What do you know about sleep regressions? Are your sources clear as mud?
In my experience as a sleep coach, sleep regressions seem to be widely misunderstood. There are plenty of resources online that teach about regressions. But they may seem hollow, clinical, or confusing. It may seem like no one has the answers you are looking for. Misunderstanding sleep regressions can cause parents to blame themselves for their children’s sleep problems and believe that something else is going on. Often, experts and friends give parents ineffective advice because they don’t understand sleep regressions, either. It’s not surprising when parents feel overwhelmed and burned out during sleep regressions. Losing sleep is hard enough on its own.
If you would like to empower yourself with important insight about the causes and signs of sleep regressions, what your child is feeling during these times, and the impact of regressions on sleep, continue reading. You’ll also learn what your child needs from you, how to support optimal development, and ideas for improving sleep during regressions.
First, what is a sleep regression?
Experts explain that a sleep regression is a period that lasts for about a month when babies and toddlers experience sleep disruptions that are caused by development. This definition is true, but it doesn’t address the details. What stages of development disrupt sleep? Why is sleep worse during these times? How do babies and toddlers feel during these periods? Knowledge is power. Learning the specifics of regressions will empower you and help you feel patient and compassionate towards your child.
- Mental Leaps. These periods can last for 1-6 weeks while babies and toddlers progress mentally. They can happen monthly or every other month, or longer, depending on age and other factors. They occur throughout childhood, but it’s challenging to find accurate information about the timing of mental leaps after 18 months old. I’ve noticed in my work that mental leaps can happen anytime.
During mental leaps, babies and young children are advancing and learning. They develop new abilities, refine their motor skills, observe the world around them, and learn how to communicate. It’s very exciting! It can be hard to tell when mental leaps are happening for some children unless their parents notice signs of learning. But parents of sensitive babies and toddlers (with any degree of sensitivity) will notice sudden changes in their children, but they may not know why. Sensitive children feel their discomfort and emotion intensely and they can become upset easily
Babies and young children may feel buzzed, wired, uncomfortable, overstimulated and experience pain. It can be hard for them to sleep, so they may sleep lightly during these times. If they feel upset or uncomfortable, they may wake often for support and comfort. When babies and toddlers feel wired, they may fight sleep, skip naps, act wide awake in the nighttime, and wake early.
*It’s important to know that babies & toddlers aren’t equipped with the ability to comfort themselves when they don’t feel well and when they are upset. From the time they are born, they are developing emotional awareness and control, but their brains are unable to self-regulate when they need it most, until they are 4-5 years old. Some children will show signs that they are learning to self-regulate at an early age (like sucking a thumb or turning away), while others will need extra support for much longer.
- Teething. These periods can be mild and unnoticeable for many babies and toddlers. Some experts believe that teething doesn’t affect sleep until the teeth are cutting through. But sensitive babies can feel their teeth coming in for weeks or months, before they make an appearance. As soon as your child is gnawing or biting on fingers and toys, the discomfort can be enough to interrupt sleep. Teething pain may come in waves which might be confusing, but it will give you and your child a bit of relief.
Babies & toddlers may have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep during these times. They may fight their sleep and skip naps. They may wake up for periods of time, struggle to go back to sleep, and act like emotional wrecks.
- Growth Spurts. At these times, children stock up on milk or food for a few days and then sleep more while their bodies are growing. It can be adorable to see your baby act like a famished animal. But it can also be exhausting and overwhelming. They can be demanding, fussy, and experience growing pains. Some babies will cluster feed throughout the day and night for 24 hours or it may last several days. Don’t be surprised if your child has sleep disruptions at night because of growing pains and hunger.
Sometimes babies and toddlers will revert to eating at night even though they haven’t done so for weeks or months. Whenever your child shows signs of hunger, feed them. Don’t be afraid to let your child return to night feedings. Meeting your child’s needs will build security and help your child develop optimally. Be hopeful that strong habits will return again. If your child is older than 6 months and the extra feedings last for more than a week, you can gradually wean your child off of these feedings.
- Learning Milestones. When your baby or toddler is reaching new physical abilities, such as rolling, sitting, and walking, they may have trouble sleeping for a week or even a few weeks. There are a couple of reasons for this. You won’t be surprised to hear that your little one might become obsessed with their new skills. Babies and toddlers can be unstoppable, even at night! They may also feel buzzed or wired during these times. It’s important to give them ample opportunities to practice, which can speed up the process and help your child burn off the extra energy they produce during these times.
- Separation Anxiety. There is a period around 6-7 months when children learn about separation. They learn that they are not interconnected with their main caregiver (typically their mother). This can disrupt sleep because of mental changes that occur, and feelings of distress and fear. Your baby may wake every 30-60 minutes to find you and seek comfort. They have no concept of object permanence or any reassurance that they will see you again when you are out of sight.
There are other times when babies and young children will experience separation anxiety: during big life changes, family stress, illness, and when your child feels discomfort or pain. They may also go through separation anxiety during sleep regressions.
During separation anxiety periods, it’s important to offer comfort when your child seems to crave it. Hold your child in your arms or against your skin to help them release oxytocin, which is a hormone that increases happiness. Respond when your child cries or calls you. This will teach trust, build security, and support your child’s development and well-being. Continuously teach your child about object permanence to improve separation anxiety.
Are there any other factors that I should know about?
There are intense mental leaps every 6 months when babies and toddlers progress and learn more than usual. During major leaps and molar eruptions, some parents who have never experienced regressions before will have to face them for the first time.
There will be times when developmental periods, growth, milestones, and teething will overlap. Sometimes they will happen back-to-back. This can be very trouble-some. Intense sleep regressions can cause sleep deprivation, emotional intensity, and clingy behavior. Children may refuse to be put down to nap or sleep at night. Sensitive babies and toddlers may be extremely emotional and clingy during sleep regressions. Going into survival mode and meeting your child’s needs should be your main priorities during these times. Turn to sleep coaches who understand the emotional needs of babies for answers. Meeting your child’s needs is more important than protecting your child’s sleep habits.
Is there anything I can do to improve sleep during regressions?
First, learn about natural ways to improve sleep, like following wake windows based on your child’s sleep cues, allowing your child to nap as needed, and making sure that bedtime is at the proper time. Teach your child to feel secure in their room and show them how to fall asleep in bed for naps and bedtime. Then teach them how to do this on their own. Be patient and in tune with your child. Most children will progress smoothly when their parents are supportive, especially during sleep regressions. If not, work on these goals when the regression ends.
Second, search for effective natural remedies that will help your child feel better and sleep deeper. My favorite tool for getting through sleep regressions is a powerful and therapeutic remedy: Dreamland swaddles and sleep sacks.
The evenly distributed weight of Dreamland swaddles and sleep sacks triggers touch receptors from shoulder to toe, which releases serotonin, a feel-good hormone. They are proven to help children feel comfortable, relaxed and at peace while they sleep. Dreamland swaddles and sleep sacks can help children fall asleep easier and sleep deeper, too. This product brings parents and children relief when they need it the most.
You can also keep your child calm by using baby-safe products with lavender, chamomile and citrus scents.
To relieve teething pain, let your child breastfeed or find natural remedies in your local store or online.
To soothe growing pains and help your child relax while they are learning milestones, apply child-safe magnesium spray, oil, or lotion.
Some children are so sensitive that they may need a combination of these ideas to feel well and sleep better.
Is there anything else that will make sleep regressions easier?
Parents often second-guess themselves and make daily changes hoping to fix the effects of sleep regressions. This can be exhausting! Stop yourself from going down the rabbit hole by studying the signs of development and teething periods. Watch for sudden changes in your child’s sleep and figure out what type of regression your child is going through. Then, remember that your child will need extra support. Try to understand your child’s verbal and non-verbal cues, recognize their needs, and respond to them with the comfort and reassurance that they need.
Before you know it, your child will be sleeping deeply, experiencing fewer regressions, and depending on you less for support. Your child will grow and develop properly, become resilient, and form healthy connections with family and friends. You’ll recognize that contributing to your child’s healthy development and well-being was worth the effort. You might even give yourself credit for a job well done.
Safe Sleep Reminders:
- Lay your child on a firm mattress on their back until they know how to roll over on their own.
- When your infant is learning to roll, remember to help your child adjust to having their arms out of the Dreamland swaddle and then use the sleep sack.
- It’s not considered safe to sleep with your child in your arms or on your chest. It’s best to lie your child down for sleep.
- If your child won’t sleep unless they are next to you, make a floor bed and put it next to the crib so you can promote crib sleep and offer comfort as needed.
- If you choose to co-sleep, follow “The Safe Sleep 7.”
- Use a video monitor so you can be responsive and meet your child’s needs during naps and nighttime. It can be helpful to wait if your child is stirring, moving, or crying softly in their sleep. If your child wakes up completely after waiting for a few minutes, go to them to make sure they are okay. They may need you to meet a physical or emotional need.
- When your child is learning new physical skills, ensure they are safe and in a comfortable position while they are sleeping.
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Meredith Brough is a child-care expert, a sleep coach, and the owner of Sweet Slumber in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. While she was raising her 5 children, she ran a small in-home daycare for 15 years. During this time, she became a master at building strong sleep habits for infants and young children. Four years ago, she realized that being a sleep coach was her true calling in life. Meredith teaches “The Successful Sleep System,” a non-crying approach for building strong sleep habits. Her methods are powerful & effective for all temperaments, including spirited, sensitive and high needs children, from 0-6 years old. You can find free resources, The Sweet Slumber Podcast, workshops, courses and 1:1 coaching options on Meredith’s website at www.sweetslumbertime.com.