is when a child, who has been sleeping fairly well, suddenly starts waking up at night, refusing naps, or taking short naps. They literally go backwards in their sleep abilities. A sleep regression is not caused by teething, sickness, or travel (although all of these can be catalysts to starting bad sleep habits). If no bad habits were developed during this time, a typical regression should last for a few days or a week and then the child should revert back to their good sleep with just a little bit of intervention from parents.
When do sleep regressions typically occur?
Since it seems like someone is mentioning a new sleep regression every month, let’s talk through some of the most common ones and why they happen. As a sleep consultant, these are the ‘big three’ that are true regression periods for lots of families.
- 4 month sleep regression: This is probably the #1 sleep regression we deal with. Simply put, between 3 and 4 months, baby’s sleep changes from what I would describe as ‘newborn’ sleep to become more like adult sleep. Rather than easily falling into deep sleep, they now have a true 4-phase sleep cycle just like adults have. Unlike adults, however, their sleep cycles are about 45 minutes long rather than 4 hours. What this means is that they now need to transition through phases of lighter and deeper sleep and connect their sleep cycles in order to sleep through the night or take a long nap. A baby this age is going to need whatever they had to fall asleep, in order to stay asleep. If they are used to assistance or sleep props to fall asleep, this is the time to scale back on those. We want them sleeping independently so they are able to stitch those sleep cycles together all night (or nap) long and get rest without needing our help!
- 8/9/10 months sleep regression: The timing can vary, but around 8-10 months is another period parents frequently experience some disruption in their baby’s sleep. This one is typically related to physical development like crawling, sitting, pulling up, or cruising; along with language development. They aren’t talking yet but are taking it all in! Babies this age are growing SO much! Their brains are working so hard and are so active during the day that they can’t seem to turn it off at night! A lot of time during this regression, we’ll hear a parent say the baby is awake for an hour in the middle of the night just talking. It is so tempting to go in there and try to get them to go back to sleep, but this is how bad habits start! Remember, a regression is when a baby who was sleeping pretty well suddenly stops. If this is happening to you, the less you interrupt baby’s sleep, the more quickly they will go back to sleep on their own. If baby thinks waiting around long enough will get mom or dad to show up, they will start looking for you.
- 18 month sleep regression: This is the last big regression before the toddler years arrive and can it can be tricky at this age to pinpoint exactly what is causing sleep problems! Are their wakings directly related to something like nightmares, sleep needs changing, or behavior? At 18 months, your baby is becoming a toddler and very aware of all the fun things they are missing out on when they wake in the middle of the night. They want these things and they now know how to tell you. This might lead to them yelling ‘mama’ at the top of their lungs and, naturally, you run in there because it seems like something is wrong. The issue is, if this continues, they learn very quickly that calling out works and start trying other things like refusing to go back to sleep unless you hold them or get them some milk. Stay strong! The big change in sleep here is that it’s no longer ability that’s keeping them from sleeping, it’s willfulness.
In general, these are the top three sleep regressions in babies and young toddlers. The exact age or symptoms can vary from child to child but for the most part these are the biggies. So now that we’ve covered what sleep regressions are and what causes these common ones, how do you get through them or can you avoid them all together?
Top 3 Tips to overcome Sleep Regression:
- Provide minimal intervention: as tempting as it is to run in as soon as you hear your baby making a peep, try to give baby the chance to get themselves back to sleep. If you are jumping in their room all the time, you are disrupting their sleep even more and laying the foundation for sleep habits you don’t want to sustain.
- Back to the basics: If you’ve already sleep trained, use whatever methods you used in the beginning to get them sleeping again. They are going to remember the drill and get back to their good sleep quickly! If you haven’t taught them to sleep independently, now is the time! Sleep Baby would love to help you find a method that fits with your family!
- Early bedtime: A lot of sleep regressions are combined with over-tiredness, so don’t be afraid of putting them down early! Better to get them to bed than wind up with a cranky, overtired baby.
- Independent Sleep: If your baby isn’t self soothing or putting themselves to sleep, this is the time to teach them. You’re going to see a baby who needs help going to sleep increasing their needs during a regression and afterwards, so nip that in the bud and get them sleeping on their own. It sounds daunting but it doesn’t have to be!
If you have more questions about sleep regressions, how to survive them, or just how to get your child sleeping independently, we would love to help! You can visit our website to learn about the ways we work or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org any time with questions!
Elizabeth King is a professional sleep consultant and the Founder and CEO of Sleep Baby Sleep Consulting. She and her team of consultants love working with families to help give them and their little ones the gift of a peaceful night’s sleep and long naps. We are passionate about sleep and believe that every baby can sleep well. We work with you to develop a plan that accomplishes this while fitting with your family’s needs and desires.
Elizabeth lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband and three boys ages 6, 4, and 2. When she’s not talking with parents about sleep she is outside playing with them and trying to use up as much of their energy as possible. She also loves sitting down with a good book and cheering on the Clemson Tigers.