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.