Sleep Regressions: When, Why & What to Do!
Sleep regressions (yes… plural, there are more than 1) is a period of time that lasts approx. 2-6 weeks where your baby’s sleep seems to go downhill. They may have previously been sleeping well and are now waking more frequently in the night, taking short or no naps and/or waking up really early in the morning for no specific reason. This can be very frustrating for parents as it often seems like you just get sleep on track and then out of the blue sleep is disrupted yet again.
Not understanding a sleep regression can disrupt sleep for a long period of time as many families develop bad habits during these times which lead to future negative sleep associations. The regressions show disorganization in sleep but can also impact social, emotional and feeding patterns.
Unfortunately every baby will go through sleep regressions although some handle it better than others. Don’t compare your baby with another but instead get through it and move on. You need to get rested before the next one comes (joking… kind of)!
Often times sleep regressions fall at similar times to nap transitions and so although it may be a developmental milestone in the sleep department keep in mind that nap transitions need their own care to keep sleep balanced and help you get through this phase!
The Most Common Sleep Regressions
4 Month Sleep Regression
This sleep regression often hits the hardest and this is because it is the biggest sleep change your baby will ever go through in their entire life!! I know that sounds crazy because it seems unfair that a baby so young will have to go through such a big change. This regression usually takes place between 3-5 months of age and it is when your baby goes from newborn sleep to sleep similar to an adults. Newborn sleep has 2 distinct stages called quiet and active sleep which are both deep sleep stages. During the regression your baby’s sleep is divided into a light sleep cycle and a deep sleep cycle with the deep sleep further dividing into 4 more little categories versus the 2 (quiet and active). This is a permanent change and allows your baby to graduate to the next chapter of sleep following their womb to world transition!
The 4 month sleep regression is a big topic and so it has a blog all to itself that you can check out here.
Developmental Factors to Consider:
Many babies begin to stay awake for longer periods of time. This means that they are taking in more stimulation and being more active. Don’t keep them awake too long in between sleep sessions as an overtired baby will never sleep well. At 3 months 1.5 hours is the MAX to be awake, 4 months 1.75 is the MAX and at 5 months 2.25 hours is the MAX. Check out more about wake times here.
On average the 4 to 3 nap transition begins around the 5 month mark. This will cause wake times to increase and again your baby will be awake longer during the day. Don’t be scared to pull bedtime earlier to make up for that lost 4th nap in the day.
Some babies may have started to roll or practice rolling. This can affect sleep because generally once a baby is rolling a swaddle is not used anymore. If your baby is not rolling yet then continue using the swaddle if it works. If they are rolling then try a sleep sack to encourage sleep.
What To Do:
The hardest part about this regression is that newborns sleep a lot. Yes, they wake for feeds that they need but generally they fall asleep fast with help and seem to be able to sleep anywhere at any time. The best parts of newborns are the sweet cuddles because they just sleep in anyone's arms, on your chest while watching T.V or in a crowded room. Then BAM, you have a baby who seems to not be sleeping at all and so as parents we chalk it up to growth spurt, possible teething and the biggest blame is on gas.
Now, although these can be the cause of disrupted sleep they often get blamed a lot more than is necessary especially if it is falling near this big regression. As we blame it on one of the above we start doing whatever will “work” to get our baby to sleep. It might work for a bit but sleep still doesn’t get better. Naps are still short or non-existent and nights still have many wake-ups. Everything stays the same except they might be falling asleep easier but barley.
The biggest thing to focus on is not creating negative sleep associations. If your baby is between 3-5 months and sleep as just gone downhill then recognize this as the 4 month sleep regression. Be patient and help them through it but try not to get sucked in to jogging around the block to get your baby to sleep. Typically it is during this regression were many associations are formed because of the new partial awakenings (read in 4 month regression blog) and these can be difficult to break later.
Help your baby if they need it but try switching it up every night so there isn’t only 1 thing that puts them to sleep.
Make sure they are getting enough sleep by following wake times which set up nice naps and early bedtimes.
Establish good sleep routines to help your baby’s body identify cues to help the body know when to sleep. With the new sleep cycles being established the body might need help and routines can do this!
Have their sleep environment dark. During this regression your baby’s body is now beginning to produce their own sleep hormones and the number one factor that controls sleep hormones is light! If there is light exposure the body is being told to be awake but if it is dark then the body is being told it is time for sleep.
8/9/10 Sleep Regression
This regression occurs at different times for each baby and some even seem to surpass it all together. You might notice a slight bump in the road but not enough to even qualify it as a sleep regression. Other babies though experience a lot of sleep disturbances that negatively impact sleep.
Developmental Factors to Consider
Your baby is having a spike in brain development and gross motor skills. You might notice your baby is beginning to crawl, sit up, pull up, army crawl and roll around like crazy. All of these new skills can make your baby excited to continuously practice them and therefore not want to sleep.
More teeth! Babies often tend to get more teeth around this age. As mentioned earlier I do feel that teething can affect sleep but sometimes I see that teething can get blamed for more than it should. Always ask yourself… is my baby grumpy and irritated all day long or just at sleep times? If it is just at sleep times then maybe it is a combination of teething and other factors.
Separation Anxiety. During this time your baby is perfecting a major cognitive milestone called object permanence. Object Permanence is the ability to recognize that just because you can’t see an object does not mean it is not there. Prior to this stage you could hide a toy under a blanket and your baby would think it was gone but once they begin understanding object permanence they will realize that just because they can’t see the toy it is still there under the blanket. Before this developmental stage when you left the room you were gone and therefore unless a need had to be met you were out of your babies mind! Literally out of sight out of mind. Now that they have object permanence though when you leave your baby will recognize you are not there and this can cause stress or separation anxiety.
3 to 2 nap transition! This is a big one and generally occurs at that 8 month mark. Sleep regressions often fall during nap transitions because your baby is losing an entire sleep period and so easily becomes overtired. The nap transition is not the cause of the regression but it can make it worse. Now we have the regression changes plus nap transition changes all ganging up on your babies sleep.
What to Do:
Don’t let your baby become overtired. Going from 3 to 2 naps can be hard on a baby and so remember to follow appropriate wake times and also pull bedtime much earlier to make up for that lost 3rd nap! If you are going through the transition then move forward at a steady pace to get that solid 2 nap schedule. Once on a 2 nap schedule sleep often evens out if other sleep foundations are in place!
Help reduce separation anxiety by increasing cuddle time in your sleep routines and encouraging a lovey or security object. A security object like a teddy bear or blanket can help keep your baby feeling safe when you are not around.
Practice all your baby’s new skills during the day so they don’t feel they need more practice at night.
Don’t get stuck helping your baby fall asleep to get them through the regression. If they are falling asleep on their own prior then keep routines consistent. If they were not falling asleep on their own then this might be a good time to assess to see if there is a negative sleep association that is also causing a disruption in sleep.
Try a sleep sack to prevent crawling, standing and moving around at sleep times.
12 Month Sleep Regression
This regression is less common and is more recognized as an early 2 to 1 nap transition. It is more of a phase where some babies begin showing signs that they don’t want to nap twice anymore. Your baby might be taking 2 short naps, sleeping well for 1 nap and refusing a second nap or refusing both naps. As parents we are screaming “nooooooooo” but don’t worry! This usually passes within a month or so and 2 naps pick up again.
Developmental Factors to Consider
Many babies take their first steps around this age. This is a huge development leap and your baby will want to practice and show off their new skills. Out of all the big milestones I would have to say this one tends to interrupt sleep the most.
Night sleep has often consolidated around this age and if a baby did have a feed it is dropped here (not in every case but usually!!). This means that the body is working extra hard on establishing a new sleep/wake cycle in a 24 hour period. It is trying to form a balance of total sleep hours and so when nights become consolidated the body sometimes fights more daytime sleep as it is trying to keep overall sleep hours the same. It does catch up with the baby though and they realize they need the consolidated night sleep plus the 2-3 hours of daytime sleep as well!
Daycare. In many situations parents go back to work around the 12 month mark and this can sometimes force a 2 to 1 nap transition. If this is the case take your time doing the transition as developmentally the body is not quite ready to be awake for really long periods of time during the day to allow for a nice 1 nap schedule. This then leads to a baby being overtired and can disrupt sleep.
What to Do
Get lots of practice walking during the day so they don’t want practice at night.
Use a sleep sack for sleep to make it harder for your baby to walk around the crib.
Encourage 2 naps. I find the most common situation is a baby will have a good first nap and then refuse the 2nd nap. If this is the case work on shortening the first nap to build up sleep pressure for the 2nd nap to occur. It might even help to wake them a little earlier in the morning so you can extend the wake time a little bit before the 2nd nap also building sleep pressure. Always have the 2nd nap ending by 4:00 p.m. so you are not disrupting night sleep hours.
If daycare is the reason for the 2 to 1 transition then offer 2 naps as needed on the weekends to let them have some sleep catch up days.
Be patient and consistent. Stick to your routine and make sure you are implementing them the same each nap and bedtime. This will continue to send messages that it is still a sleep time. Often after a couple weeks a baby will pick up again on the 2 naps.
Have a room environment that is encouraging sleep. Using cues that encourages sleep will help keep your baby knowing that 2 naps is still normal. This in combination with the above tips can help bring back that 2nd nap.
18 Month Sleep Regression
Your 18 month old is a busy body to say the least. Not only have their motor skills skyrocketed but their communication skills have also exploded. You have been through the drill before with motor skill development and how it can make your baby more tired or resist sleep but this is the first regression when communication and behaviors begin to impact sleep. Your toddler now has the ability to read you, resist simple instructions, make their own choices to benefit their own agenda and say “NO”! These new cheeky behaviors often accompanied by tantrums can have any parent pulling out their hair by the end of the day.
This regression is mostly due to the fact that your toddler’s independence is growing rapidly. They want to do things on their own and one main thing they like to decide is when they go to sleep. The most common disturbances with this regression are resisting falling asleep for naps and nights and not staying in bed.
Developmental Factors to Consider
Separation anxiety peaks around 9-12 months and then again around 18-24 months. This means that your toddler wants you near and does not want to be away from you. With the new communication skills your toddler will make this very well known by screaming when you are not in the room with them.
Around this age many toddlers experience another teething spurt. Canine and molars are usually the teeth that appear around this age and can cause discomfort for your little one.
The 2 to 1 nap transition. Most toddlers transition from 2 to 1 nap between 14-18 months with 15 months being the average. This transition is a slower one because it takes them some time to get used to being awake for longer periods of time. This transition can lead to your toddler being overtired which is known to fuel the fire of tantrums. I would say generally the 18 month regression occurs on par with the nap transition or shortly after when sleep debt accumulates.
What to Do
Your little one wants to be more independent and so allow them to make more choices throughout the day. You will still be in control but let them choose between 2 options. Example, would you like a banana or strawberries? Show them 2 pairs of p.j’s and put on the ones they pick from your hand. Doing this gives them their independence when it is appropriate but also lets them know that when there isn’t options (what time bedtime is) that you are in charge. Set limits and stick to them to maintain consistency.
Keep your toddler in the crib as long as you can. This prevents them from constantly getting out of their bed a hundred times. Transitioning to a toddler bed from crib too early is hard because although communication is improving they still aren’t able to fully understand sleep “rules” when it comes to staying in bed.
If you are going through the nap transition don’t rush it. Slowly move that first nap back as you eliminate the second one and pull bedtime earlier. An overtired toddler will resist sleep even more!
If your toddler is already on 1 nap and seems to be resisting it be consistent. Still do the routine and offer 1 hour of “sleep” time in their room. They still need this sleep and it will come back!
Use a fading sleep approach if needed where you start in the room and gradually reduce intervention and move a little closer to the door every few days. This helps keep you in the room which is what they want but also continues to move towards independent sleep once again. There are other approaches that work great for this age as well and you know where to find me!
If your toddler does not have a lovey or security object then try introducing one. A teddy bear, blanket, ect are all ways to make them feel safe when you are not around.
Strengthen nap and bedtime routines. Keep the steps the same but maybe take a little more time cuddling with an extra story or more one on one time.
2 Year Sleep Regression
This regression is the final one! Yay, you made it through them all just in time to have another baby… kidding!
Your toddler is quite the character these days. They are fun, wild and sassy. Just like the 18 month sleep regression these new character traits can make sleep fun. A regression paired with the terrible twos just seems unfair.
Developmental Factors to consider
Separation anxiety still plays a role in many toddlers at this age. Yes it peaked around that 18 month mark but it can still be hanging around or coming and going.
Continuing to increase their need for independence. Similar to the 18 month stage they are continuously growing on a physical, emotional and cognitive level.
Dropping the last nap. This is still early as I recommend trying to get as close to aged 3 as you can but many toddlers do drop their nap between 2 and 3 years of age.
Crib to bed transition. Depending on the family some toddlers go through this around age 2 and others closer to age 3. This is a big change and changes their little sleep space from the rails of the crib to the walls of the bedroom.
Nightmares. As your toddler’s imagination grows they are able to pretend and make up stories for play and fun. This also means that they might be able to scare themselves when they see a “monster” in their bedroom that is actually the rocking chair. Your toddler is noticing every little thing and so seeing a scary dog on t.v. could lead to some bad dreams.
Your toddler’s sleep totals are naturally decreasing. As children get older their sleep changes. It consolidates to night sleep and naps are eliminated. At 2 years of age they are on the bubble of transferring all their sleep to nights and so 12 hour nights are often within the normal range. If a nap is taking 2 hours of this then this leaves about 10 hours of night sleep. Every child is a little different but these are averages.
What to Do
Lengthen and strengthen sleep routines to give you and your toddler more time together to eliminate uneasy feelings from the separation anxiety.
If you don't have a security object it isn't too late! My son slept with a 1969 model Camero car and that was his safe object. The only thing with that is when it fell out of bed we thought somebody was breaking in!!
Continue to offer choices for your toddler to give them a sense of control in their life. It often works best to give two options and let them choose one.
Implement a reward chart for bedtimes. It doesn't have to be anything fancy but something you make together. Give little stickers for parts of the routine that will be done either way such as bathing, brushing teeth and giving hugs goodnight. This builds a positive feeling around bedtime because they are getting positive reinforcement for easy things.
Try and hold on to that last nap if you can. If it seems they have dropped the nap it may just be a phase and so give it a good couple weeks of trying to get the nap back to make sure it is actually gone.
Limit television before bed to help reduce the chance of bad dreams.
If your toddler is talking and playing after going down to bed and you notice that on average they fall asleep at “x” time then this is most likely their biological sleep time. Sleep becomes more set at this age and so try to put them down 15 minutes before the average time they are falling asleep. Then if they begin going down easier and easier you can gradually shift the set bedtime earlier again.
All sleep regressions are hard in their own way. Don’t be frustrated! Instead be patient and consistent. Get through the regression and pick up where you left off. Try really hard not to get sucked into old habits that hindered sleep before. You may have to tweak a few things to get through this time but it will be over before you know it! If you go through the regression and sleep doesn't improve then some simple sleep strategies may be beneficial.
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