We all fear the baby sleep regression. When you’ve spent so long building a solid sleep routine, and you finally get a few weeks of sleep, the thought of going backwards into full-scale sleep deprivation can be almost too much to bear. What is one to do? Here are some basics on why it’s happening, and a few tips to help you cope.
One step forward, two steps back
A sleep regression is essentially a blip in your child’s sleeping patterns, where they go from sleeping really well (maybe right through the night), to suddenly waking regularly and without explanation. A sleep regression isn’t caused by common sleep disruptors like teething or illness. Rather, it’s usually due to major developmental milestones that occur between the ages of six weeks and two years old.
Ages and stages
Sleep regression is a such a common occurrence, that most parents see a few changes around at least one milestone. Keep in mind that not all children will experience a noticeable disruption in their sleep at all of these milestones. But here’s what you might notice:
This is when many parents report their newborns are suddenly ‘waking up’ to the world. The sleepy newborn stage gives way to more crying, increased hunger and general fussiness. It’s a big moment in your baby’s life, they’re growing rapidly, and as a result you might find there’s a rocky period as you both adjust to the new normal.
The 4-month sleep regression (which can actually happen a little earlier from three months on) is a really tough one. Most new parents are already hitting a wall of sleep deprivation at this point, when suddenly baby’s sleeping takes a turn for the worse. This is when your baby’s experiencing a major growth spurt, as well as a burst of brain development that makes them much more aware of their surroundings. Some babies also start rolling and moving around more. As a result, you might find that all the little things you used to do to put them to sleep aren’t working any more, and it takes much longer to settle your baby to sleep.
By six months, your baby is moving around a lot more. They may even be crawling. All this development means baby is less likely to submit to the swaddle, and more likely to mess around in their crib, trying out their new skills. This is also right about the time they hit another major growth spurt, so add hunger to the mix, and the sleep routine inevitably goes off the rails.
Also unhappily known as the nine-month sleep regression. Now your baby has probably figured out how to pull themselves up, and they may not be too happy about lying down in the crib at bed time. So this means a lot of resettling at nap time, and possibly some banging around during the night when they wake up and move around.
Lots of babies start walking around 12 months, which can wreak havoc on sleep. You may see the sleep disturbances kicking in just before the walking actually starts. Regardless, brace yourself for some rough nights as your almost-toddler starts to practice their emerging skills in their cot.
Separation anxiety tends to peak at this age, so your toddler could be struggling with the sensation of being alone in their rooms. This is a really difficult regression, because you’re also dealing with a discipline factor – as in, your toddler knows what’s going on now, and they have to start learning some important sleep rules. Add to that the fact that they’re forming lots of words, but still can’t express all their needs and wants, and you have one tricky sleep stage. This is the point at which you need to explain things to your toddler, and remain consistent with your bedtime rules and routines so that you don’t fall into inconvenient habits that might extend the sleep regressions.
Two years in, and sleep regressions can start feeling interminable. But rest assured, you’re reaching the end of the major milestone sleep regressions. This one has a few things happening: firstly, wake times are getting longer, and your toddler may even be dropping their day sleep. Secondly, nighttime fears might start cropping up. This is when your child suddenly starts fearing the dark, or is convinced there’s a monster under the bed. Add to this all the other big transitions that are happening in a two-year-old’s life (potty training, moving to a big bed, new siblings, daycare), and naturally sleep is the first thing to slide.
How to cope with sleep regressions
Babies (younger than 18 months)
- For those very early sleep regressions (3-4 months, and 6 months), take a look at how you’re settling your baby. If you’re still rocking or feeding your baby to sleep, you might find it’s becoming difficult to sustain the rocking/feeding/holding approach all night long. Observe your baby through the regression, see if thing improve afterwards, and if not, you could start considering some changes to the sleep routine.
- Keep reminding yourself that the changes are temporary. Just remember that your child is also struggling through that particular milestone, and it will be short-lived.
- Remain responsive, and do what you can to soothe your child. Do, however, try to stick to the routine that works for you, and resist falling into any new sleep habits that you might regret later.
- Talk to other mums about your struggles and see how they’re coping with the changes. It will help put some perspective on an issue that most parents struggle with at some point.
Toddlers (18 months onwards)
- Set clear boundaries with your toddler, particularly around sleep routines.
- Try not to make any major changes to their sleep schedules when the regressions do hit. This phase does pass, so sometimes it’s best to stick to the old routine and ride it out.
- That said, look carefully at what’s happening in your toddler’s life. Sometimes we’re quick to chalk up disruptions to sleep regressions, when actually it might be that some poor sleep habits are getting out of hand.
- Remember – there’s no cure for sleep regressions! All you can do is adapt and look for small ways you can minimise the impact.
How are you coping with sleep regressions?