Sleep Regression – everything you need to know

On the top of the list of pregnant couples’ concerns lies their baby’s (and their own) sleep patterns. And this is indeed a cause for concern. Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Many people feel that they can’t cope without their sleep and don’t know if they can master this part of parenting. And as if worrying about sleep on its own is not enough, you may have heard of sleep regressions, a topic that is very popular on social media and other platforms at the moment. This means that you can’t relax if your baby seems to be sleeping OK, as it doesn’t mean they will continue to do so.

Sleep regressions can be quite challenging for both parents and little ones. There are regressions recognised and various times. Most babies and toddlers will experience one or two instances of poorer sleep as they grow. Occasionally a little one will experience all phases of sleep regression. Sleep regression also varies in the duration and severity of the experience.

What is a sleep regression?

A sleep regression is a period where your baby/toddler sleeps worse than they normally do. They may be struggling to fall asleep, or may be waking up more than usual at night. Some may also stay awake for extended periods of time at bedtime or throughout the night. How long it lasts depends on the age of your child.

Why does it happen?

Sleep regressions are caused by development. Considering the magnitude of the mental, physical and emotional development takes place in the early years, it is unrealistic to expect no change in their patterns. So when your baby/toddler is growing (which is most of the time) this consequent development can disrupt their sleep in various ways.

The most common sleep regressions?

There are a few sleep regressions that are well recognised. Please take note that because regressions are due to development and all children develop at different rates, the actual age can be month or two earlier or later.

4-month-old

This is the regression with the biggest impact on most babies. At this age important mental development is taking place. Between 12 and 16 weeks, sleep cycles start forming and your baby starts developing memory. This in turn means that sleep associations that previously assisted with sleep (feeding to sleep/rocking to sleep etc.) may start having a negative effect on sleep. Suddenly, your sleep angel that woke once for a feed now starts waking multiple times either for a feed (or for whatever sleep association they need to link their sleep cycles).

Unfortunately, if changes are NOT made this could be permanent regression. This is a good time to look for opportunities to put your baby down awake and start removing negative sleep associations. Remember that this should always be attempted in combination with things like implementing a bedtime routine, keeping eye on awake times and making sure that the environment is optimal for sleeping.

READ MORE: Setting the Page for A Good Night’s Sleep

6-month-old

Physical development mainly lies behind this regression. It is often associated with rolling or sitting up. You could be woken by your baby having rolled onto their stomach or into an uncomfortable position. Or your baby might be able to sit but then struggles to lie down again.

Another reason for this regression could be due to the fact that your baby needs to stay awake a bit longer (2h30 – 2h45 awake time between naps). May also move on to 2 naps, but are not yet able to cope with the longer stretch to bedtime.

Of course at six months you have started introducing baby to solid foods which can also cause sleep disruptions. The new food can cause some digestive issues that wake babies at night. It is also often tricky to find the right milk/solid balance.

Luckily this regression typically does not last too long, and their bodies adjust quickly to the changes within 2 days to 2 weeks.

When it comes to development your baby just needs time to learn their new skills. Help your child to practice rolling over from back to front and from front to back during wake times. Your child might struggle with the new routine of only two naps, but consistency will achieve a new rhythm soon. Try to extend naps. Don’t be afraid to make bedtime earlier if required.

9-month-old sleep regression

During this time both mental development (separation anxiety) and physical development (starting to crawl or even stand up) takes place. Very active and busy little ones are especially likely to land themselves in quite uncomfortable positions. Once again, when they start standing up early, they could struggle to go sit back down.

This regression can last anywhere from a couple of days to couple of weeks. If it is associated with separation anxiety it is very important to remain consistent. During this time it will give them security and confidence if you remain as normal and loving as you have been.  Take some extra time during the bedtime routine for one-on-one time.With the physical development it is helpful to practice their skills during awake time and help them to sit down.

12-month-old

This is the least common sleep regression and is mainly due to naps. Some toddlers might simply refuse to have 2 naps, and often parents might think it is time to move to 1 nap a day.

This sleep regression can last between 2 and 6 weeks. Here it may be helpful to cap the first nap so that it does not go on too late, to ensure that you still fit in the second nap comfortably. Also if you little one does skip the second nap, it is wise to make bedtime earlier. If your nighttime sleep is not affected it is also not something to worry about too much as your little one is clearly coping with less sleep. Try not to move to 1 nap too quickly.

18-month-old 

This sleep regression can be one of the most challenging sleep regressions as discipline does start playing a major role. Teething, emotional development (separation anxiety) and a growing sense of independence are the main culprits.

This regression can last between 3 and 6 weeks. Now is the time to start setting boundaries and display firm discipline. This consistency will help your toddler with a sense of independence and security. They do not need any more milk at night as similarly to giving your child sweets in the middle of the night, any milk provided at night can do more harm than good.

Even though sleep regressions can cause sleep disruptions, the important thing to remember is that if you remain consistent it should only be a phase. If your little one slept well before regression, they should go back into it after the phase and the regression should not be a reason to start negative associations.

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Jolandi Becker

Managing Director of Good Night and mother of two. Jolandi has helped hundreds of families, and believes sleep is the fundamental building block of healthy living. She considers the education around better sleep as a passion rather than a job.