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Sleep Regression: What It Is and How to Cope

You breathe a sigh of relief when you discover that your newborn is finally sleeping through the night. Or at least sleeping long enough that you can catch up on your own much-needed z’s. But just when you thought your sleep schedule might return to normal, you’re thrown a curve ball.

Your baby starts waking up more often than normal and taking much longer to fall asleep. You try everything including rocking and singing to them to feeding and changing them but nothing seems to work. This period of disrupted sleep is known as sleep regression and as defeating as it may sound, it’s a normal part of a baby’s development. And, therefore, something that most parents learn to navigate. With a little assistance and lots of patience, you can handle your baby’s new, inconsistent sleep patterns and still get the quality sleep you need and deserve. It also helps to know that sleep regression in infants is short-lived. Before you know it, you’ll both be sleeping through the night again.

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What is Sleep Regression and Why Does It Happen?

Sleep regression is described as a period of time lasting between two and four weeks when a baby suddenly has trouble sleeping. This includes difficulty settling down at night or waking more frequently than normal during the night. During these awakenings, most babies may appear fussy and difficult to soothe. It may take longer than normal for them to fall back asleep. While this can be frustrating for sleep-deprived parents, it’s important to know that sleep regression is a normal, healthy part of a baby’s development. And it happens for a myriad of reasons.

In most cases, a combination of discomfort, restlessness, and even stress or anxiety can cause sleep regression. It can also happen at any age but generally occurs during a growth spurt. During growth spurts, baby’s become especially hungry, waking more often for feedings. Other common causes include:

  • Teething
  • Changes in routine (starting daycare, getting a new babysitter, etc.)
  • Growth spurts that involve reaching new developmental milestones
  • Traveling or seasonal time changes
  • Environmental changes (a new room, new crib, or move)
  • Sickness (ear infection, cold, fever)

Similar to adults, many external factors can interfere with your little one’s ability to fall and stay asleep. Unfortunately, your baby can’t tell you exactly what’s wrong or why they can’t sleep. You’ll need to be a bit of a detective to figure out exactly what’s wrong and make the appropriate adjustments and accommodations. 

Signs of Sleep Regression

The first step in determining why your little one isn’t sleeping is knowing the signs and symptoms of sleep regression. While these can vary drastically from one infant to another and may be caused by a plethora of factors, here are some of the most common signs that your baby is suffering from sleep regression. 

  • Increased fussiness or crankiness
  • Taking longer to settle down before bed and after nighttime feedings
  • Less frequent napping during the day or resistance to napping
  • Change in appetite (either more or less hungry)
  • Waking up more frequently during the night and for longer periods of time

As frustrating as these changes in your baby’s sleep patterns can be, it’s important to remember that they’re all signs that your little one is growing, developing, and changing. It’s an exciting time for both them and you. As they become more engaged and interested in the world around them, they’re more likely to interact with their surroundings and become more alert.

When Does Sleep Regression Occur?

Since all babies develop at their own pace, sleep regression can happen at any time. And not all sleep regression is caused by internal factors like growth spurts or increased hunger. External factors differ from one household to another and these may be the root cause of your infant’s sleep disturbances.

Still, as a general rule of thumb, you can expect your baby to encounter several rounds of sleep regression during their first year of life. Here are some milestones worth mentioning.

Three to Four Months

The 4-month sleep regression is arguably the most common and for some, the most dreaded. One reason is that at the four-month mark, most parents have established a somewhat normal sleep routine with their infant. Unfortunately teething, increased hunger, and excitement over newfound mobility can all cause your little one to become overly aroused, energetic, and irritable, leading to unwanted sleep disturbances. 

Six Months

Many babies experience a significant growth spurt at the 6-month mark. At this point, most little ones are capable of sleeping through the night without the need for a feeding or immediate diaper change. This is one reason that many parents attempt to sleep train their children after this period of growth and regression. 

Eight to Ten Months

Your little one is on the move! Most infnats are crawling and pulling themselves to stand using furniture around the eight month mark. Some babies are even walking before they hit their first birthday. While you might think that a more active baby equals a more tired baby, you’d be mistaken. Another common occurrence during this time is separation anxiety. Your little one becomes increasingly attached to you, which may cause them to wake during the night looking for you and for reassurance. This need for constant contact may also prevent your baby from taking their regularly scheduled afternoon naps. 

One Year

Wow, your baby is already one! Between the ages of 9 months and 12 months, your little one is gaining independence, becoming more mobile, and learning to explore the world around them. Many babies will take their first steps between 12 and 14 months, while some wait until 16 to 18 months. 

At what age your infant walks isn’t what’s at play here, though. What’s significant is the fact that any significant growth spurt is usually accompanied by some sleep difficulties. As your infant’s body undergoes major changes, so do their sleep habits. Some children need less sleep while others require more. Don’t be surprised if your baby’s first birthday involves cake, presents, and a little dose of sleep regression (sorry parents)!

Following your children’s first birthday, you’re still not completely out of the woods in terms of sleep regression. Some little ones will experience a few more sleep disturbances along the way around 18 and 24 months of age. These are usually triggered by nightmares or night terrors, increased separation anxiety, toddler teething, and newfound fears of the dark, monsters, and other common worries.

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Tips for Handling Sleep Regression

Don’t let the above information get you too disheartened. Every parent deals with sleep regression at one time or another. And with some patience and the right techniques in place, you can make it a short-lived and less stressful experience. 

Here are a few tips for handling sleep regression at any age.

Identify Your Baby’s Sleep Cues

Recognizing your baby’s sleep cues means getting them to sleep when they need it most and preventing them from becoming overtired. Rubbing of the eyes, yawning, fussiness, and disinterest in people and things are all signs that your little one is ready for a nap or bedtime. If possible, act quickly and get your baby to sleep as soon as possible. Some infants have a very small window of time between sleepiness and restlessness. The sooner you can recognize the cues that your baby is ready for the bed, the better.

Create a Consistent Bedtime Routine

One of the most important factors when establishing healthy sleep patterns is creating a routine. This holds true for both adults and children, including babies. Your little one thrives on routine. Knowing when to eat, sleep, and play helps build structure and stability. It also makes your infant feel safe and secure. 

Try performing the same routine behaviors before bedtime each night, in the same order. For example, dinner followed by a bath then storytime, and cuddles before tucking them in. As your little one’s body grows and develops, they’ll undergo countless changes. That’s why maintaining these consistent sleep routines is so important. Following a familiar schedule gives your baby additional comfort and support as they adjust to the changes within them and in their environment. 

Evaluate your Own Routine 

Your baby’s routine isn’t the only one that matters. It’s important to adjust your own schedule as much as possible to accommodate your little one’s needs. This means working around their naps, playtime, and feedings. Try not to deviate from the schedule they’ve become familiar with. While this isn’t always possible, the more consistent your little one’s daily routine is, the better they’ll sleep which, in turn, means more sleep for you!

Encourage Daytime Naps, Don’t Force Them

Naps are an important part of a growing infant’s life. It’s during naptime that your little one’s brain and body rest, recover, and process all the major changes going on inside and around them. While you may think withholding naps would make your little one more tired at night, this isn’t true and it could actually be detrimental to their health. It can also cause your infant to become overtired, causing increased fussiness and frustration for you both. On the other hand, you don’t want to force your baby to nap during the day if they’re resisting. Make nap times comfortable, soothing, and available to your infant. Even if they don’t fall asleep, some quiet time in their crib still gives them a chance to rest and practice being away from you.

Provide Plenty of Daytime Stimulation and Attention 

It’s no secret that physical activity and stimulation are important parts of a baby’s development. But providing your infant with plenty of interaction and showering them with love and affection during the day can actually support a better night’s sleep for you both.

If your infant is having trouble falling asleep because they’re too busy rolling around in their crib or pulling themselves up to a standing position, it might mean they need more stimulation during the day. Incorporate plenty of playtime activities into their schedule. Give them ample time to roll, crawl, and explore their environment. Not only will this cut down on their activity levels at night but it’ll also make them more tired and ready for sleep. 

For older babies struggling with separation anxiety, one way to quell these fears and eliminate your own guilt is by giving your little one plenty of attention and snuggles during the day – especially right before bed. Doing so can help your baby feel more secure, loved, and content, which promotes better, deeper sleep. 

Eliminate Distractions at Bedtime

Children are naturally curious, especially as they grow and start to discover how amazing the world around them truly is. The more distractions your little one has at night, the more difficult it’ll be to get them to sleep. This is also true during nighttime feedings and awakenings. Avoid turning on bright lights (including the television) or bringing your baby into the kitchen or living room. All of these behaviors may signal your infant that it’s time to be awake and alert. Instead, keep the room dark and quiet. If you’re feeding your baby, do so quickly and efficienelty without too much excitement. Then, promptly return your little one to their crib and leave. This will prevent them from becoming overly aroused or attached. 

Give Your Baby Time to Self Soothe

Although it can be difficult, it’s important not to run to your little one every time cry. Wait a few minutes to see if they settle down before tending to them. Of course, if your little one is in distress or has been crying for several minutes, they require your attention. Responding to them helps establish feelings of safety and security. On the other hand, giving your baby a few moments to fuss without rushing to their side gives them the opportunity to self-soothe and is one of the first ways to start establishing independence. 

When you do enter your little one’s room, keep your interactions short and simple. Don’t pick them up right away but, instead, pat their head or tummy or touch their cheek and offer a few comforting words before exiting the room. If they continue to cry, repeat this process. If they need feeding or changing, see the suggestions above. Interacting too much with your baby during the night could result in them waking simply to get your attention.

Be Flexible

As important as routines and schedules are in raising an infant and avoiding sleep regression, sometimes, things simply don’t go as planned. And when they don’t, you need to adjust. Your infant can feel if you get frustrated or frazzled, making it increasingly difficult for them to fall asleep. Ironically enough, your little one may also decide to sleep at inopportune times and places. For example, in their swing, during a car ride, or while walking them in the stroller. If they’re sleeping, let them sleep. But just because a stroll around the block worked today, it doesn’t mean the same technique will lull them to sleep the next day so it’s important to go with the flow and work off your baby’s cues and changing needs.

Preventing and Treating Sleep Regression

Truth be told, there’s no way to prevent sleep regression. Or even to predict it. While there are loose guidelines surrounding when your infant may hit a growth spurt or experience changes in their sleep patterns, there’s no way to prevent these changes from happening. All you can do is continue to offer your baby love, support, and consistency. Sleep regression is a natural part of both infancy and toddlerhood. However, establishing a healthy sleep routine and schedule will give your little one something to rely on when everything else in their little world seems to be changing.

And remember, sleep regression won’t last forever. Sleep disturbances in infants usually settle down within a few weeks as you establish a new “normal” routine. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask family and friends for help if your own sleep deprivation is starting to take its toll. You won’t be able to give your baby the support and love they need if you’re struggling to stay awake and alert yourself. 

If your child’s sleep troubles go on for too long (6 weeks or longer), you may want to consult with your pediatrician. You can also contact them with any questions or concerns that arise over the course of a growth spurt or sleep regression episode. Many pediatricians can offer tips and techniques for sleep training your little one as well.

This Too Shall Pass

Parenthood is a roller coaster of emotions. While most are amazing, sleep regression is one of the more unpleasant but short-lived experiences facing new parents. Just when you think you have your little one’s sleep schedule figured out, a growth spurt or environmental change throws them for a loop and throws your entire sleep routine into chaos. When this happens, it’s important to stay calm and patient and implement some of the tips and techniques above. Sleep regression will usually ease within a few weeks and your baby will return to the happy, giggling bundle of joy you brought home on day one.

Parents of newborns need to practice self-care and their own healthy sleep habits to ensure they have the patience and stamina to navigate these difficult times. An online sleep therapy program like Somnus Therapy can help offer advice, support, and resources for achieving quality sleep, regardless of what obstacles stand in your way. Click here to get started today.

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