As we navigate the unpredictable roller coaster of the sleeping baby, there are days when you feel like you have finally nailed it. They sleep right on schedule – which means you get to sleep as well!
Then out of nowhere… No more sleep.
Your seemingly well trained baby is now perpetually unsettled and this allure of regular blissful sleep has been ripped from your grasp.
Exhausting, frustrating, and a recurring theme as your baby grows up.
But why does this have to happen?
Well, it is likely your baby is experiencing a sleep regression. These are natural transitions linked to certain developmental stages that will interrupt sleep temporarily, or change sleeping patterns permanently.
There are multiple sleep regressions your baby is likely to experience from when they are an infant through to toddler.
Understanding and preparing for this pattern will help you retain some level of sanity when the inevitable arrives.
What Is Sleep Regression?
Sleep regressions often coincide with a baby’s cognitive and developmental milestones, such as teething, growth spurts, and crawling.
With increased physical and brain activity, your little one is likely not ready to slow down while they try and process the new events of the day.
This can lead to your baby fighting sleep, and waking frequently through the night. Even after a prolonged period of predictable sound sleep.
They can last between 2 to 6 weeks, which can sometimes seem like an eternity to a tired parent.
Common Sleep Regression Timeline by Age
Every child is different in how they develop and their personality traits. But there is a typical pattern that is followed when it comes to sleep regressions.
Here is a list of the most common sleep regressions and their primary causes at each developmental stage.
The timing of each is only approximate but will give you a good idea of what to expect.
Right around the 6-week mark, your baby is likely to go through another growth spurt. This can result in increased hunger, which means more waking during the night for feedings.
It can also cause her to have a couple of days with longer sleep periods during the day, which can throw off her schedule for nighttime sleep.
At this stage, your baby’s sleep rhythm is thrown off. She is likely going through another growth spurt, which means increased hunger and excessive daytime sleep.
Her internal body clock is also learning to regulate itself, and her circadian rhythms are adjusting to fit a 24 hour day.
She is now sleeping about 14-15 hours per day, with 11 hours of nighttime sleep.
Second, she has increased brain development.
She is now sleeping more like an adult, so it takes her longer to get into a deep sleep. As she lays in her crib, she has increased awareness of everything around her and is easily distractible.
She may also be thinking about all that rolling she is trying to master at this age.
Finally – and likely least anticipated – is teething.
Yes, those little teeth are starting to work their way toward the surface even at this age.
Most babies will not see their first tooth until around 6 months or so. If your little one is like mine, you could see the bottom centrals making their debut by the time she is 4 months old.
What The Experts Say
“The four month sleep regression is actually not a regression at all”
Your baby requires a much longer period to reach a state of deep sleep. If they startled or become unsettled during this longer period they will wake up and you must start the process all over again.
At this age, your little one should be sleeping a lot better…when she is asleep. Getting her to go down is likely a problem in itself.
She is much more interactive at this stage, and has the ability to stay awake at will, whereas before she would simply succumb to her sleepiness.
The introduction of solid foods can also play a role in your baby’s nighttime sleep disruptions. At this stage, most babies can go a full night without feeding, as long as that last feeding is timed just right.
If your little one has her last solid meal too long before bedtime, she will likely wake up hungry during the night. At the same time, too close to bedtime can lead to indigestion and discomfort.
Try finding that sweet spot, which is about 1-2 hours prior to bedtime.
In addition to another growth spurt and the fact that she is likely teething like crazy at this stage, your baby may be learning to crawl, which has been found to be a sleep stealer.
A study completed in 2015 actually showed that babies who are starting to crawl do indeed wake more frequently during the night.
Around this age, object permanence emerges. What does this mean for your baby?
Cover a toy with a blanket. You lift the blanket, and to their surprise, the toy is still there.
This is so much fun for babies because they do not realize that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen.
At this age, your baby can now understand that if she lifts the blanket, she can find the toy.
The same goes for the people around her; she now realizes that when you leave the room, you are still somewhere nearby.
She may fight going down for sleep because she does not want you to leave, or she may cry out during the night when she wakes to find herself alone, wanting you to come back and keep her company.
It is around this age that your baby may also begin to pull herself up to standing.
As with any other physical milestone, she is going to want to practice her new skill as often as she can.
She may have a hard time going to sleep tonight, especially if she sleeps in a crib, as those rails are just perfect for her to pull herself up with.
Around this time, the two big W’s are happening: walking and weaning.
Both of these can disrupt sleep or prolong the time it takes for your baby to go down at night.
The increased desire to walk will likely have your baby’s rain going for a while after it is time for her to settle down for sleep. She wants to keep going, and may not be able to keep her legs still.
Weaning is more of an emotional hurdle (as mentioned earlier, this can apply at any stage but is common around the 12 month mark).
Your baby is more than likely long past her days of nursing during the night, but she may not be ready to completely let go of that bonding time with mom, especially if nursing is still happening at bedtime.
She wants more time with mom, and will probably be fighting sleep to keep mom in the room with her for as long as possible.
By the age of 18 months, your baby is becoming more like a toddler. She is much more interactive and enjoys playtime, both with her parents and her toys.
Bedtime can be difficult because it means giving those things up.
She is much more aware of what your words mean, and can anticipate the excitement of the following day.
She may fight going to sleep and may wake during the night or early in the morning, anxious to get the day started.
It is also at this age that separation anxiety peaks and independence is growing.
Your little one has a stronger will, and may fight very hard at bedtime, not wanting you to leave or simply wanting to continue playing with her toys.
Physical discomfort, particularly with teething, can also play a role in disrupted sleep at this age.
Those sharp little canines are likely fighting their way through the gums, which can cause pain, crankiness, and increased separation anxiety.
By this age, you have a full-blown toddler on your hands. She now needs less sleep than she did previously, only requiring about 12 hours within 24, which includes naptime.
As a result, sleeping and waking times may need to be adjusted.
Having a toddler also means that the “terrible 2’s” are coming, with increased independence and tantrums.
Around this age, there may also be some big changes happening that your little one is getting used to.
She may be transitioning from her crib to her own bed. This can be scary as it is an unfamiliar surface and may now be in a separate room from mom and dad.
She may be afraid of the dark or being alone in her own room.
You may also have started potty training with your toddler, which can lead to confusion or discomfort during the night.
She may be used to going without a diaper during the day, but may still have issues holding it during the night.
Even sleeping in a pull-up, when she is now used to big-kid underwear, can leave her uncomfortable and self-conscious if she wets herself while sleeping.
6 Tips to Survive Sleep Regression
While most sleep regressions pass on their own with time, there are some things you can do to help these phases pass smoothly.
The key is to determine what – if anything – is causing the particular sleep regression you are working through.
1. Be Patient
Patience is important during the first couple of sleep regressions.
At such a young age, your baby is still adjusting to the outside world and has not quite figured out her sleeping rhythm yet.
There is nothing you can really do besides be present, attending to her hunger and comfort needs.
As your baby gets older, you may be able to narrow down the exact cause of your baby’s sleeplessness.
If she is active during the day, learning to sit, stand, crawl, and walk, make sure she gets plenty of exercise so she is tired enough to go to sleep at night.
What The Experts Say
“Protest equals change”
When your baby starts to resist or protesting going to bed it is very easy to react and think something is wrong.
When this behavior persists your baby will figure out that they will be able to achieve a response from you that will lead to a reward.
2. Sleep Associations
The reliance on a pacifier, feeding, or rocking for sleep can cause babies to be unable to self-soothe.
Often these are habits that they picked up early and it can take some work to undo them.
If you can teach your baby to fall asleep on their own then they are more likely to stay asleep longer at night.
3. Remove Discomfort
Temperature, noise and lighting are the easy fixes here as you will usually have a level of control over these external factors.
Internal discomfort can be more difficult.
If your little one is fighting a bought of teething, you may want to look at gels or tablets to ease her pain and help her sleep better.
If she is congested, be sure to aspirate completely before bedtime and possibly look into cold medication that is formulated to help babies sleep better.
4. Schedule Sleep Changes
It is a common mistake for parents to rely on sleep schedule guidelines based on age as a cookie-cutter map to be followed.
Unfortunately, babies will rarely be so predictable in their sleep patterns.
They will change routine frequently and in unpredictable ways – the guides are just that, a general guide.
My daughter has always been a little different from “average” babies when it came to sleeping habits.
She dropped naps quickly, narrowing it down to one midday nap by the age of 13 months, which I thought was impossible since most babies do not change to one nap until they are about 15-18 months old.
The trick is to watch your baby’s cues.
Notice when they are getting tired and adjust accordingly to cater to their needs.
If it seems like they need to sleep earlier, longer, or more or less often than usual, they may be ready for a change.
After following my daughter’s cues, she is 21 months old and sleeps beautifully for 11-12 hours at night with no waking, and 2 hours at nap time. But it took time to get there!
5. Adjust Naps
Speaking of nap time, often children who have trouble sleeping at night are sleeping too much during the day.
Try adjusting naps first, as these change more frequently, both in quantity and length.
After a few days of adjusting nap time, you may begin to see better nighttime sleep.
6. Keep A Consistent Bedtime Routine
Creating a bedtime routine can also help your child to go down easier if she is fighting sleep.
Here is what it looks like for us:
- Change into Pyjamas
- Brush teeth
- Pick a book, and a friend (stuffed animal) to take to bed
- Cuddle in bed and read a book
- Finish with hugs, kisses, and lights out
It helps your child to anticipate bedtime and get some good quality time in before drifting off to sleep.
Parental Self Care on Little Sleep
You are going to be losing sleep through these periods… More than usual.
This means your brain will be wired, frustrations will be running high, and you may generally feel like life currently sucks.
If you can take a little time for some self-care it will help you stay focused through this period.
Squeeze In Some Rest
Easier said than done, but take a nap every chance you get.
I know that your to-do list is not getting any smaller if you take a few minutes to lay down, but you can re-energize and be far more productive for the rest of the day if you develop this discipline.
If your baby also still naps, then take advantage of this time for yourself too. Five to twenty minutes can make a big difference when you are sleep deprived.
Remember It’s Not You, It’s Them
Sleep regressions are a natural part of your baby’s growth and development. The difficulty they have is not a reflection of your ability as a parent.
So don’t beat yourself up when things do not go as planned.
If Needed – Avoid It Entirely!
These transitions are only a problem if you have to be out of bed to get your baby to sleep.
A short term fix is to just co-sleep and allow your baby to nurse and drift off to sleep as they please.
Yes, long term this creates a new set of challenges – see earlier comments on sleep associations – but if your situation requires you to perform at a certain level each day then this is an option.
Working Moms I am looking at you….
Knowing that sleep regression is coming, and what to expect is half the battle.
If you notice your little one fighting sleep when they were previously sleeping well or on a good schedule, take a look at their recent development.
Growing up means learning new things, which can keep the brain and body active, and needing less sleep. Just be patient; you can get through this.
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