Who knew that two little words could strike such terror into the hearts of parents everywhere?
It seems like your beautiful new baby just started to sleep through the night when…
Suddenly he won’t sleep longer than 30 minutes at a time no matter what you try. Sleep regressions are a fact of life, but they don’t have to be the end of the world. With the right attitude and approach, there are some pretty simple solutions to sleep regression problems.
What is a sleep regression?
In the first five years of your child’s existence, he’s learning and developing at rates unparalleled with the rest of his life. One day he is a blobby (but beautiful!) baby, and the next day, he’s tying his shoes and sounding out simple words. It really is incredible!
However, with all of that learning, comes some physiological consequences – one of which is the dreaded sleep regression.
Even though most of your baby’s learning occurs during the daytime hours, his brain can’t seem to shut off – even during the hours when it should be sleeping. Instead of fully resting, your baby’s brain is growing and changing and stretching and mulling over all of the new and exciting information it learned that day.
All of this change can cause your baby’s sleep patterns to shift around, making their daytime and nighttime behavior unpredictable and frustrating. Luckily, sleep regressions usually last less than a month.
What causes sleep regressions?
Your child may experience a sleep regression for a variety of reasons, so if you think you’ve hit one, take a moment to think about the recent changes in his life. Some possible changes include:
- Cognitive: Language skills, spatial awareness, social skills
- Physical: Rolling over, crawling, walking, teething
- Environmental: New home, new sibling, new animals in the home, new school
- Unnecessary Parental Intervention: (More on that later)
When do sleep regressions hit?
The most common cause of a sleep regression is your child hitting a developmental or cognitive milestone. Not all babies go through all of the sleep regressions, but the chances are good that every baby will go through at least one. Always remember that every child is different, but for the most part, if a baby is going to have a sleep regression caused by developmental changes, it will happen around these ages (give or take a month):
- 4-Months: This is probably the most common of all child sleep regressions because children around this age start to regulate their sleep cycles. The body suddenly starts developing a circadian rhythm, and with that comes the production of a new hormone: melatonin. Not only that, but your baby’s body is starting to sleep differently than it did as a newborn baby. Before four months, your newborn had two sleep states: REM (dream) sleep and non-REM (deep) sleep. Around four months, that non-REM sleep gets broken down into several more chunks where your baby slowly falls in and out of deep sleep instead of falling asleep at the drop of a hat. These new transitional phases make it easier to wake up and harder to go back to sleep. Additionally, your baby might be getting his first tooth or trying to roll over – two fairly significant developmental and physical milestones.
- 6-Months: This baby sleep regression usually accompanies such milestones as crawling, teething, and starting solid foods.
- 8-Months: Crawling, pulling up, cruising along furniture, and foregoing a nap could cause the 8-month sleep regression. It could also be because your baby’s brain learns more words every day and is starting to understand you better.
- 12-Month: The 12-month sleep regression is another big one, but it doesn’t usually last long. Major milestones that might cause this sleep regression include talking, walking, teething, and more complex emotional and physical awareness than ever before.
- 18-Month: The 18-month sleep regression is a little different than the ones you’ve previously experienced. Your toddler suddenly has a lot of opinions about bedtime and isn’t shy about vocalizing them. There may be bartering, a lot of “NO, MAMA!” and even attempted jailbreak from the crib.
- 36-Month: Just when you thought you were in the clear, suddenly sleep becomes a struggle again. This toddler sleep regression is often caused by major developmental milestones like language skills and independence, as well as other changes such as dropping the last nap and attending preschool.
Unnecessary Parental Intervention
Unfortunately, sometimes parents unnecessarily insert themselves into the sleep routine during a sleep regression, which can prolong things. We get it – you’re tired, the baby’s tired – and rocking him to sleep worked before, so why not do it for just a couple more days until things settle down again?
The problem with helping your baby fall asleep again is that, most likely, he very much prefers your help to doing it on his own. Who wouldn’t want an extra feeding, some rocking, and a warm body to cuddle up next to? But once you start helping your child get to sleep again, he’s going to want that crutch more than ever, and he probably won’t give it up easily.
Just remember: any habit you introduce during a sleep regression will need to be broken eventually. Do you remember when you stopped doing X, Y, Z the first time – how hard that was? By regressing yourself during your child’s sleep regression, you are setting things up to be harder and take longer than they otherwise would.
What can parents do during a sleep regression?
First, you need to figure out what you’re willing to do. Are you ok with a little bit of crying, or would you prefer fewer tears? Whatever your goals, you need to stick to them. Your baby will pick up on a wishy-washy sleep routine and will probably capitalize on every moment of weakness.
We aren’t saying that you need to abandon your baby during a tough sleep regression. There is still plenty of time during the day for cuddles, snuggles, books, and songs, but don’t let old sleep habits creep back into your routine in an attempt to make sleep come faster. Hovering and helping too much during the time when your baby needs to put himself to sleep can make him unlearn other positive sleep habits you’ve worked so hard on. So what can you do?
Differentiate Between Wants and Needs
This is probably the most important thing you can do to keep your peace of mind during a sleep regression. If your baby is hungry, feed him. Thirsty? Give him a drink. Cold or hot? Put on a sleep sack or turn on a fan. Has a dirty diaper? Change it. Those are all basic needs that can inhibit your child’s ability to fall asleep on his own.
You run into problems when you start confusing his wants with his needs. If he just wants you close, you don’t have to go in and help him right away. Sure, it’s nice to be wanted, but it also prolongs bedtime and robs you both of valuable sleep. When you ignore his wants, he’ll probably get pretty ticked off, but he’ll learn essential self-soothing skills in the process – skills that will get both of you more sleep in the long run.
Set Age-Appropriate Consequences
Some babies are particularly perceptive when it comes to things that push their parents’ buttons, so be sure to put consistent, age-appropriate consequences into place. One example we like to use is throwing the pacifier out of the crib. As soon as you leave the room, your baby throws that pacifier over the crib walls and then starts bawling because he knows that you’ll come in again and give him the paci back. An age-appropriate consequence in this situation is to go into the room and remove the pacifier for a set amount of time. This will probably make your baby very mad, but eventually, he’ll learn that bedtime isn’t a game of return-the-pacifier.
We know, easier said than done, but remember, this, too shall pass… sometimes like a kidney stone… but eventually the sleep regression will end, and you’ll be back to sleeping through the night. Just keep in mind that developmental milestones and changes often cause sleep regressions, and those things can be tough on little kids. Just try to be patient during this period of transition.
Address Teething Concerns
Teething is no joke, and it’s not something to ignore either. When those pearly whites start to push through tender little gums, it can cause a lot of pain, so address the pain. A little baby Tylenol or Ibuprofen goes a long way in helping to soothe the gums, and a chew toy or two creates positive downward pressure on the negative upward pressure coming from new teeth. Chilling the chew toys provides additional relief, though chew toys never belong in the freezer.
If you want to provide both nutrition and relief for teething trouble, freeze a little milk in either a popsicle mold or an ice-cube tray. Then when baby starts getting fussy, he can suck on a milk-sicle, or you can stick a milk cube into a mesh teether for him to munch on. The coldness numbs his irritated gums, and the milk helps calm down his tummy, too.
Timing is Crucial
As your baby grows and develops, the amount of sleep he needs changes, so you need to be mindful of awake windows. Awake windows are the ideal amount of time a child should be awake in between naps and bedtime according to his age. When you aren’t mindful of awake windows, your baby’s body can get overtired or undertired – both of which shake up sleep patterns. You may find that adjusting your baby’s schedule to accommodate awake windows solves a lot of the problem.
Being consistent can be challenging, but it’s one of the best sleep regression solutions out there. When your baby hits a sleep regression, be careful not to introduce any new (or previously broken) sleep habits. Stay on a schedule, and have a consistent, calming bedtime routine. Get outside as much as you can during the day, so your baby can burn off extra energy, and his body can soak in as much of that glorious sun as possible. When it’s nighttime, turn down the lights about an hour before bed, keep his room dark, and don’t allow screens or other stimulation at least one hour before bedtime. Staying consistent even when your baby (or you!) gets crabby is a key to your success.
Consider Outside Factors
If you find yourself up against a sleep regression that just won’t go away, you might need to look at other factors. Is there something in the home that is causing additional stress or anxiety? Is your child having trouble at school? Are there new relationships in your child’s life that could be causing extra excitement or strain? Is there a new job or house or sibling that has disrupted your child’s regular routine? Have you added any new steps to the bedtime routine that could be keeping your child from sleeping well on his own? Could there be an underlying medical condition that is making sleeping extra challenging? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there may be bigger things at play than a standard sleep regression, so you might need to take another approach.
If you’re looking for sleep regression help right now, chances are really good that you are right in the thick of a sleep regression. Heck, it might be 2 am, and this is the fifth time you’ve gotten up so far! Hopefully that isn’t the case, but if it is, these sleep regression solutions should help you navigate and combat each sleep shift as they happen now and in the future.