Sleep regression is the phrase used to describe when a baby or toddler who may have been previously sleeping well, begins to show changes in their sleeping patterns. This can include taking shorter, or no naps during the day, resist bedtimes and wake up through the night where things may have been more settled in that respect. Sleep regressions can last anywhere from a few days to a two to six-week period of time and can be a difficult and frustrating time for parents.
You have probably worked really hard on getting your little ones into a great bedtime routine and felt that sleep problems were a thing of the past. However, sleep regressions are part and parcel of the overall sleep development of your baby. Understanding and anticipating them will be key in handling it for your little one.
Key signs of sleep regression will include your baby suddenly waking up frequently during the night, fighting sleep at bedtime, shorter naps and generally fussiness.
It’s important to remember that each baby is different, and you mustn’t compare your experiences with friends or even from one of your children to the next. That being said, there are key ages that sleep regression tends to occur, the first being 4 months, and there are also developmental milestones that can trigger it.
Sleep regressions occur due to huge progressions in your little one's development that then, unfortunately, can have a negative impact on sleep. These can occur when your baby is learning to crawl, pull themselves up or even potty training. One thing to always remember is that once your baby or toddler is passed each milestone, they can return to their standard sleeping patterns – which means you can too!
If your baby is sleeping less or stopped sleeping through the night for a few nights in a row and you can feel a tooth coming through, for example, then this is unlikely sleep regression and probably more teething related. So going through a little bit of trial and error plus noting down what is going on will help you to figure out what could be contributing to the sleep disruptions.
If the sleep problems are consistent for two to six weeks, and there are no other symptoms, then it’s likely sleep regression related. It can sometimes be hard to recognise sleep regression, especially if it doesn’t occur around an obvious milestone or expected age. However, as parents, you will know your own baby and be able to recognise any sudden changes in their sleep patterns.
The 4-month mark not only brings sleep regression but permanent changes to your babies sleep pattern. The 4-month sleep regression is one that parents fear but it really is a huge point of progressions and sleep development for your little one. At four months old, your baby’s circadian rhythms form. These are the start of more adult style wake-sleep cycles however they are in an infant state. So, understanding that from that point your baby’s sleep is starting its maturity will help you to understand your baby’s sleep capability at that point. This is something that is covered in huge detail in my sleep program The 4-6 Month Sleep Series. You will notice shorter naps, more broken sleep at night and potentially more frustration around sleep with your little one. The most positive way to look at it is, although you may feel frustrated that your last few weeks of developing a sleep pattern has come undone, it’s actually a very healthy growth and development milestone.
Six months is a tricky one as, most of the time, it’s not sleep regression that your baby is experiencing but more like a growth spurt. Six-month-olds need around 11-12 hours sleep through the night and up to 3 hours through daytime naps. If you find your baby has started taking shorter naps, then you need to consider a change in their sleep schedule through the extension of wake periods. Again, this isn’t sleep regression but rather a nap transition.
The growth and development that occurs around the 6-month mark, including rolling or crawling, will leave your baby burning more calories than before. Over time your baby will start eating more solid foods, and you will be able to phase out the night feed completely if you are still feeding at night. My 6-9 Month Sleep Series program through its 7 Steps to Better Sleep can help you figure out how and when is the best time for you and your little one to fade out night feeding.
There are several developmental milestones that babies typically reach between eight and ten months old. For instants, your little one may already be crawling, pulling themselves up, teething and learning new skills. Thanks to this, you’ll find yourself in another phase of sleep regression, and thus you will get more sleep problems through the night and shorter to no naps in the daytime and end up with one exhausted baby.
During this age range, you will experience the transition to from 3 to 2 naps around 8 months of age. Coupled with this your baby may be able to tolerate longer wake periods between naps and up to bedtime. So, if you are experiencing challenges around napping and bedtime look to tweaking these wake periods to see if that then helps to resolve sleep challenges.
Much of the sleep challenges that parents experience at this age range are due to a need to tweak napping schedules. It can be the start of a need to shift towards 1 nap a day, however, trying to retain 2 naps for as long as is beneficial to your baby is recommended.
Between 14 & 16 months your child may be ready to transition to just one nap a day. However, with them learning to walk, you may find they start having trouble sleeping, and it’s harder to tuck them into bed! If your child is waking through the night and having two naps through the day firstly look to their day time sleep. If they are on 2 naps a day totally 3 hours sleep then reduce it back to 2.5 hours sleep to see if that helps things. If however baby is refusing naps over a 2-3 week period it is likely that the need to start shifting to 1 nap a day is needed. Take this transition slowly as going too quickly with it can create overtiredness and further compound sleep issues.
Did you think by now, sleep regression would be a thing of the past? Unfortunately due to developments around increased mobility, communication and brain development lots of toddlers can experience regressions around sleep. Another contributing factor can be separation anxiety. Very often parents will feel like they need to take a step back with their child's sleep however supporting them through this period can be key. My 9-18 Month & Toddler Sleep Series have the full toolkit on how to handle these regressions and expert-led support via the Sleep Series Community on Facebook.
Unfortunately, the terrible twos are real, and it can bring with it another batch of sleep regression. Parents will report the start of nightmares and potentially night terrors. Toddlers will also start to naturally decrease their day time sleep and require longer wake periods to bedtime from the end of naps. Plus, they are walking talking negotiators with big egos! My advice here is keeping things very settled around sleep in your home, making it a priority and try to avoid the negotiations! Recognise that a lot of the challenges are around decreasing need for day time sleep can help things a lot. However, naps are life so I understand how the loss of napping can impact on the day to day running of your household.
Unfortunately, there’s no ‘quick win’ to getting through each stage of sleep regression. However, it typically lasts for to two to three weeks, so it’s important to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and that, as ‘regression’ suggests, your baby may return to their former sleep pattern, and it doesn’t last forever.
This being said, it’s essential that you don’t allow sleep regression to result in new habits being introduced around your little one's sleep. For example, through the frustrations of sleep regression, it’s easy to let your baby fall asleep in your arms, feed them to sleep or lie down with them to go to sleep. If you do end up in a situation like this moving away from the new habit after the regression has passed is key.
1. Recognise that sleep patterns may need to be adjusted for your little ones sleep balance to settle. Sleep regression might set you back, but it doesn’t need to result in settled sleep forever leaving your home. By understand sleep and its developing stages you will be better equipped to deal with what lies ahead.
2. Make sure your babies sleeping environment, including during naptime, is as comfortable and dark as possible. Melatonin, the sleepy hormone, needs darkness for it to initiate sleep and maintain it. Sleeping in bring environments simply does not support consolidated restorative sleep for the body – day or night.
3. Ask for help – whether this is from a partner, grandparent or friend. Happy parents will equal happy babies, so don’t let sleep regression overrule you! Your loved ones will be more than ready to help look after their favourite little person, so make sure you ask if you need help.
4. Research (Research, Research). The more you know about each baby stage, from nap transitions and teething to sleep regression and developmental milestones, the better you will be able to understand each phase and understand what might happen at each age. My online program The Sleep Series is designed to empower and educate parents about child sleep through the age ranges so that at each stage they know what lies ahead.
5. Consider an earlier bedtime. Sleep regression can ultimately leave your baby irritable and exhausted, not to mention you as parents so an earlier bedtime could do the whole family some good!
I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it, every baby is different. You mustn’t compare your situation to another’s but if you are really concerned about sleep patterns, regression or just day to day, then consider consulting with a family sleep consultant to put your mind at ease.