Sleep Regression: Why It Happens And How To Survive It

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 05/03/20 •  19 min read

When you are trying to establish a healthy and balanced baby routine, one thing that may upset your best-laid plans is sleep regression.

Most babies and young children will develop sleep regression at some point. 

Sleep regression is when a baby or young child that has a well-established sleeping pattern suddenly starts to wake more often at night, becomes more difficult to settle to sleep and will fight sleep and naps.

This can be very distressing, especially with young babies. 

When you finally thought you had hit the goal of getting a good night’s sleep after weeks of disturbed nights and just when you thought it was all going great, they start to sleep for shorter periods again and demand to be fed. ARGH!

Sleep Regression Why It Happens And How To Survive It

When Does Sleep Regression Happen?

Sleep regression can occur at any point in your child’s development once they have started to have a healthy age-appropriate sleep schedule and they will usually just appear out of the blue and without warning. 

Sleep regressions will normally occur when your baby is reaching developmental milestones and there are some ages at which it appears to be more common. 

They include:

4 Months

What is commonly known as the 4 month sleep regression is probably the most difficult to deal with as this is when you will have been working so hard to get a healthy sleep schedule going and your baby is probably finally waking less at night and suddenly you appear to be back to square one! 

Most babies will experience a 4 month sleep regression although this may occur as early as 8 weeks or as late as 5 months.

6 Months

A rare sleep regression, but definitely one that can happen! 

The 6 month sleep regression can be a nightmare for new parents, so make sure you’re prepared!

8-10 Months

The 8 month sleep regression occurs when your baby is going through significant physical and brain development such as crawling, cruising, walking and a leap in language development.

18 Months

An 18 month sleep regression in toddlers is most commonly attributed to your toddler’s newfound independence.

Why?

Most sleep regressions coincide with certain developmental milestones being reached and depending on the age at which it occurs, there are different ways of handling it.

In many cases, you have to ride it out, but the way in which you do so will determine how long the regression lasts and your prime objective is to get the sleep schedule back on track and to avoid any bad sleep habits forming.

How Long Does Sleep Regression Last?

Sleep regressions can last from 2 to 6 weeks or they may even be as little a night or two.

No matter how long the regression lasts and whilst you must do all that you can to make sure you and your baby are getting enough sleep during this trying time.

It is important to bear in mind that the good sleep habits you worked so hard to establish need to be kept intact as much as possible. 

TOP TIP: Although you may revert to using some of your old methods like rocking your baby to sleep in desperation, the key is to not let these habits form again!

No matter how desperate you may feel during a sleep regression phase, remember that it is just a regression and that if your baby or child has been sleeping well and had healthy sleep patterns, they can do so again.

What Causes Sleep Regression?

Sleep regression is most commonly caused by natural growth spurts in your baby’s development or their need for less daytime sleep. 

The growth spurts do not just refer to physical growth, but mental and emotional growth as well.

New developments such as crawling and teething are common causes of sleep regression in the older child as well as separation anxiety and toddler independence.

Sleep regression can also be caused by a change in schedule which can occur at any stage.

My son developed a 12 month sleep regression and although this is less common, it was attributed to our travelling to the UK from South Africa to visit family and friends.

The complete change in his daily routine despite my efforts to keep his nap times and bedtimes as regular as possible, just threw his sleep patterns off completely!

4 Month Sleep Regression

The four month sleep regression is always a bit of shock, as you will probably just be getting more sleep and thinking you are over the worst of nighttime waking and in some cases may even be sleeping through the night when this regression happens. 

You may ask how long does 4 month sleep regression last? 

Sadly as with all regressions, there is no fixed time limit but usually, they last between 2-6 weeks.

This change in a 4 month old sleep schedule is usually due to the fact that your baby’s circadian rhythms are changing. 

Up until this point they will have been able to fall into a deep non-REM sleep almost anywhere but at around 4 months this all changes… 

They are becoming more alert, moving more as their motor skills develop and are beginning to need less sleep in a 24 hour period.

What To Do About 4 Month Sleep Regression

As your little one becomes more aware of their surroundings they may become easily distracted whilst taking a feed. 

This in turn will mean that your baby is not eating enough during the day and may start waking more often at night purely because they are hungry. 

To avoid this try and feed your baby in a non-stimulating environment where they are less likely to become distracted by what is going on around them.

If you are sure that your little one has had enough to eat during the day and they suddenly start waking more often at night, try not to feed them every time they wake. 

This will help them to avoid getting into the habit of needing to be fed each time they wake up in order to resettle. 

This is a bad sleep association so try and resettle them without a feed. You may wish to introduce a dummy at this stage should it be the only way your baby will resettle. 

However, bear in mind that a baby under 5 months is not able to put a dummy back in its mouth should it fall out and you may need to get up to do this. 

Dummies are a very personal choice and many parents find them a lifesaver.

In any case, when your baby wakes in the night do not dash out of bed immediately. 

Wait to see if they can resettle themselves, but don’t leave it too long if they are not going to, as you want to avoid your little one getting hysterical. 

If you do have to intervene… try patting and soothing without picking them up. 

If that does not work, pick them up and comfort them, then put them back down, repeating the same way you would put them down at any other time, with maybe a gentle patting or singing of a lullaby. 

In other words, reinforce the good sleep associations you have already established. 

Only change their nappy if it is apparent that they are really wet or soiled. 

If they would normally have gone a long period without a nappy change they can do so now as changing them will wake them even more.

This may all require some perseverance on your part as it is so tempting to just give them another feed or rock them to sleep in the hope this will settle them more quickly. 

However, in the long run you will only be creating bad sleep habits which will take a long time to get back on track.

Other Important Tips For Dealing With Regression At This Age Are:

Teaching your baby to self-settle. If you have not already introduced self-settling then letting your baby spend time alone in their cot whilst awake during the day will help them not to panic if they find themselves awake when you are not around. Try and introduce self-settling, by putting your baby down for a nap in the daytime when they are not fully asleep, as this will teach them that they do not always need you in order to fall asleep.

Establish a good bedtime routine. This all-important time of the day will have an impact on how your baby approaches bedtimes not just now but throughout their childhood. The room should be darkened and quiet with no distractions as you slow down the pace at the end of the day and the use of a white noise machine will also help your baby sleep peacefully and undisturbed.

Make sure your little one has enough nap time during the day and is not becoming overtired. An overtired baby can become extremely distraught and difficult to settle without rocking back to sleep, so look out for sleep cues to avoid overtiredness. This may mean that you have to adjust your daytime routine if your baby is unable during this period to nap in various locations and make sure that they take good naps at home in their crib. Good daytime naps will lead to better nighttime sleep. Alternatively, some babies may resist daytime naps in their crib and sleep better whilst out on a walk in their pram. Whatever works then go with it. Each and every baby is different and what is most important is that you do not end up with an overtired and cranky baby at the end of the day who will inevitably not sleep well.

Keeping nighttime interactions low key. If and when you do have to go to your baby at night (as with the early days of nighttime feeds), keep things low key with little to no talking and try to keep the resettling as quick as possible. Try not to pick up your baby by patting or singing a lullaby. If you do have to pick them up try to put them back down before they are fast asleep.

8-10 Month Sleep Regression

Between the ages of 8-10 months your baby will be going through a very busy developmental phase. 

They will be learning to crawl, pull to stand and cruise around the furniture. The world is now more accessible and they are able to explore properly and independently for the first time. 

In addition, their cognitive abilities will be developing at a rapid rate as they absorb language and are understanding more every day.

All of this can disrupt babies sleep purely due to the fact that their minds are now so much busier than they used to be. 

In addition, their daytime napping schedule will be changing to two longer naps in the day as they are able to stay awake for longer periods of time. This can all contribute to them no longer sleeping through the night.

Other changes in your babies development may also contribute to sleep regressions at this age. 

Many babies will now experience separation anxiety which is perfectly normal and varies from child to child. 

This will mean that your leaving them alone when they sleep will make them less able to settle at nap and bedtime and when they wake in the night they will find it difficult to go back to sleep unaided.

Illness, teething, moving to their own room or going on holiday may also cause a disruption in your babies sleep patterns from this age on. 

So bedtime routines, white noise machines and familiar toys and books are vital to give your baby the sleep cues they recognise.

If you suspect your baby’s sleep disruption is due to illness, consult your doctor and of course, cuddling and rocking your baby to sleep at this time is much needed. 

Once the illness or teething has passed most babies will fall back into a regular sleep routine, but you can apply the same sleep regression coping tools to re-establish them should your baby be resisting.

What To Do

At this age, you will hopefully have established a healthy sleep routine with good sleep associations. 

You will also be able to spot your babies sleep cues. 

All of these parenting tools will help you deal with a sleep regression at this age. 

Most babies will have been sleeping through the night or only waking for 1 or 2 feeds at most and taking 2 or 3 naps in the day. 

But all babies are different and by this age, there are no hard and fast rules as to when your baby will reach a particular developmental milestone. 

Their own individual personalities will be emerging and this will impact when and if they develop a sleep regression.

If Sleep Regression Happens At This Age You Should:

Don’t Forget…

18 Month Sleep Regression

Sleep regressions at this age are quite often very difficult to deal with as your child now has a strong will of their own

They have now got a voice and independence that enables them to make their wishes known and if they are not wanting to nap or go to bed at a certain time and stay there, you will definitely know about it!

This newfound independence along with a return of some separation anxiety can all contribute to sleep regressions at this age. 

Your child is also growing rapidly and the release of growth hormones can contribute to disrupting your little one’s ability to sleep well.

Like all regressions, they vary in length from 2-6 weeks and may not even happen at all. 

It really depends on the child and their individual personality. 

But as with all sleep regressions, you should remember that any bad habits allowed to develop during this time will last a lot longer than the sleep regression phase itself. 

Therefore a lot of consistency is required to deal with this regression effectively.

What To Do

Being consistent is very important at this age. 

Your toddler will need boundaries for all aspects of his life at the moment and when it come to sleep there is no exception. 

Already established routines that you have worked so hard to build and maintain must remain, so you will need to be patient, loving, kind but firm. 

The main difference between this sleep regression and the earlier ones is that there is a discipline factor to deal with. 

Although teething and separation anxiety may be the triggers of a sleep regression, the most difficult aspect to deal with is your child’s growing independence.

There are some things you can do in your daily routine in order to help ward off a sleep regression and deal with it more easily should it occur.

They Are:

As Well As…

And Finally,

Looking Ahead From Sleep Regression

No matter what the age or circumstances under which sleep regressions occur, it is important to remember that this is just a phase and not a permanent state of affairs. 

However you deal with them, regressions will determine as to whether your little one can return to sleeping well or not and as I have explained there are things you can do to make sure you come out of a regression with healthy sleeping habits safely re-established and intact.

Just Remember

Obviously, all these tips and recommendations are just that, tips and recommendations.

If you feel the need to rock your baby back to sleep then do so. 

Never do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, but always remember that a bad sleeping habit will need to be addressed at some point in order for you and your child to have healthy sleep routines.

Paula McLaren

Paul Mclaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the child care industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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