Sleep Regression: Why It Happens And How To Survive It

By  Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH | Updated - 22 February 2021

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 nap times.

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 swimmingly and your baby was sleeping well, they start to sleep for shorter periods again and demand to be fed.

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 are:

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 4 month sleep regression although this may occur as early as 8 weeks or as late as 5 months.

8-10 months

This 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

Regression in toddlers is most commonly attributed to your toddlers new found independence.

Why?

Most sleep regressions coincide with certain developmental milestones being reached, 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 it lasts and your prime objective is 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 in tact as much as possible. Although you may revert to using some of your old methods like rocking your baby to sleep in desperation to get some sleep, the key is to not let these become habit forming 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 day time 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 kilter completely. On our return home however things thankfully got back to normal.

Some may say that this type of disruption in a sleep patterns is not a true regression, but for me drastic change in the way your baby sleeps is a regression. A period of illness or teething can cause a sleep regression and it can take time to re establish good sleeping habits if your baby or young child has been unwell.

4 months

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 night time 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.

Sleep regression Baby Tummy Time 4 Months

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.

Another reason for your little one not sleeping at this age may be because they are needing more to eat and are on the cusp of weaning, so it is important to make sure that they are having enough to eat during the day with full and regular feeds.

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 re settle. This is a bad sleep association so try and re settle them without a feed. You may wish to introduce a dummy at this stage should it be the only way your baby will re settle. However, bear in mind that a baby under 5 months is not able to put a dummy back in it's 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 life saver.

In any case, when your baby wakes in the night do not dash out of bed immediately. Wait to see if they can re settle 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 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 longer period without a nappy change they can do so now and 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 day time 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 bed times not just now but throughout their childhood. So follow the bath, bottle, book or lullaby then bed routine. 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.

And...

  • Making sure your little one has enough nap time during the day and is not becoming over tired. An overtired baby can become extremely distraught and difficult to settle without rocking back to sleep, so look out for sleep cues to avoid over tiredness. This may mean that you have to adjust your day time 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 day time naps will lead to better night time sleep. Alternatively some babies may resist day time 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.
4 months sleep regression baby

8-10 months

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 day time 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. When moving your baby to a new room or when their is a change in location as with going on holiday, if you have established good sleep associations keeping them in place will provide some continuity. 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 you 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 on when and if they develop a sleep regression.

If sleep regression happens at this age you should:

  • Maintain a consistent nap and bedtime routine. Be sure that you wind down the mood at the end of the day and follow the bath, book and bed routine. If your baby has been good at napping on the go and in different locations but now is not doing so, you may need to make sure at least one good nap is taken at home in their cot and darkened room just while the sleep regression lasts.
  • Continue to encourage self settling. If you have not done so already encouraging self settling will help your baby go back to sleep without your help and will make it easier for you to settle your baby at night should they wake. Whilst during a sleep regression your baby may resist self settling, you may be able to get away with gentle patting and soothing with shushing or a lullaby, as opposed to having to pace the room or rocking them back to sleep.
  • Only rock baby back to sleep as a last resort as this is a bad sleep association that will have to be weaned off later.

Don't forget

  • Use a white noise machine at night. White noise machines are very useful once your baby reaches an age when they are likely to be disturbed by night time noises. It is also a great sleep time cue as your baby will associate the noise with it being time to sleep.
  • Ensure your baby is comfortable when they go to sleep i.e clean nappy, full tummy and put them in a sleeping bag and ensure the room is darkened and at the correct temperature. All these things will encourage them to stay asleep.
  • Watch for sleepiness cues and avoid letting your baby become overtired. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that if you don't let your baby nap for too long during the day that they will sleep better at night. Over tiredness will just make things worse.
  • Remember your baby has just become mobile so naps in the day are really important as they use more energy and can become easily over tired.
  • Be aware your baby may be experiencing separation anxiety. This is very common at this age and when your baby wakes and you are not there they will just be missing your presence. It is important that they know you are not far away and that you will return. So go back at regular intervals to re settle, but always try to avoid picking them up for prolonged periods or rocking to sleep.
  • Remember this is only a phase. Regressions are tough and may seem endless, but always bear in mind that if you can make it through this phase by applying some of these tips and suggestions you have more chance of coming out the other side with a healthy sleep routine restored and intact. The key is to always keep in mind that you wish to return to healthy sleeping habits and to not let a sleep regression overturn all your hard work to date.

18 months

Sleep regressions at this age is 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 an 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 new found 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.

Sleep Regression 18 Months Stubborn Toddler

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 resolve 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:

  • Staying calm in the face of tantrums.
  • Keeping to the regular and established bedtime routine.
  • Not being being tempted to change nap and bedtimes if your toddler shows resistance. Over tiredness can lead to more tantrums.
  • Providing opportunities for your toddler to feel independent during the day and at bed time. For example you could offer them a choice of two different pyjamas to wear at bedtime or a choice of bedtime book. Do not offer too many choices at this age. They can really only manage to choose between 2 items.

As well as

  • Offering opportunities through play during the day where they can test out their new found independence will help them accept your non negotiation over bedtime as a boundary that can not be shaken.
  • Calmly helping them make a decision if they are dithering by gently suggesting which book they might like or which coloured pyjamas they might prefer.
  • Sticking with a decision once it has been made.
  • Insisting on a quiet time after lunch even if your toddler does not want to nap. A quiet time will ensure that your toddler slows down and will help to prevent them getting overtired. Most 18 month old children will fall asleep if left in a quiet room with some books to look at.
  • Avoiding over stimulating games at the end of the day. This time of day should be down time, so follow the bath, book and bed routine consistently.

And finally,

  • Limit screen time. If you are allowing your child to have screen time at this age it should be strictly monitored and limited. An overstimulated brain from too much screen time is more likely to resist sleep so avoiding the use of screens close to bedtime is a must.
  • Avoiding major changes in routine or introducing new challenges such as potty training or moving into a bed from a crib. However, either of these can themselves trigger sleep regression.
  • Go back to your tried and tested sleep training methods to reinforce that nighttime is for sleeping. Keep interactions in the night low key . Do not engage in long explanations as to why they should stay in their cot. Make it very clear that you are not staying and that they are not going to be getting up. Return and re settle as often as you need to. This is really a case of you remembering that this will not last for ever and that if you persist, in the long run you will emerge from the sleep regression with healthy sleep habits intact. Bad habits formed during this phase will last a lot longer than the sleep regression itself.
  • Remember that toddlers will try to see how much they can get away with. Of course they are going to want to spend more time with you and not go to bed when asked, but you need to stay calm, resolute and loving during this time. There are plenty of opportunities during the day when you can let them enjoy their new found independence, but allowing them to dictate nap and bedtimes is not one of them.

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.

Sleep Regression Looking Ahead
Teething to Tantrums Author

Paula Mclaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare 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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