The Survival Guide to Baby Sleep Regression

The Survival Guide to Baby Sleep Regression

By the time your baby turns 4 months old, he or she starts to differentiate day from night and enjoy longer periods of sleep. However, every baby’s sleeping pattern is different. It’s important to know there are still those who seem to wake up all the time and have trouble sleeping through the night.

These unexpected midnight wakeup calls might actually be a result of a developmental leap called sleep regression. Despite the term, it’s actually a developmental phase all infants and young children have to go through. Sometimes, though, the crying and sudden waking periods can be too much for the parent to handle.

Fortunately, there are essential things you can do to manage this tricky phase in your child’s life. But first, it’s important to understand its causes and effects.

Here’s the survival guide to baby sleep regression.

Sleep Regression Explained: The Survival Guide Every Parent Should Know

  • What is A Sleep Regression?

Sleep regression refers to a period of time when a baby or toddler who has been sleeping well suddenly wakes up at night for no obvious reason. This phase can last for about one to four weeks which can totally throw new parents off guard.

But despite the word “regression,” there’s really no evidence to prove this period leads to major lapses in your baby’s sleep. In fact, sleep regression is simply a part of your infant’s normal development when he or she has a tendency to wake more at night. It’s really much closer to transitions and a developmental leap rather than regression when your baby starts to develop his or her own sleep cycle or patterns.

  • What are the Causes of Sleep Regression?

While, at first, there’s no apparent reason for your baby suddenly waking up at night, sleep regression is actually caused by a lot of factors. And it’s important to know these 6 causes in order for you to better understand it’s just a cycle you and your baby are perfectly capable of surviving and coming out the other end OK.

a. Physical Development

This is probably the most common reason why a baby would constantly wake up at night after a peaceful time of uninterrupted sleep.

As your baby learns how to crawl, walk, roll, sit and stand, the more likely he or she’s going to take a longer time to fall asleep as his or her body is overactive from all these developmental milestones. 

Furthermore, each mental leap or cognitive burst your little one experiences means greater awareness of one’s self and independence. However, this often comes with the feeling of insecurity which ultimately leads to difficulties separating from a parent and a constant need for reassurance at night.

b. Changes in Sleep Needs

During the first five years of his or her life, your baby’s sleep needs are bound to change regularly in order to keep up with his or her development. If you’re not able to adjust accordingly to your newborn’s needs, he or she will have a difficult time settling back to sleep. 

What might be a case of sleep regression could just be inconsistencies in his or her sleeping schedule. Fortunately, this can be easily resolved by being accommodating to your baby’s needs and adapting whenever necessary.

c. Travel

Once your baby reaches a certain age, he or she is already aware (and possibly wary!) of one’s surroundings. That’s why travelling can be quite hard for him or her. Also, babies who cannot self-settle struggle to cope with long car journeys and cry a lot.

Other newborns can perfectly adjust to this new environment but others need a lot of time and support in order to do so. This ultimately leads to difficulties settling into sleep when you get home.

d. Switching to a New Bed

As your baby grows older, he or she might not be able to fit into his or her baby crib. If he can easily touch the sides of the bassinet when he stretches his arms out then you need to move your infant into a bigger crib. 

However, just like travelling, a new bed is a foreign environment for your baby so he or she may feel uncomfortable to fall asleep easily to start with. For a toddler, though, this new change in his bedroom could have a completely different meaning. It can become his or her very own play area where he or she can freely bounce or jump around. Ultimately, the bigger space could stimulate your child which makes it harder for him or her to settle down for sleep.

Tip: Choose a crib that comes with safety railings as playing in the bed can sometimes lead to unwanted accidents.

e. Potty Training

This can also cause sleep regressions. For instance, potty training can teach your toddler awareness which makes him or her more likely to use the bathroom at night. Parents scrambling to assist their child every time he or she is in the bathroom is also a contributing factor. This makes your little one more dependent on you whenever he or she wants and needs something in the middle of the night.

f. Stress

Big life changes, such as the birth of a sibling, divorce of parents, first day at daycare, or moving homes, could be stressful for your baby. This tension would then reflect on the quality of sleep he or she would be getting. In short, the more stressful your little one can feel, the lesser the amount of sleep he or she can enjoy.

  • What is NOT a Cause of Sleep Regression?

Unfortunately, there are also a couple of factors that may look like causes of sleep regression but they are not. In fact, these behaviours tend to be a lot more serious and can even escalate over time when not properly treated.

a. Illness

A sudden change in your baby’s sleep behaviour (which is similar to sleep regression) can be caused by an underlying illness. It has a higher chance of happening when your little one’s waking behaviour is accompanied by pain-like crying and whimpering.

Fever is one common sickness your infant might get. Allergies are also common, from food sources (especially milk and eggs), their environment and the weather. Furthermore, seasonal allergies, called hay fever, can lead to snoring and sleep apnea, in which case you need to have your infant checked by a doctor.

Did You Know? Eczema is another contributing factor which can keep babies awake for long periods at night. This disease is characterised by inflamed and itchy skin that can further be aggravated by heat and synthetic fabrics.

b. Overtiredness

When your baby is past the point of being sleep-ready, he or she might be overtired which activates the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These two substances ultimately make it difficult for your newborn to fall asleep which can quickly lead to more missed sleep.

Overtiredness can simply look a lot like sleep regression but it’s far more serious. With no proper sleep, his or her condition can get a lot worse. As a parent, it’s a must to know the tell-tale signs of an overtired baby so you can effectively address the root causes of the problem. 

  • What Should a Parent Expect During a Sleep Regression?

With all these factors (and non-factors!) of sleep regression in mind, you might probably be wondering how these could affect your child’s overall behaviour. Aside from lack of sleep—of course—here are 4 more things he or she might experience during the period of sleep regression.

a. Increase in fussiness –  When your baby undergoes the period of transition, his or her body might find it unsettling. This feeling of uneasiness can lead to an increase in crankiness and fussiness.

b. Refusal in naps – During a sleep regression, your infant’s need for daytime sleep might change with age. As such, he or she might refuse a nap or two, especially when his or her body starts to only need two naps instead of the usual three or four naps.

c. Growth spurts – This is a natural phenomenon all babies experience. During this time, he or she may want to nurse more frequently. This ultimately means your little one would wake up every hour or so to ask for a feed. 

d. Clingy behaviour – As sleep regression in babies is often a result of milestone developments, he or she might be anxious or worried about the new changes in his or her body. This ultimately results in a clingy behaviour and constantly wanting to be held or carried.

  • When do Sleep Regressions Happen?

The period when sleep regressions (along with growth spurts and developmental milestones) can happen is different for every baby. For instance, if your little one does experience one phase of regression, it does not necessarily mean he or she would also undergo different stages of sleep regressions. He or she may experience this at multiple age periods or totally ignore it altogether—no matter how old your little one is. Having said all of these, here are the common ages when baby sleep regression can occur.

a. 4 Month Sleep Regression

This is the most common type of sleep regression and most babies undergo this phase in their lives.

During this stage, a four-month-old baby is experiencing major changes in his or her body. This includes the Circadian rhythm in which he or she starts to switch from REM (rapid eye movement) to non-REM sleep just like adults. What this large transition means for your little one is the fact that he or she might wake up more often at night (as adults normally do) but still doesn’t know how to properly fall back to sleep. At first, it might seem like a huge setback for your newborn’s sleeping pattern but it’s actually a big developmental milestone.

Another change your infant might also undergo during the 4-month sleep regression is growth spurts. This simply means he or she is often hungry which leads to frequent feeding and awake time in the middle of the night.

b. 8 Month Sleep Regression

At 8 months in, your baby would start to take great strides, literally—from learning how to crawl to pulling himself or herself up and even walking small steps one at a time. He or she would also begin to get acquainted with language and speech. Furthermore, he or she can start teething.

With all of these growths happening all at once, it would surely affect the amount of sleep your little one can enjoy. The ultimate result is frequent night wakings, resistance to sleep, shorter (and skipped!) naps, and a very cranky baby.

Tip: Since separation anxiety is also common during 8 month sleep regression, expect an extremely clingy behaviour from your baby. To pacify him or her, make sure to stick with a routine so your child can know what’s next.

c. 12 Month Sleep Regression

This type of baby sleep regression is not that common but should still be handled accordingly. It usually happens when your little one starts to take one nap instead of two.

Throughout the 12-month sleep regression, your baby might oppose taking his or her second nap and would only try to get by with just one. However, this transition is not actually healthy for his or her young age and is not supposed to happen until later at 15 months old. As such, it’s best to stick with two naps for a while especially if your baby is overtired. If resistance still persists, though, try putting your infant for one nap at noon in order to pacify him or her.

Aside from these nap adjustments, the 12-month sleep regression can also be caused by developmental milestones such as learning how to walk. Similar to crawling, your little one might resist sleep because he or she wants to practice his or her newfound skill. Fortunately, you can easily fix this habit by allowing your baby to practice during the morning instead of the afternoon.

d. 18 Month Sleep Regression

While not as prevalent, the 18-month baby sleep regression is probably the hardest for most parents. This is because you’re now handling a toddler who is capable of a lot of babbling, talking, and shouting.

At 18 months old, your young child has a very active brain development and could be very communicative of his or her wants and needs. Due to these activities, he or she may refuse rest, and eventually, experience difficulties in settling down for sleep. Having said that, these problems can be solved by developing a comforting bedtime routine where your toddler can feel safe.

e. 2 Year Sleep Regression

At 2 years old, your toddler’s awake time is significantly getting longer—from 16 hours of newborn sleep to only 12 hours. However, as he or she makes this transition, your little one might experience a disruption in his or her sleep. 

During the 2-year sleep regression, he or she also starts to go through big changes such as potty training and moving to a bigger bed. The birth of a new sibling can also disrupt his or her sleep cycle due to anxiety. Furthermore, your toddler would start experiencing real nightmares and night terrors. This ultimately leads to a very exhausting baby sleep regression.

  • How to Manage Your Baby’s Sleep Regression?

Now that you know the causes, effects, and stages of sleep regression, you’re probably wondering how you can solve the problem. However, before you get started, it’s important to know that sleep regression is a normal part of childhood development—no matter how challenging it may get. And while you cannot prevent it from happening, there’s a list of things you can do to make your and your baby’s lives so much easier. Read on to learn 6 tips that can help manage baby sleep regression and minimise its long-term effects.

a. Stick with a Bedtime Routine

As your child grows older, he or she starts to become aware of one’s surroundings and thus, tends to experience anxiety and stress. This ultimately keeps him awake at night. But while it may seem like your baby is resisting the bedtime routine you have previously set up for him or her, it’s best to stick with it.

Maintain the prior set of activities before bedtime and try to schedule sleeping periods at the same time every day. Typically, the schedule should go like this: feed, play, give a bath, then set your baby down for sleep. 

Overall, by sticking with a predictable bedtime routine, your little one would feel comfortable and safe enough to fall asleep with little to no assistance required.

b. Establish an Early Bedtime

When your baby suffers from sleep regression, he or she may experience difficulties settling down for rest. This can quickly become a cycle as the more overtired your baby becomes, the harder it is for him or her to fall asleep.

In order to solve such problems, it might be necessary to move your little one’s bedtime earlier. This would give him or her enough time to calm down and settle if he or she’s particularly cranky and irritated. The extra hours from an early bedtime routine would also help your baby catch up on quality sleep.

c. Offer Extra Nighttime Feedings

A part of every baby sleep regression is growth spurts. During this stage, expect a fussy behaviour than usual and the constant feeling of being hungry from your baby.

To temporarily pacify him or her, you can offer extra nighttime (and daytime) feedings as needed. However, remember that this phase is just temporary and your little one would eventually return to his or her usual feeding schedule.

d. Provide Love and Comfort as Needed

Sleep regression can cause a lot of stress for your baby. That’s why it’s more important than ever to provide love and comfort as needed.

So whenever your little one needs your presence, make sure to be there and shower him or her with kisses and hugs. You should also show your support whenever he or she starts to learn a new skill such as crawling, walking, and talking. It’s best to do this during the day, though, and opt for quiet activities (like reading) just before bedtime.

e. Avoid Making Bad Habits

Showing your love and support doesn’t mean spoiling your baby. 

You should avoid rocking him or her back to sleep as he or she can start to rely on your help in going back to sleep. This can ultimately become a bad habit that is hard to break. Instead, give your little one enough time to settle back on his or her own without your intervention. Your baby will then eventually realize that he or she can’t always get what he or she wants from you.

f. Don’t be Shy and Ask Help

If the situation escalates and is becoming unbearable each passing day, don’t be afraid and ashamed to ask for help.

Always remember that your health (whether physical or mental) is just as important too. For instance, if you can’t juggle household chores along with taking care of your baby, it might be best to enlist the help of a family member or a close friend. This would give you free time to catch up on some quality naps or sleep. For difficulties in balancing work and motherhood, asking for the support of your partner and switching roles would also tremendously help your case.

Ultimately, by taking care of yourself, you are much more capable of successfully managing baby sleep deprivation.

ALSO READ: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Baby Sleep Patterns

Sleep regression can be a difficult time for both you and your baby. It is a developmental phase when several night wakings, constant hunger, fussiness, and clingy behaviour all happens at the same time. This ultimately drives every parent mad especially after a prior successful bedtime routine that took weeks to establish. Fortunately, baby sleep regression is just a part of growing up and usually lasts for only one to four weeks.

Do you still struggle with baby sleep regression? You can consider enrolling your little one to the Nurture Sleep Program. For over 20 years, the baby sleep experts at Nurture Parenting have taught many families how to settle their newborns through a unique, personalized solution. Contact us today to get started!

Found this post helpful? Check our blog for more informative articles about baby sleep.

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Nurture Parenting's Karen Faulkner is a baby sleep and toddler expert who brings calm and sleep into families and gives parents their confidence back. Cerris Pty Ltd trading as Nurture Parenting - ABN 42 623 216 384 - Sydney, Australia

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