The What, Why. When and How of Sleep Regressions

What Are Sleep Regressions?

We often make the mistake of thinking that baby sleep is linear. By that, I mean the presumption that it starts off really bad when you have a newborn and then it gets progressively better as the baby gets older, until at some point it becomes ‘good’ like that of an adult. The trouble is, life doesn’t work like that. Baby sleep is very up and down. I liken it to a rollercoaster (see this article). There are peaks, when you feel rested and then lots of big dips, when it takes a nosedive, just as you begin to think you have the whole sleep thing sorted. What often surprises parents is to learn that, according to scientific research, the best sleep in the first year happens at around 3-4 months and that at 9 months, sleep is usually significantly worse than it was at 3 months. This really goes against the whole idea of it getting better as the baby grows. The other thing that’s important to remember is that even adults don’t sleep particularly well. We often wake at night and our sleep gets disturbed by different things too. Why would babies be any different?

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Why Do Sleep Regressions Happen?

There are so many reasons for sleep regressions, including: illness, pain, teething, learning a new skill (such as rolling over, or learning to crawl), starting solids (many think solid food helps sleep, but actually the huge change usually means it gets worse for a bit after solids are introduced), separation anxiety, disruption because of holidays, moving house, mum going back to work. Really, the reasons are endless – just like adults!

When Do Sleep Regressions Most Commonly Happen? 

Babies usually sleep ‘well’ in the first few days after birth and this really lulls parents into a false sense of security. Often they are tired from the birth and transition into the world, but they tend to wake up towards the end of the first week and sleep can often become more challenging. The other thing to keep in mind here is the huge transition babies make from being inside the womb (where it’s always dark, they are ‘held’ constantly, it’s warm, they are never hungry or cold and there’s always reassuring sounds). Post birth they spend a significant time on their own when parents “try to put them down”, experience hunger, cold, thirst, pain etc…it’s a crazy difference and understandably one that impacts their sleep.

Around four months is a very common time for sleep to regress. There is no one specific reason for this, however I always think that babies of this age seem to cope with a great deal of frustration on a daily basis. They are much more aware and alert, however their control over their own bodies are still quite poor. This inability to get hold of a toy they want, or to move towards you, or out of an uncomfortable positive is very frustrating and seems to cause a negative impact on their sleep. In addition, it won’t be long until they gain these movement skills and that acquisition can often disrupt sleep.

The most common age for poor sleep in the first year is between 8 and 10 months. At this age, many think babies should be able to sleep through the night and consider it problematic if babies are still having night feeds. According to scientific research however, most babies in this age bracket are waking regularly throughout the night and many still require several milk feeds. In part, this is caused by separation anxiety, where the baby understands that you are they are individual beings, but has no concept of time. This means that every time you leave the room, they feel abandoned and scared that you will never return. Sadly this often coincides with the end of maternity leave and mothers returning back to work, which can cause more issues because of the separation in the daytime and the baby learning how to cope in daycare. Finally, this is also a common age for teething. Basically, if you have an 8, 9 or 10 month old. Don’t expect much sleep!

No, Your Baby Should NOT be Sleeping Through the Night by 12 Months!

Do Toddlers and Older Children Have Sleep Regressions? 

Sadly, yes! There are three common stages, rather than specific ages, that toddler and preschooler sleep regresses; when they potty train, when they start preschool or nursery and when a new baby sibling arrives. All of these disturb the child’s status quo, can leave them feeling anxious and upset and tend to disrupt regular bedtime routines. All recipes for a disturbed night’s sleep. Beyond this, sleep regressions continue to happen all the way through to, and including, adulthood. Commonly anything that disrupts the regular daily routine, or leaves the child (or adult!) in pain, scared and stressed has the potential to negatively impact sleep, such as holidays, moving house, illness, or a change in family dynamics.

How Do You Cope With a Sleep Regression? 

The most important things that parents can do when their child’s sleep is regressing are:

1. Realise that it is normal, remember – sleep is a rollercoaster, not a nice straight upwards line. Regressions are almost always NOT the fault of the parents and anything they have or have not done.

2. If you can, be patient. Most sleep regressions will pass naturally, without you doing anything. Usually they last from between 2 and 8 weeks.

3. Try to not make any extra changes. A lot of parents panic when sleep regresses and start trying to change things up, changing bedtime routines, buying new sleep gadgets and so on. However this is the worst thing you can do. The key is keeping things the same and not changing anything. This provides the stability that they so desperately need.

4. Be easy on yourself. Sleep regressions are common and normal and they will pass without you needing to do anything, but you need to take care of yourself while they run their course. Lighten up on the housework, buy some freezer meals or get a takeaway, get some early nights in and keep reminding yourself “this too will pass”.

For more on sleep during the first five years of life, check out my Gentle Sleep Book

Sarah

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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