Other parents may have warned you about dreaded sleep regressions. And no, you are not having a recurring nightmare. Your precious newborn has now turned into a baby who is suddenly allergic to sleep. This is normal and temporary if you can follow these steps and be consistent.
First, What Are Sleep Regressions?
Babies constantly develop and evolve as they adapt to their environment and learn new skills. Your baby will naturally struggle to sleep when working hard to master a new skill like rolling over, sitting up, crawling, talking, or walking. Baby apps will often refer to them as leaps, so expect a regression when you see it coming up on your phone.
If you’ve ever spent all day learning a new skill, or even a day practicing a sport, you may run through what you’ve learned all day when you shut your eyes. You can struggle to shut your brain off, like when infants are too wired to sleep from learning new skills.
Signs of a Regression
Especially if your little one was sleeping well before, the top sign of regressions is night wakings every one to three hours. They can also have fussiness, trouble napping, and changes in their appetite. This can be incredibly frustrating because those are also signs of illness. However, if your baby is otherwise well (with no fever or sniffles) and having typical diapers, then it’s likely a regression.
The First Regression and Reverse Cycling
Typically, the first regression will crop up around three to four months. This is when your baby transitions from the newborn phase of sleep to more adult-like sleep, where they can connect their sleep cycles. At the end of each one to two-hour cycle, they will enter light sleep and wake up to ensure their surroundings are the same.
If you have helped your newborn go to sleep by rocking, holding, or feeding them to transfer them to their bassinet or crib, this will raise a red flag. When they enter their light sleep, they will notice the difference in environment and cry. Understandably, we would freak out if we fell asleep in our warm cozy bed and woke up sprawled out in the middle of our living room.
Because this is the age when your infant starts to notice the world around them, they get distracted when eating. Naturally, their feedings get shortened and smaller. So what is our first response when we hear our baby crying in the middle of the night? They must be hungry. We feed them, and they go to sleep only to repeat it approximately two hours later. The next day, they don’t eat much because of all the extra feedings, only to repeat the same cycle the next night. This started as a regression, but it will quickly become a habit. They will become trained to wake every two hours, and now you are dealing with reverse cycling, where they consume most of their calories overnight.
Are They Preventable?
Unfortunately, natural developmental changes often result in an unavoidable regression. They can last anywhere from two to four weeks. However, they don’t have to last long if you can help your baby learn sleep skills. Follow these tips to help minimize the regression and help your infant sleep:
- Expect the regression and recognize when it’s happening. It can be smooth sailing or quite a significant disruption. Be prepared, and don’t let it alarm you.
- Ensure your baby is getting full feedings instead of snacks. Continue offering according to their hunger cues every two and a half to three and a half hours from the start of one feed to the next. If they take in most of their calories during the day, you can rest easy knowing they are not ravenous if they start to fuss overnight.
- Help them practice during the day. If your little one is working on a new skill like rolling over, ensure they have enough chances to practice uninterrupted during the day. This will help limit the number of night wakings.
- Introduce drowsy but awake. Watch for sleep cues like long stares, disinterest, yawning, rubbing their eyes, and getting fussy. When exhibiting these signs, put them in their crib to learn to soothe themselves to sleep. You can stay by their side to give physical and verbal reassurance, gently coaching them to drift off to sleep. Without crying, you can start laying the foundation to train your baby to sleep through the night.
- Have a dark room to promote sleep. Putting your wee one down drowsy but awake also works better in a dark room as the light will overstimulate them. Don’t introduce bright light until you want them to wake for the day to help cement their circadian rhythms.
- Expand wake windows. Four-month-olds need more awake time and stimulation to get tired enough to sleep. Newborns can only be awake for 35 to 60 minutes before getting overtired and overstimulated. You should stretch them to 90 to 120 minutes by four months, watching for sleep cues to put them down for naps and bed.
- If you don’t already have a bedtime routine, make one. This will help them wind down before nighttime sleep and help fill the time to get them to bedtime without a meltdown. It can include bathing, changing their clothes and putting on their sleepsack, their last feeding, reading bedtime stories, or singing lullabies. Whatever you choose, make sure you can be consistent, repeating it nightly.
It’s important to remember that sleep regressions are only temporary. Your baby will thrive on a flexible routine, not a rigid schedule, at this stage. Try to get sleep when you can, and if possible, alternate on-call nights with your partner or trusted family member to help you get better sleep. The more rest you get, the more effective you will be as a parent, staying consistent to help your little one through the first of many leaps.