A restful night’s sleep is deeply and invaluably beneficial to our physical and mental health — sleep is when much of our physical and mental development occurs, and when our brains rest and recharge. This is why newborns sleep upwards of 16 hours a day when they are first born and why there is much debate on whether or not to wake a sleeping baby (sorry, we won’t settle that debate here).
But what happens when your baby goes from happily sleeping soundly on a schedule to unpredictably resisting sleep? The answer lies in something called sleep regression.
Sleep regression occurs anytime there is a distinct period in which your baby or toddler has an interruption in their normal sleep pattern, and it’s a phenomenon that baffles and often frustrates weary parents. The good news is that a regression is always temporary and almost always indicative of a milestone moment for your little one. Read on to learn more about why sleep regressions happen and what you can do to preserve your sleep.
Why does sleep regression occur?
To help get a better understanding of what sleep regression is and how it affects babies and toddlers, we spoke with Jade Wu, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep medicine specialist and parent of two little ones. According to Wu, sleep regression is normal and developmentally appropriate for many babies and toddlers at times.
“Babies experience sleep regression when they are going through developmental milestones. Rolling over, crawling, walking, talking, and potty training can all cause sleep regression to occur,” says Wu.
The human brain works hard to parse external cues throughout the day, identifying sights, sounds, flavors, and smells as new, threatening, or benign. For babies, many of these sensory experiences are firsts. For example, color hues start to form, blurs become full motions, and even muscles are forming as the body is building its strength to move. These developmental milestones — and the accompanying focus they require — can cause sensory overload that overstimulates babies and leads to sleep regression.
A great analogy is the notion of multitasking. Think back on all the times you tried, unsuccessfully, to multitask. Now, imagine how much more productive you would have been if you focused on one activity instead of three. Babies are not wired for multitasking (and adults aren’t either), so sleep regression may occur while your baby is focusing on learning a new skill.
However, developmental milestones are not the only cause of sleep regression. Baby growth spurts and distinct changes in your baby’s environment (starting daycare, teething, changes to routines, or staying awake for a longer period) can cause sleep regression to occur.
What are the signs of sleep regression?
Sleep regression does not look the same for every baby. So, signs of sleep regression can vary greatly from baby to baby and family to family. Generally, a key sign of sleep regression is a distinct change in your baby’s sleep patterns. If your little one normally sleeps in two-to-three-hour stretches at night and now is waking up every hour, it could be a sign of sleep regression. Nap time sleep disruptions can also be a sign of sleep regression. Is your baby missing their normal nap time, taking multiple cat naps instead of their longer midday nap, or requiring extra snuggles during nap time? All could be signs of sleep regression.
Other signs of sleep regression are changes in your baby’s mood because of less sleep. They may become fussy and irritable as they try to work through their sleep regression. Some babies may want more milk, to nurse more on-demand or cluster feed, or desire more physical contact to help them get over the hump. All are normal so long as they are not developing any signs of illness, such as fever or congestion, that could indicate a viral or bacterial infection. If you think there is more at play than disruptions to sleep, reach out to your baby’s pediatrician for guidance.
What ages does sleep regression occur?
While the signs of sleep regression may vary greatly, there is some consensus on when sleep regressions most often occur. Most sleep experts advise parents to be on the lookout for sleep regression when your baby reaches three to four months.
“During this time, your baby is experiencing a lot of development. They are starting to string together sensory events in their lives for the first time. In many ways it is not a sleep regression but a brain progression because of all the things your baby is learning about themselves and the world around them,” said Wu.
After that regression at three or four months, most experts notice sleep regression during other major developmental milestones: starting to talk, crawling, walking, and potty training. In other words, milestone moments in your baby’s motor and cognitive development can lead to sleep disruptions or regressions. Since these are important skills they will need as kids and adults, sleep regression is a small (albeit tiring) price to pay.
4-month sleep regression
This is when you can expect to see your baby’s first noticeable sleep regression as they roll over; build tummy, head, and neck strength; and adjust to the world around them. As this is typically the first regression and comes soon after developing some key sleep techniques, it can be the most challenging regression.
6-month sleep regression
As your baby starts to develop language and all its complexities, you may see sleep regressions again. This time, you have seen the signs and hopefully will have a plan of action. As a bonus, you get to hear your baby’s babbles as motivation to keep going!
9-month sleep regression
Just as we start to get comfortable, your baby starts crawling, rolling, and trying to rise in pursuit of ultimately walking. All these new physical skills might send your little one back into a bit of sleep regression.
12-month sleep regression
By this time your house is baby-proofed, and you are ready to witness and capture your baby’s first steps. This milestone is one of the sweetest to witness, and many parents ride this emotional high right through any sleep regression that may accompany it.
18-month sleep regression
Many parents report an 18-month sleep regression that comes with advanced language skills and some teething pain with molars. Babies' brains are developing at lightning speed as they observe the world and pick up new fine and gross motor skills.
Toddler sleep regression
After walking, being potty trained is one of the last “big” milestones a toddler will experience before they become full-blown kids. Potty training often comes with middle-of-the-night awakenings that are either spontaneous or planned as you night train. Cherish the accomplishment when it happens, release yourself from diapers forever (or until your next little one arrives), and be encouraged by the hope of future sleep not being as disrupted moving forward.
How long does a sleep regression last?
According to Wu, sleep regression can last “a couple of days to four to six weeks.” This range depends on your baby’s previous sleep pattern, their sleep associations, and how easily they can resume their sleep schedule. If your baby is showing no signs of distress (illness, not eating, lethargic, etc.) you should not be alarmed if their sleep regression rolls into a second week. However, if you notice longer-term sleep regression, that could be a sign of a larger disruption to your baby’s sleep patterns and you may want to incorporate sleep training while maintaining safe sleep recommendations.
What can you do during a sleep regression?
The first thing you want to do is take a deep breath. If this is your first baby, know and understand you are not alone as you navigate this new parenting frontier. Next, if you can, you want to prepare for sleep regression before it happens. This is where sleep associations come into play.
“Generally, a baby that has good sleep associations gets through their sleep regressions more easily,” notes Wu.
Sleep associations are the rituals we attach to sleep. For adults, this could be brushing your teeth, doing your nighttime skincare routine, journaling, and winding down with your phone on sleep mode. For babies this could be a nighttime routine that involves bath time, reading a bedtime book, dimming the lights in the room, and cracking the door upon leaving. If the goal is for your baby to facilitate sleep independently, you want to develop sleep associations that can be done without you being present. White noise machines, lullabies, humidifiers, and blackout curtains are all great examples of sleep associations that can be set up or put in place for the night.
“Nighttime rituals such as extra feedings (bottle or breast) and soothing may be what your baby needs to stop crying, but they will not encourage more independent sleep. If that is your goal, you may want to explore sleep training,” said Wu.
For some babies these actions may be overstimulating, making it harder for them to return to sleep unassisted. When examining what sleep associations you want to help foster, consider all caregivers. Will your little one attend daycare? Will they frequently be cared for by other caregivers? Are you only offering on-demand breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or a combination? This will affect your baby’s association with sleep.
After you establish sleep associations that will work for you and your baby’s needs, try your best to stick to those associations during sleep regression. There is a natural urge to change your behavior at the first sign of discomfort, but instead, you want to provide consistency to help your baby navigate through the sleep regression. During sleep regression is not the time to establish new rituals unless you are certain they will last even after your baby starts to return to regular sleep. Additionally, following general sleep recommendations can go a long way to reducing sleep regression stress.
- Keep your routine as consistent as possible. This includes sleep rituals, general timing, and environment.
- Limit stimulation after bedtime. This includes during nightly feedings and diaper changing. If you can keep the lights dim and reduce any excessive noises, you can help your baby resume sleep quicker.
- Don’t wait until your little one is sound asleep to put them in bed. Try putting your child to bed “drowsy, but awake.” This sleep association helps build independent sleeping behaviors.
- Don’t intervene right away unless you suspect extreme discomfort. If your baby wakes up fussy, play it out for a minute or two before you enter their room. Sometimes babies let out a good fuss, but your set sleep associations (noise machines, for example) help them get right back to sleep.
Sleep regression often hits parents right when you think you are finding your groove. This makes it especially hard to navigate, but you can find balance by setting up the best environment you can with the skills, knowledge, and resources you have. Everything that happens after that is luck of the draw. Some parents never experience sleep regression and other parents find themselves on sleep regression loops. The key is to keep the focus on the overall well-being of your baby, hold true to what is in your control, and release yourself of any guilt that can come if all your controls fail to get your baby’s sleep immediately back on track. Parents everywhere are rooting for you!