Was your baby sleeping peacefully, and then out of the blue, is now up at all hours crying? The bedtime routine and self-soothing techniques were mastered. You fed and changed as usual. So why then, suddenly, is your peaceful baby now a constant, fussy alarm in the middle of the night? If you’re confused, you’re not alone.
This is a little something called a “sleep regression”. The good news is, it’s completely normal, only temporary, and not your fault! The bad news is there’s little you can do to prevent it.
If you’re exhausted, frustrated, and want to learn more about WHAT a sleep regression is, WHY it happens, WHEN it will end, or HOW to help, we’ve compiled some tips for getting through it.
What is a sleep regression?
A baby sleep regression is a completely normal (yet discouraging) period of time when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well (or at least well enough) experiences suddenly poor sleep. Sleep regressions are typically characterized by shorter naps, extreme fussiness at nap or bedtime, fighting sleep, and frequent waking at night. Parents are often completely caught off guard, and it can be a very exhausting and frustrating hurdle.
These sleep altering regressions happen when a baby passes through a major developmental stage, like learning how to flip over, crawl or pull up. Because sleep regressions are a completely normal result of your child’s development, they often occur at predictable times during your little one’s first year. You can distinguish a regression from other sleep disturbances based on when it happens, how long it lasts, and whether there are any other issues.
When does sleep regression happen and why?
Just because regressions happen to some babies, doesn’t mean they’ll happen to yours at the same times. Every baby is different. However, there are still common ages when most babies or toddlers go through a sleep regression. Some common baby sleep regression ages include 4 months, 6 months, 8 months, 12 months, and 2 years. Sleep changes happen simply because of growth spurts, teething or reaching new milestones.
Experts say sleep regressions usually happen for 2 reasons: a developmental leap or a shift in nap schedule or sleep needs.
How long does sleep regression last?
While it might feel like that baby sleep regression is lasting forever, it’s only temporary and will usually last anywhere from two to six weeks. Your baby’s sleep patterns will eventually return to normal.
6 weeks sleep regression
For most 6-week-olds, or newborns in general, sleep is already not very consistent, but more and more parents have experienced what appears to be a 6-week-old baby sleep regression. Most babies go through a pretty big growth spurt around this age. That means they’re fussier and waking more due to hunger.
Most babies at this stage are also experiencing something called “the peak of fussiness”. By 6 weeks of age, most babies are growing out of their drowsy newborn state and are starting to notice the world. The sights, sounds, and smells can be quite overwhelming, and the overstimulation can really wear them out, causing overtiredness and increased fussiness.
The 6-week sleep regression can last anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks. Just keep feeding on demand, and you’ll pull through. . . just in time for the 4 month regression. ;)
3 to 4 months sleep regression
The dreaded 4 month sleep regression is often the hardest for parents because it's commonly the first. The sleep changes that happen at 4 months are going to stay for a longer time. Your baby is ditching their newborn sleep patterns and sleeping more like an adult. That means frequent night waking (and lots of fussing) along with shortened naps.
At 4-months, there are several developmental culprits that may be causing your baby’s sleep regression:
- Trying to master rolling or flipping over
- More aware of surroundings
- Growth spurt is increasing hunger
- Pain from teething
6 Month Sleep Regression
While sleep regressions are more common at 4 months and 8 months, the 6 month baby sleep regression is not unusual. At 6 months babies are learning new motor skills and starting to babble, so these new experiences might leave them more interested in staying awake.
Fussing later in the night for no apparent reason is common. Just keep in mind that it’s normal for 6-month-old infants to wake in the night and then drop back to sleep shortly after. Their curiosity and new learned skills are quite the distraction.
Reasons behind the 6 month sleep regression may include:
- Rolling over
- Separation anxiety
- Tooth eruption
8 to 10 Months Sleep Regression
Shifting nap schedules and changing sleep needs are common factors in the 8 month sleep regression. Eight-month-olds are starting to stay awake for longer stretches during the day. As they transition into a two-a-day nap schedule, and drop their third nap, it can throw off their night sleep.
The 8 month sleep regression is also due to the developmental milestones that are happening around 8 months, 9 months, and 10 months. During this age range, many babies are physically learning to scoot, crawl, and pull themselves up. There is a lot of brain development happening at this age as well. Their language skills are expanding and they understand more and more of what you’re saying. These mental leaps can cause sleep disturbances as your baby tries out new skills or simply has a busy mind.
Finally, you can’t forget that babies are constantly growing their mouth full of teeth, so most babies are cutting at least a few teeth during this season. This pain and annoyance can cause more night waking, shorter (or even skipped) naps, and a very cranky baby.
Reasons behind the 8 to 10 month sleep regression may include:
- Changing sleep needs
- Crawling / scooting
- Language skills
12 Months Sleep Regression
The 12 month sleep regression has a lot to do with naps. You might find that your baby suddenly starts refusing their second nap and tries to get by with just one nap. Many parents assume that this is a normal nap transition and that their little one is ready for just one nap a day. However, most toddlers really aren’t ready to transition to just one nap a day until about 15-18 months old, on average. It’s better to treat it as a phase for a few weeks to make sure.
One-year-olds are also learning how to maneuver their body in different ways and may be talking up a storm. The excitement of new discoveries may leave them feeling fidgety and wanting to practice these new skills at all hours of the night.
Developmental milestones that interfere with sleep at this age include:
- Walking / first steps
- Talking / first words or more words
- Night fright / nightmares & expanding imaginations
- Changes in daytime sleep patterns / ditching the morning nap
Toddler Sleep Regression (18 to 24 months)
Hang in there, parents. The toddler sleep regression comes next, and it’s a doozie. Once your baby becomes a walking, talking, tantrum-throwing toddler, their sleep regression has a lot to do with their new-found independence. They start to form opinions and express those opinions by shouting “NO!” in defiance. Separation anxiety is also common and can cause distress when you leave at nap time, or walk out of the room at bedtime.
Teething, yet again, is also a factor at 18 months – toddlers are often cutting molars around this time, and those are big and painful!
There are many milestones at 2 years old, and because of this, there are a variety of factors that can cause sleep problems for a 2 year old. Their awake time is growing longer, but as they make that transition, it can disrupt sleep. They’re likely going through big life transitions, like potty training and transitioning to a big-kid bed, or maybe even getting a new sibling! And for many toddlers, having very real nightmares (or even night terrors) is common. All of this can lead to a very exhausting sleep regression around 2 years old.
Reasons behind the 18 month sleep regression to 24 month sleep regression may include:
- Independence / resistance
- Separation anxiety
- Teething / cutting molars
- Longer awake times / changing sleep schedule
- Potty training
- Big-kid bed transition
- New sibling
- Night terrors
Tips to help you survive a sleep regression
You may be reading this wondering, “what can be done about this regression we’re going through?” Now that you know what a sleep regression is, and why and when it happens, you’ll need to prepare for how to handle these dreaded sleep setbacks when they happen.
Try to remember that most of these sleep “regressions” are actually signs of developmental “progression”. Your baby or toddler is growing and changing, and this is a good thing! Some of their developmental transitions will be permanent. Just be sure to focus on helping your baby learn to fall asleep without help from you.
You don’t need to change your whole routine. The best course of action during a sleep regression is to continue to follow whatever sleep training method and routine you used before. Fortunately, baby sleep regressions are usually temporary.
Follow these sleep regression tips, and you’ll all be sleeping better in no time:
- Watch out for baby sleep cues (like rubbing eyes, fussiness, yawning), so you can get them to bed before they're overtired.
- Be consistent with routines and nap schedules; bath, book, sleep sack, lullabies, etc.
- Ensure your baby is getting enough sleep during the day. Overtired babies have more trouble sleeping at night.
- For sudden crying in the middle of the night, give them a few minutes to fuss before you respond; they may self-soothe back to sleep.
- It’s okay to snuggle, rock, or nurse your baby to sleep if that has been successful for you. Just know it may take longer for them to settle, and it’s only an issue if you don’t want to keep doing it. Comfort them but avoid creating bad habits. Laying them down drowsy but awake can go a long way in helping them learn to self-soothe on their own.
- Consider sleep training if your baby is at least 4 to 6 months old. Give it at least two weeks to see if it’s working.
- For stress, life changes or separation anxiety, give your baby or toddler extra attention during the day and especially before bedtime to help him or her feel more secure at night.
- Your presence in the room may be all they need. Simply sit in a rocking chair, sit on the floor, or stand by the door as they drift off to sleep.
- If previously using the cry-it-out method to sleep train your baby, be aware that it may take your little one longer than usual to calm down during this time. You may need to respond to your baby and step in to provide support for your baby’s separation anxiety. A pat on their head or tummy may be all they need to feel comforted and reassured.
- Be sure your baby’s basic needs are met. Change their diaper, ensure their tummy is full, and use lightly weighted sleepwear appropriate for the room temperature. Woolino sleep bags are the perfect temperature regulating option for safe sleep year-round.
- Create an optimal sleep environment. Use soothing tools or sleep cues like sleep sacks, music, a white noise machine, or blackout curtains to help your little one understand it’s time for sleep.
- These regressions can lead to missed sleep, which can lead to overtiredness, which can lead to more missed sleep. If you notice your baby is tired during the day, alter your sleep schedule to help make up for the lost sleep with a little more naptime, or offer an earlier bedtime if necessary.
- Don’t be afraid to feed as much as needed, especially during those growth spurt stages. An extra nighttime feeding (or even daytime feeding) here and there may be helpful in curbing the hunger that’s keeping them up.
- Don’t forget about your own sleep needs. Ask for help and lean on your partner. You may still lose a lot of sleep during these rough patches, but at least try to take turns with your partner when it comes to soothing throughout the night.
Sleep regressions are exhausting while you’re going through them. But they do end. Keep your cool and try not to get too stressed about them. It’s important to remember that this is just a growth spurt for your baby, and your schedule will normalize again.